It’s Not TV: HBO, The Company That Changed Television: Fall and Rise

Band of Brothers

Failure is inevitable. Success is elusive.

Steven Spielberg

As HBO’s CEO, Michael Fuchs, who’d come up through the company’s programming side, had spent 11 years working to transform the service from a movie channel with some pleasant original filler into a true programming platform. Ironically, Fuchs’ vision wouldn’t come to full fruit until after he’d left the company in May 1995, and it would happen under a guy who had no programming experience at all: Jeff Bewkes, who took over the CEO’s slot after Fuchs’ departure.

A friend of mine in the company who’d worked with Bewkes once explained his programming philosophy while we were talking about some of the company’s big dollar extravaganzas, like Band of Brothers. Bewkes didn’t interfere with the creative side. “If you can make it make business sense to him, Jeff’ll say, ‘Go ahead.’ If you can tell him where the money is coming from, what it’ll do on DVD, overseas sales and all that, and it makes sense to him, he’ll let you go.”

It was obviously a management strategy that seemed to work, taking the channel through a string of high profile winners i.e. From the Earth to the Moon, Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Band of Brothers. These were just the battle wagons; in support were a host of equally praised if more narrowly appealing programs like the compelling prison drama Oz, the hysterically acidic comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm, biting cop drama The Wire, and the provocative and ultimately heartbreaking miniseries The Corner, based on the true account by David Simon and Ed Burns, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. Not that the service didn’t have its duds, most conspicuous being The Mind of the Married Man which critics took as – despite company programmers’ objections – a male version (and a lousy mail version) of Sex and the City.

Still, the hits outnumbered the flops, and, coupled with the service’s already established stature in original films, documentaries, children’s programming, and sports, the steady parade of awards and accolades, it’s arguable that for the first time in its history, both consumers and journalists, in large measure, had stopped thinking of HBO as simply a movie channel, and more as the one place in the cable universe that was making TV as good as TV could be.

In 2002, in recognition of the success he’d had at the helm of HBO, Bewkes was brought uptown to Time Warner corporate as president and chief operating officer, in line to succeed then TW CEO Richard Parsons (Bewkes would get the top spot in 2008). Replacing him as HBO’s top guy was Chris Albrecht.

Albrecht seemed like a natural choice. If Bewkes was the Business Guy, Albrecht was the Creative Guy with a pedigree going back to his young days as a stand-up comic at the famed Improv comedy club (Albrecht would eventually become a co-owner of the Improv). He’d joined HBO’s programming staff in 1985 after five years at powerhouse agency ICM. From 1990-1995, he’d given a powerful demonstration of his programming expertise as the head of HBO Independent Productions, with winners like Everybody Loves Raymond and Martin to his credit. After Michael Fuchs left the company to head up Warner Music in ’95, the original programming division was reorganized. Bridget Potter, the company’s long-reigning head of original programming who’d spent so many years trying to do a lot with a little, building the company up from forgettable junk like 1st & 10 to From the Earth to the Moon, was replaced by Albrecht in 1996. It was Albrecht who’d overseen the company’s programming rise from “promising” to “it doesn’t get any better than this.”

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But Albrecht inherited a company from Bewkes teetering on the edge of what would prove to be one of the most challenging periods for the company since its early days. Over the next five years, Albrecht would find himself fighting the clock as his flagship shows aged, circumstance as the film and TV industry was rocked by one of the costliest strikes in its history, tactical missteps, and his own programming hubris.

Having hit three, consecutive home runs with Sex and the City, The Sopranos, and Six Feet Under, the company now seemed to have trouble finding the same programming sweet spot. Year by year, as the Big Three grew a little longer in the tooth, the question that seemed to be getting asked more and more – both inside and outside the company – was, “Where’s the next Sopranos?” And when one wasn’t forthcoming with each year, the question changed to, “Has HBO lost its mojo?”

Throughout Albrecht’s tenure, it was clear he was trying to push the boundaries of the service as far as he could and take the channel into places it had never been before. Shows like Entourage (2004-11) and the button-pushing shock comedy Da Ali G Show (2003-05) aimed directly at a young audience the company had previously devoted little airtime to, and which Albrecht understood constituted the next generation of consumer. Off-the-wall culty efforts like Flight of the Conchords (2007), Summer Heights High (2007), and Little Britain USA (2008) aimed at the same mark.

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He cut a highly-touted deal with Section Eight Productions, the company formed by George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh, and Grant Heslov. This brought HBO K Street (2003), a daringly improvised drama delving into the muck of Washington lobbying firms, and the appropriately titled Unscripted (2005), another improv effort about struggling actors in L.A.

