You all know the slogan, as it’s one of the best known of any in the world of television. “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” That six-word phrase has been around for two decades, and even though it was discontinued in 2009 for a series of less clever slogans, it’s still probably the first thing you think of when you think of the longest running pay cable network and its marketing.
The funny thing is, there was a moment in time when the broadcast networks tried to use this line against the network. Whether the trick was tongue in cheek or not, there was a brief backlash against the network’s Emmy dominance, with some folks trying to claim that, since HBO is not TV, it’s not eligible for the awards granted to such programming. Obviously, that didn’t get very far, but it does illustrate just how impressed even the pay cable net’s competitors have always been with its programming.
Think about how many shows you’ve ever watched on HBO. True, the first show most people think of is The Sopranos, but Home Box Office was around for 27 years before its 1999 premiere and had been airing original programming since the early ‘80s. It hit a stride in the ‘90s, with comedies like The Larry Sanders Show, Dream On, Arliss, Mr. Show with Bob and David, and the horror anthology Tales From the Crypt, before its first hour-long, the prison drama Oz, landed in 1997. A year later came Tom Hanks’ epic mini-series From the Earth to the Moon and Sex and the City, then came The Sopranos, and everything changed, almost immediately beginning the dominance that would ultimately lead to the mainstreaming of cable television and, indirectly, the end of the Cable Ace Awards.
Along with The Sopranos came The Wire, Deadwood, John Adams, Band of Brothers, The Pacific, True Blood, Big Love, Boardwalk Empire, Six Feet Under, Tremé, Eastbound and Down and plenty of others before it eventually gave us Game of Thrones, True Detective, and Veep. Love them or hate them — and you have to admit, that is a pretty insane list, with several fan favorites not even included — those shows helped reinforce the network’s particular brand, that being of literate, high-quality programming that might not be for everyone, but those who like it are pretty much devoted to it.
But let’s come back to that, because while the network’s original programming is a big reason why people subscribe, it’s not the only reason. Unlike the five broadcast networks we have analyzed over the last few weeks, HBO’s business model is only partially based on its original programming. In fact, the network began as a broadcaster of movies making their television debuts, which is why people originally subscribed. Way back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, in fact, it was a big deal to get cable TV and, on the off chance you also had HBO, it was like winning the lottery. Nowhere else could you get unedited content (aka nudity) that you could previously only see at the movies. Over time, as HBO added its own programming, it provided more reasons to watch as those shows entered the Zeitgeist, leading those who wanted to be a part of such discussions to pony up the cost of a monthly subscription.
In case any of this sounds familiar, it should, because it’s exactly the business model of Netflix, only on a much smaller scale. As of the end of 2015, HBO had approximately 37 million domestic subscribers (its various international channels add to that number), while Netflix had roughly twice that number. We’ll get to Netflix in due time (three weeks hence, to be exact), but that model has proved to be a successful one for both the network and its Time Warner overlords. In fact, the network’s revenue in 2015 was $5.6 billion ($4.7 billion of that from subscriptions) up four percent over the year before, with an operating income of $1.878 billion, a five percent gain. Any concerns that such an increase would plateau have proven unfounded, as the second quarter gains this year were at 7.7 percent.
All of this, by the way, was under the stewardship of Michael Lombardo, who spent 33 years with the company, the last nine of which as the president of programming. He abruptly left his position in May and was replaced by Casey Bloys, who shepherded several successful comedies on the network before taking on the top spot in the organization.
With revenues still strong, the concerns really are about programming, which has been riding high with the overwhelming success of GOT but is entering a period of transition, which is perhaps why it might be perfect timing for Bloys to take over. GOT’s sixth season finale, airing in June, brought in over 23 million viewers, a new high mark for the series which is already one of the most popular shows in the network’s history. This is both good and bad, though, as creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have announced — despite entreaties from the higher ups at HBO HQ for more — that there are only two seasons left before they wrap it all up. And, instead of keeping with the pattern of 10 episodes per season, there will only be seven eps in Season Seven and six in the eighth and final season.
Needless to say, that is an enormous hole to fill. There is certainly speculation that HBO has already found an adequate replacement — and that it has already hit the airwaves — but we’ll get to that shortly. First up is the programming we’ve seen over the last few years. Veep had an extremely successful fifth season despite the departure of creator Armando Iannucci and just took yet another Best Comedy Emmy in the same season Julia Louis-Dreyfus took home her fifth straight Best Actress trophy. There is no end in sight for that fan favorite, though there is one for another, as Girls just wrapped its final episode, which will air in its sixth and final season in the first quarter of 2017. The Leftovers will likewise be ending this year, though that has never put anywhere close to the same numbers as the other shows through its first two seasons.
It’s quite possible that HBO is less concerned about how it’s going to fill the eventual hole left by GOT’s retirement than the rest of us, simply because it has a history of such successes. As one popular show ends, another rises to take its place. With the sensational debut of Westworld, hinted at above, there’s already a show on the air that could capture the public’s imagination. As popular as Silicon Valley is, it simply doesn’t have the same kind of following as GOT. Westworld provides a lot of the same action-intrigue-talent-sex factor that helped to make GOT the gargantuan hit it became, which can’t be an accident.
Of course, not every show can be a home run, as the Dwayne Johnson sitcom Ballers is a middling hit, the high-profile mini-series The Night Of proved a disappointment, and while Vice Principals did pretty well, it is only intended for a two-season run, which means it, too, will be gone by this time next year. More promising is High Maintenance, which HBO picked up after three successful seasons as a web series. The freshman show is in the midst of a six-episode run, and there is not yet any news of whether there will be a second, although viewing of just a single episode will tell you that there should be.
