If you want to bury bad news, release it late on a Friday. It’s a time honored tradition in all kinds of areas, and one firmly followed by HBO last week, when they announced that they’d fired “Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire” veteran Terence Winter from his position as showrunner of the network’s prestige drama “Vinyl,” with Scott Z. Burns replacing him, and Max Borenstein joining as an executive producer.
To some, this might have read as good news, given the lukewarm reviews for “Vinyl.” But to most, it’s another speed bump in a year that’s seen a fair amount of public behind-the-scenes turmoil at HBO, one that suggests that the pay-cable giant are struggling to adjust to an era where the competition’s become a lot fiercer. What’s been going wrong, and how can they fix it?
HBO and their work over the years are, far more than anything else, responsible for the era of Peak TV that we’re now in. Set up in the early 1970s, it broke away from its early diet of movies and sports in the 1990s thanks to three original series in particular, the enormously influential “The Larry Sanders Show,” the wildly acclaimed “The Sopranos” and the zeitgeist-grabbing “Sex And The City.”
Across the 2000s and 2010s, HBO became a brand name, associated with a certain kind of smart, adult drama (and to a lesser extent comedy) full of sex and violence, able to tackle topics and subject matter that other networks couldn’t or wouldn’t. Even as other channels, and even streaming sites, got in on the act, HBO seemed to go from strength to strength. This culminated in the premiere of “Game Of Thrones” in 2011, a show that, in the five years since, has become the network’s biggest-ever show, and a giant global phenomenon unlike little else on TV.
But as many have noted (and Vulture summed up nicely a couple of days ago), the five years since have been sparse in terms of hits not set in Westeros for the network. On the comedy front, things have been ok. Neither “Girls,” “Silicon Valley” or “Veep” have been monster ratings smashes, but they’ve done what a show on a subscription network needs to do: become zeitgeist-friendly water cooler talking points that pick up attention from critics and Emmy voters.
On the drama front, “Luck” was cancelled during production of its second season in 2012 after the death of a number of racehorses on the shoot, while “The Newsroom” made it to a third season, but with mostly scathing reviews. “True Detective” looked to be a bright spot, a big ratings and critical hit, but squandered most of its goodwill with a second season almost everyone deemed to be a big step down. And “The Leftovers” is a critical darling, but those critics appear to make up the majority of its audience, and it’ll end this year after a third season.
Now, HBO still have around twice the subscribers worldwide as chief rivals Netflix, and continue to grow, adding as many as two million in the U.S. in 2015, plus the fast-growing HBO NOW online-only system which now has at least a million subscribers. It’s still ahead on the plaudits, too, picking up a spectacular 43 Emmy wins at last year’s ceremony, thirty ahead of nearest rival NBC.
But with “Girls,” “Veep” and “Game Of Thrones” also all likely to wind up in the next few years, it adds up to a surprisingly thin line-up of programming, and the creative crisis of the last few years is only just starting to show, because the biggest problems haven’t been the shows that made it to air and disappointed, like “Vinyl,” but the ones that didn’t see the light of day at all.
Development is part of the process of making television, and every network everywhere burns millions of dollars on unfilmed scripts, or unaired pilots, on the way to making a hit. So the network not picking up at least four filmed pilots (Mike White’s transgender nanny comedy “Mamma Dallas”; a Sarah Silverman-starring comedy from writer Lucy Prebble; Alan Ball & Elton John’s “Amadeus”-style 18th century classical music drama “Virtuoso”; and "Orange Is The New Black" creator Jenji Kohan’s Salem witch trials show “The Devil You Know”) shouldn’t be seen as a sign of trouble on its own.
What does set the warning signs flashing is that they actually picked up six further projects to series, only to then scrap them, in more than one case when the show was actually in production. The most public were the two David Fincher shows, the comedy “Videosyncrazy,” set in the 1980s music video boom, and his remake of British conspiracy thriller show “Utopia,” which was to have starred Rooney Mara. The former was shut down with several episodes in the can "for additional script work," then the latter was scrapped on the eve of production when the network balked at Fincher’s budget. As recently as February, HBO said they hoped Fincher might return for the former, and that they could revive the latter with other directors, but it seems unlikely.
HBO also shut down miniseries “Lewis & Clark,” starring Casey Affleck and Matthias Schoenaerts as the titular explorers, midway through production, firing director John Curran (it’s back in development, but it’s unclear if what was shot will be kept, or if the stars will stay on board, or if it will even recommence filming — a planned spring re-start date has sailed by).
More recently, it emerged that the Steve McQueen-directed “Codes Of Conduct,” which had been ordered to series by the network, had also been scrapped, as had “Brothers In Atlanta,” a half-hour comedy starring comics Diallo Riddle and Bashir Salahuddin, with HBO saying that they’d reconsidered “after assessing our programming needs.” And Jack Black/Tim Robbins-starring comedy “The Brink” was recommissioned for a second season, only to be un-recommissioned shortly afterwards. Plus, “Westworld,” their starry, Jonathan Nolan-shepherded sci-fi Western that’s clearly hoped to be their next blockbuster, has become a very public problem: the show shot a pilot back in 2014, but may not reach screens until 2017 after a lengthy shut down in production.
