HBO doesn’t always deign to present an executive session at the Television Critics’ Association press tour, but every so often, in the summer, CEO Richard Plepler and president of programming Michael Lombardo can be lured out of their great money vault to appear before the unwashed masses, and, inevitably, the conversation turns to thoughts of death and decay.
Which is fun, because HBO now sort of feels like everything should just run forever. Granted, it just got done canceling Enlightened (because it felt the story had come to its conclusion—Mike White’s stated desires for a third season about a court case be damned—and not at all because of the show’s ratings struggles), and Eastbound And Down will end its run in the fall (this time because its creators have requested the end and not because the network wanted it to end). But everything else? It’s either coming back, or HBO is doing its damnedest to make sure it does come back. The Newsroom? Just as soon as the network can work out scheduling with Aaron Sorkin, it will probably be back. True Blood? That’s coming back for a seventh season. Family Tree? The network is hoping to work out a deal with the BBC to bring that back, too. Time and again, the TV journalists in the room asked about a show ending, and the executives would laugh those concerns off. Game Of Thrones can run as long as it has stories, Lombardo said, and Boardwalk Empire has no immediate plans to start wrapping itself up either. Hell, HBO is trying to revive the Cinemax series Hunted, even though its co-production partner dropped out, maybe just because it likes Melissa George a lot.
Granted, the vast majority of HBO’s shows are relatively young. True Blood is the network’s oldest scripted show in active production (Curb Your Enthusiasm is older but only produced when Larry David gets his dander up), and to find the next oldest, you have to go all the way down to Eastbound. Girls and Veep are both turning three. Game Of Thrones and Boardwalk will turn four, as will Treme, the rare HBO show that is ending, its final season beginning to spool out Dec. 1. (As if you needed any indication of just how little HBO cares about Treme, that will put the series finale as airing on Dec. 29, during one of the least-watched weeks of the TV season.)
It’s not unreasonable to assume all of these shows that aren’t Treme have at least three seasons more in them and possibly even more, particularly when one considers just how well all do for the network. The lowest-rated of them is Girls, and HBO claims it draws a cumulative number of 5 million viewers once all platforms are added in. (This would indicate a lot of HBO Go viewing, but it’s the kind of show that would suggest such a thing might happen.) A network like Starz, struggling to break into the premium cable broadcasting sphere, would immediately anoint a show that regularly drew 5 million cumulative viewers its new savior. On HBO, it’s just the way things are.
Another network might ease up on new series development, but HBO has four new series that will likely debut in the 2013-14 season—September’s Hello Ladies, from Stephen Merchant; Getting On, a comedy about nursing home nurses from the creators of Big Love; an untitled dramedy about three gay men in San Francisco, with a pilot directed by Andrew Haigh of Weekend fame; and True Detective, the network’s bid at the American Horror Story revolving miniseries format, focused on crime and detective stories, the first season to star Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. And it has even more potential projects coming down the pipeline. It had committed to a miniseries named Criminal Justice, originally pitched as an ongoing series but in the process of being retooled to be done within its order, but that series’ star was James Gandolfini, so the network is necessarily rethinking it. And it’s also got a project from David Milch coming, a pilot called The Money, which the Deadwood creator is working on with Art Linson. That hasn’t been picked up for filming yet, but Deadline says it’s very close to that order. So HBO certainly has options, should it wish to pursue them. (The Faulkner adaptations Milch was working on are still possibly happening, but only one script has been written, and it is still in development.)
In addition to announcements of documentaries—the most intriguing of which examines the career of Stephen Sondheim through the twin lenses of his point-of-view and six songs he wrote over the course of it—and confirmation of various airdates for TV movies and the like, HBO spent most of the rest of its executive session talking about big picture sort of stuff. It tweaked Netflix about its refusal to release viewership data—“It’s curious!” was the official word—then issued a jocular threat to George R.R. Martin, who was implored to “keep writing” so that Game Of Thrones would not catch up with the books. It discussed its ongoing plans to spin off HBO Go into its own subscription service (though it announced nothing more concrete than the idea had occurred to it a few times, perhaps in the shower), and it, in general, spent plenty of time praising HBO Go for being such a key part of the network’s strategy—and such a good way for it to keep cable providers placated, as they’re able to sell HBO Go as an important part of an HBO subscription, something that will surely never, ever come back to kick those cable providers in the shins.
The most interesting answer came from a question about how the cable drama revolution has been so filled with white male voices, inquiring if, perhaps, the kinds of in roads HBO has made with female voices in comedy might extend to its dramas as well. Both Plepler and Lombardo said they’ve made it aware the network is looking for dramas about adult women, but they also stated that HBO, by virtue of having everyone in Hollywood wanting to work with it, can afford to be reactive, waiting for writers to bring the network their dream projects instead of going out and actively recruiting those writers. Plepler later tried to say that HBO still had success getting women to watch its dramas, particularly Game Of Thrones, but the answer was a mix of symbolic steps in the right direction and weird complacency.
Then again, that’s sort of the HBO picture as a whole. The network has become so big and so successful that it would take several sustained years—and maybe even several sustained decades—of losses for the network to completely lose its dominance of the TV landscape. HBO isn’t the only game in town anymore, and the playing field gets more and more crowded with every year. But it’s still out there, on top, and that’s no easy feat to pull off after all this time.
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