We’re used to hearing about HBO as being the standard-bearer of television. For years now, it’s the network that’s been the most Emmy nominated (mainly because of the variety and quality of content it produces). It’s the network that the likes of Netflix, Showtime and Starz try to emulate in their everyday programming decisions.
Yet, HBO finds itself in a precarious position for the first time in several years. While there’s no denying the massive success of “Game of Thrones,” the drama will only have two more seasons on the air. Outside of “Thrones,” the network has very few other established dramas. “The Leftovers” is its only other drama existing past its first season, and that will end with its third airing in 2017. Their last big attempt at a drama hit, “Vinyl,” was unceremoniously unrenewed after it realized the dramatic retooling the show’s second season would require wasn’t worth the investment. They’re even considering reviving the “True Detective” franchise after its critically panned second season without showrunner Nic Pizzolatto.
That means that, if nothing else succeeds, HBO will find itself with zero established dramas on the network. To combat this, they’re going to be putting a heavy emphasis on new programming. This starts this fall with the launch of “Westworld.” The network has invested substantial time and money into the series. A pilot was first ordered back in 2013, and in 2014 it was picked up to series with a targeted 2015 premiere date. However, production stoppages and other delays forced the show off that date, and it finally makes its debut in October. The network also has upcoming shows from familiar creators already picked up to series. David Simon (“The Wire”) will be making a series about the porn industry in New York City in the ’70s called “The Deuce” and Alan Ball (“True Blood”) will be returning to his roots in family drama, though the show does not yet have a title.
Still, none of these shows are guaranteed surefire hits. A development process as tumultuous as “Westworld” ’s does not usually inspire confidence. And, though Simon has created what are considered to be two of the network’s most acclaimed series in “The Wire” and “Treme,” they never had huge audiences at the level of a “The Sopranos” or a “Game of Thrones.”
All these problems are compounded by the recent regime change at the network. Michael Lombardo recently left his position as president of the network and was replaced by one of his key deputies Casey Bloys to replace him. Usually it takes a new leader a few years to establish their presence at the network and develop shows in their own voice, but HBO doesn’t have time to lose. It needs to work on developing hits fast. HBO’s development process is notoriously slow, as exhibited by “Westworld.” They don’t have the years it takes to slowly nurture something out of the gate right now. They need to get a hit drama on the air in the next year, or they risk being without one at all.
However, HBO has been in this position before. “The Sopranos” went off the air in 2007 and was immediately followed up by the flop “John from Cincinnati” and “Tell Me You Love Me,” which was renewed for a second season and cancelled several months later when they couldn’t figure out what a second season would be. Still, a year later, “True Blood” premiered. The vampire drama quickly grew into the network’s biggest hit since the famous mob drama, giving them a building block they could used to sure up their schedule. It meant they could maintain their reputation as the home for quality, buzzworthy TV. After all, what’s the TV landscape without a strong HBO?