Again, development doesn’t (and shouldn’t) lead to production in every case. Moreover, a bad pilot can be redeemed. Famously, “Game Of Thrones” had a rocky journey during the pilot stage, and only after it was heavily retooled and reshot did it become the mega-hit that we now have. But letting this many shows get greenlit, spending millions of dollars, and then pulling the plug suggests a chronic indecisiveness and failure of leadership, and it’s not surprising that HBO’s head of drama, Michael Ellenberg, left the company in January.
It remains to be seen how his replacement, Casey Bloys, does in the role (breaking with Terence Winter, a veteran of three crown-jewel dramas, seems to send a statement at least). But it feels likely that the problems have gone deeper than a single person. And may in fact have been laid at the door of the network’s biggest hit, “Game Of Thrones.”
Once you have a massive smash like “Game Of Thrones” — one that’s a truly global hit, that sells tons of DVDs and merchandise and more — it’s difficult to recalibrate the measure of expectation for new shows. It’s the same thing that saw the film industry change in the years since “Star Wars” and “Jaws.” HBO President Of Production Michael Lombardo speaking to KPCC, denied accusations that they were trying to emulate the success of ‘Thrones,’ saying “I”m not sure our subscriber levels have increased because of ‘Game Of Thrones’… I just have to trust that if you continue to bet on quality, you’ll find what I’ll call hits.”
And to be fair, their current development slate doesn’t suggest that they’re suddenly franchise hungry (Netflix, by contrast, are far more brand-reliant thanks to their Marvel shows and reboots like “Fuller House”). But there does seem to be a certain risk aversion at play. David Simon’s “The Deuce,” set in the 1970s porn industry, looks to be essentially “Boogie Nights” meets, well, “Vinyl.” “Vice Principals” is essentially “Eastbound And Down 2.” There are new shows coming from “Girls” masterminds Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow. Sarah Jessica Parker is returning with “Divorce.” “John Adams” fans should be delighted when Sean Penn plays Andrew Jackson in the miniseries “American Lion.”
Meanwhile, Fincher’s button-pushers and McQueen’s examination of race end up on the scrapheap. The Hollywood Reporter suggests that a newly corporate attitude at HBO might be responsible, with sources suggesting the culture changed after Rupert Murdoch attempted to buy Time Warner in 2014, leading to an “increased emphasis on performance and cost control.” In some ways, that’s smart, given the changing climate and the competition from all quarters. But with Netflix spending at least $5 billion on original content in 2016, and debuting a show every two weeks or so (versus, essentially, three programming blocks in the winter, spring and fall for their older competitors), HBO starts to feel like a less essential monthly purchase than it used to.
Mark Duplass, whose acclaimed show “Togetherness” was recently cancelled by the network, suggests it’s an industry-wide issue. “The truth is, nobody knows how to be a successful subscription service right now,” he told EW this week. “Everybody is making tons and tons of TV and trying to find ways to stand out. HBO isn’t the only place struggling with that… everybody’s viewership numbers are coming down, and the subscriptions are coming down because there’s a lot of stuff out there and everybody is trying to figure out what to do to keep eyeballs on their channel.”
But the more reactionary that HBO become, there’s a risk that they stop feeling like the creative haven that they did not so long ago. At a time when movie studios were increasingly resistant to non-tentpole fare, pay cable became a sanctuary. “There’s one place to work where you can get respectfully treated and fairly judged,” super-producer Scott Rudin told GQ five years ago, shortly before “Game Of Thrones” debuted. “It’s HBO.”
But this recent run might have put that image at risk. Fincher, whose “House Of Cards” put Netflix on the map, has returned to the streaming site for “Mindhunter,” a project that once was in development at HBO. Rival cable-cutting disruptors including Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu have projects coming from Baz Luhrmann, Woody Allen, Nicole Holofcener, Jill Soloway, Zal Batmanglij, Joe Swanberg, Jason Reitman and Cary Fukunaga. By contrast, HBO have not one, but two projects from the director of “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Demolition,” Jean-Marc Vallée.
It feels like the biggest issue facing HBO is complacency, an assumption that, as the home of “The Sopranos,” “The Wire” and “Game Of Thrones,” that they would still be the ideal destination for anyone looking to make cable drama. But things have changed. Martin Scorsese‘s hugely expensive “Vinyl” got worse ratings and reviews than WGN America‘s “Underground.” FX offers creative freedom and rewards it with critically beloved shows like “Fargo” and “The Americans,” and arguably has the most talked about show of the year so far with "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story." And AMC has the biggest drama not just on cable, but on all TV, with “The Walking Dead.”
It’s probably fair to say that the network’s been resting on their laurels a bit. But HBO shouldn’t be counted out, either. It’s still a huge cash cow (with millions more subscribers than Netflix), the people in charge are taking steps, starting with the creative shake-up on "Vinyl," and the name still means something. And just look at the talent they’ve been able to attract recently, with Nicole Kidman, Reese WItherspoon, Ava DuVernay, Bill Hader, Alex Gibney, Laura Dern, Steven Soderbergh, Denzel Washington, Paolo Sorrentino and WIll Smith among those who’ve lined up projects with the network. Having dominated for so long, the network seems to finally be aware that now, it’s a fight, but it could be best thing to have happened to HBO as they look at their next wave of programming.