The network also has high hopes for its new dramedy with old friend Sarah Jessica Parker, Divorce, also starring Thomas Haden Church and coming from Catastrophe co-creator Sharon Horgan, as well as Insecure, from talented young co-creator-star Issa Rae (another web find). Both fall into the aforementioned category of smart, literate, high-quality programming aimed firmly at adults. On top of that, even though time is running out, there is still hope that Jon Stewart will debut his new animated series before the election (now just 27 days away).
Now, this is not to suggest that the network is bulletproof, because that certainly couldn’t be further from the truth. Failures happen, and even though they tend to be rare, when they do occur, they tend to be high profile and very pricey. Exhibit A being this year’s monumental misfire, Vinyl, which came from Terence Winter, Martin Scorsese, and Mick Jagger, but didn’t come close to living up to the hype around it and found itself canceled after a single season. Same thing with The Brink, which starred Jack Black and Tim Robbins and also didn’t do well enough to warrant a second go-round, though both were initially renewed, only to be summarily cancelled after the fact, once Bloys surveyed the landscape and made the decision not to throw good money after bad, what with both shows having such low viewership.
As strong as the first season of True Detective was, season two was so poor that it came close to negating that first season’s goodwill. Togetherness was not as pricey, but still a major disappointment, and ended after two seasons, though not nearly the disappointment that was the Aaron Sorkin show The Newsroom, which lasted three seasons but was almost universally criticized for its uneven quality, preachiness, and pedantry. HBO ending the show when it did felt a lot like putting a wounded animal out of its misery. While Any Given Wednesday with Bill Simmons is still in its infancy, it has not been terribly well received by viewers or critics, which is only a problem because of the multi-million dollar deal the network gave Simmons after he left ESPN last year. Unlike the others, it’s probably too soon to make a proper judgment, but the start has been inauspicious, to say the least.
All that said, the development rolls are pretty packed with interesting fare, much of it from familiar creators who have worked with the network previously. The Wire’s David Simon returns with his ‘70s porn drama The Deuce, as well as a Capitol Hill drama picked up to pilot. Girls’ Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner have the ‘60s period drama Max. Six Feet Under and True Blood’s Alan Ball has the Immortal Henrietta Lacks (which also boasts Oprah Winfrey as both a producer and star), and In Treatment’s Hagai Levi returns with an untitled drama about the 2014 disappearance of three Israeli teens. Additionally, despite the cancellation of Togetherness, the Duplass Brothers are back with Room 104, an anthology series centered on the various visitors to a single hotel room.
But that’s just a part of what is in store, with plenty of other projects green lit or picked up to series. Since the network only has a limited number of original shows airing at a given time, there is a constant stream of projects being readied, so that just as one batch is ending, another is premiering. At HBO, there is no such thing as a development season. That lasts year round, which is why, on top of all the projects listed above, there is also Sharp Objects, based on the Gillian Flynn novel and starring Amy Adams, The Young Pope, from Oscar-winning Italian director Paolo Sorrentino and starring Jude Law, Tin Star, featuring Tim Roth and Christina Hendricks, and the dark comedy Barry, co-created (with Silicon Valley’s Alec Berg) by and starring Bill Hader. Vince Gilligan and Nic Pizzolato have projects in development, and perhaps best of all, Larry David has confirmed that — yes, Virginia — there will be a new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, though we probably won’t see it until 2018.
So, it’s not like the network isn’t spending a pretty large amount of money to keep its strong creative run going. It’s partially for that reason, in fact, that it purchased Sesame Street away from PBS and now airs first run episodes every Saturday morning to go along with the rest of its award-winning children’s programming (which will also include a newly remastered, high definition Fraggle Rock). In fact, thanks to that, the sports programming it airs and its current events shows (which include the investigative journalism show Vice, as well as Real Time With Bill Maher and the newly crowned Emmy winner Last Week Tonight, both of which are, on the surface, comedy shows, but also practice genuine journalism at the same time), HBO functions as a full service network just as much as any other on television, either broadcast or cable.
It should be mentioned here that Cinemax is a subsidiary of HBO, and its numbers are part of the financials mentioned above. The amount of original programming it puts out is a small fraction of what HBO does, but those shows — like The Knick, Strike Back, and Banshee, all of which are now gone — tend to become cult favorites. The Vietnam-era detective drama Quarry is currently airing, and while horror drama Outcast is coming back for a second season next summer, the development slate is thin, with only Justin Lin’s crime drama Warrior ordered to pilot.
None of the Cinemax shows, however, are available on HBO Go or HBO Now, the highly touted online streaming services on which every single original show the network has ever broadcast is available. If you already have an HBO subscription, the former is free. If not, you’ll have to pay $15 per month to stream the latter. The added attraction of HBO Now is that you can get it without a cable connection, which makes it perfect for cord cutters (of whom about 800,000 have signed up thus far). The only difference in the two services is that one involves cable. The content — again, literally every single show the network has ever broadcast, all of its sports and comedy specials, and many of its movies — is identical. It allows for consumers to catch up on all of its programming, a power the broadcast networks would love to have.
Home Box Office started out as a second-run movie network, and slowly became the most respected broadcaster of original content on television. While it has some challenges, it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t continue to hold that spot. Unless and until it finds a hole it can’t fill — be it the one eventually left behind by GOT or Veep — it will remain right up at the top, as the dean of all networks.
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