When HBO launched Vinyl, the ambitious rock drama from Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger, on Feb. 14, its ratings — even with three days of DVR viewing — were wan. But the network promptly renewed the series. As the motto used to go, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.”
And that’s still true. Yet the pay TV service, with 36 million U.S. subscribers and a nearly year-old streaming service that CEO Richard Plepler said Feb. 10 has 800,000 subs, no longer is alone in the premium space. As Netflix and Amazon, not to mention Showtime, AMC, FX and others, fight it out for prestige projects, HBO still is the first choice for many A-listers. In 2015, it mopped up 43 Emmys with such diverse offerings as Game of Thrones, Olive Kitteridge and Veep. (NBC came in second with 12.) “As far as television goes,” says David Simon, who created The Wire and Treme, “these guys are the f—ing Medicis.”
Yet HBO is in a period of challenge. It hasn’t had a breakout drama hit since Game of Thrones launched in 2011, and in recent months, it has seen several troubled shows go expensively into and then out of production. Those include the mega-budgeted futuristic Westworld, which was halted in December with several episodes shot but needing additional work. The series now might be pushed into 2017 despite an initial plan to have it ready last year. Other projects shut down well into the process include two shows from David Fincher, a limited series from Steve McQueen and another on Lewis and Clark from producers Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks. HBO says some of these may be revived. “We make no apologies for sticking by a project we believe has the potential to be great,” says programming president Michael Lombardo. “Unfortunately, we also at times find ourselves in the position of deciding not to move forward with others. That is never fun, but that is our business.”
Meanwhile, adjustments are being made. In January, drama head Michael Ellenberg was ousted, and since then, the famously development-rich network has been looking to winnow the 100-plus shows in the pipeline. (Casey Bloys, who oversaw such well-regarded comedies as Silicon Valley, now heads drama as well.) HBO is putting pressure on budgets for scripted shows as the network has increased its programming hours by 40 percent with expensive forays outside scripted, adding offerings from Vice, ESPN alum Bill Simmons and Jon Stewart as well as a family programming effort spearheaded by Sesame Street.
These moves come at a delicate time. HBO is the jewel in the Time Warner crown, contributing 27 percent of the company’s operating income in 2015, but sources say it is paying a price for that. “Connect the dots,” says one veteran, contending that HBO is dealing with added pressure as its parent grapples with struggles at its Warner Bros. film studio and challenges at its TV production arm. In selling off assets like Time Warner Cable, CEO Jeffrey Bewkes has laid bare a susceptibility to the vagaries of the content business.
SOURCE: Kim Masters
The Hollywood Reporter