There was Lucky Louie (2006), an attempt to breathe fresh life into the sitcom with Louie CK starring in the channel’s first three-camera comedy; The Comeback (2005), with Lisa Kudrow spoofing her own post-Friends existence as a fading TV star trying to reboot her career. Extras (2005-07), from Ricky Gervais, dealt, in darkly comic fashion, with the lowest rungs of the Hollywood ladder, and was taken on with the hope Gervais would be able to create the same kind of buzzy niche success he’d had with his The Office. Tell Me You Love Me (2007) was a sexually frank, despairing portrait of dysfunctional couples, and In Treatment (2008-2010) was an intimate, probing look at the dynamic between patient and a therapist with his own problems.

No denying Albrecht and his crew had no shortage of programming guts. What the company also had, however, was a shortage of hits. Entourage found a comfortable niche as a midrange winner, shows like Extras and In Treatment had short runs as critics’ darlings, but Albrecht couldn’t seem to get anything on the air generating Sopranos/Sex and the City/Six Feet Under caliber numbers. K Street and Unscripted were critically panned flops, only the critics seemed to get The Comeback, Lucky Louie was a lambasted disaster, and Tell Me… was so despairing, nobody wanted to watch it.

The thing was, these were almost universally shows you could respect. Even flops like Lucky Louie and K Street had to be appreciated for what they were trying to do, even if they failed so completely to do it. To some of us in the company, it sometimes seemed Albrecht & Co. was more concerned with producing shows that were creatively ambitious instead of watchable. Tell Me You Love Me is a perfect example. It was a brave, unflinching look at modern relationships. It just didn’t take into account how few people wanted to spend an hour each week watching six miserable people in three crappy relationships.

That was the mark of some of the most ambitious – and expensive – efforts of Albrecht’s time heading up the company: shows that impressed, even dazzled, maybe even won acclaim…but didn’t get people watching.

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Like Carnivale (2003-05), a visually impressive, highly allegorical good vs. evil piece set during The Depression whose artistic reach exceeded its grasp and which steadily lost viewers over its two seasons.

And the much-praised Western series, Deadwood (2004-06), from veteran TV writer David Milch whose credits included such classics as Hills Street Blues and NYPD Blue. With its rich production values and broad canvas, it was clearly HBO’s shot at launching the next The Sopranos. Critics were near-unanimous in their praise, and the show was often cited as being one of the best series on TV. But Westerns tend to skew toward an older, male audience and that narrowed the show’s appeal from the outset. Sheer excellence in execution couldn’t buck a historical trend which had seen the Western genre peak on the big and little screen in the 1960s/1970s, and damn near become extinct in subsequent decades. By the time of Deadwood’s premiere, there hadn’t been a sizable Western success since Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Unforgiven twelve years before.

Generation Kill (2008) betrayed a similar sense of immunity to popular trends. GK was a seven-part miniseries from David (Homicide/The Wire) Simon and Ed Burns, based on reporter Evan Wright’s book about his days as an embedded reporter with a Marine unit during the 2003 war with Iraq. Like Deadwood, GK was lauded for its authenticity and textured drama. The mini was nominated for a host of Emmys including Outstanding miniseries. It was also HBO’s lowest-rated miniseries. The lousy numbers, even in the face of universal acclaim, shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise. Going back to George Clooney starrer Three Kings in 1999, no movie about America’s Mideast ventures – whether a big-budget effort like Jarhead (2005) or an art house denizen like In the Valley of Elah (2007) had done better than middling business, and most had been flops.

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The track record for movies and series about the country’s founding days is also rather iffy, enough so that – as with Deadwood and Generation Kill – one wonders who the company thought would tune in to John Adams, another opulently produced, critically-respected effort, this one an adaptation of historian David McCullough’s acclaimed biography of the nation’s second president. Adams did almost twice the numbers of Generation Kill…which still made it a stiff, pulling less than half the viewing of Band of Brothers.

The company’s strikeouts during the Albrecht years were compounded by several clumsy PR missteps, particularly surprising in a company long acknowledged as one of the masters of publicity and promotion.

Deadwood was a logistically demanding series to make, requiring the recreation of the historical frontier town. In keeping with the show’s broad canvas storytelling, the cast included over 30 significant characters. Evidently assuming the show would be a major hit, the production deals for the show pushed off some costs until the series’ fourth season. By the third season, however, it was clear no amount of hype or acclaim were going to improve Deadwood’s numbers, and those numbers didn’t justify the escalating costs that would kick in if the series continued. HBO therefore made the practical decision of cancelling the show…kind of. And that was the problem.

The company never announced cancellation. It didn’t say anything. Word that the show wasn’t coming back began to leak out in interviews with cast members saying that since they hadn’t been approached about signing up for Season 4, they assumed the series had been cancelled. Yet even once the notion there’d be no next season became public, the company still fumbled, as if it was unable to say the word, “Cancelled.”

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Why? What was the big deal? Well, it was a bit like the Arli$$ business but in reverse. With Arli$$, the company found itself sticking with a show it – along with most reviewers – didn’t much care for. Deadwood was the kind of brilliantly iconoclastic TV HBO kept saying it was in business to make, and now it was going to have to do something all those gutless commercial programmers did to terrific TV programming with depressing regularity: cancel it because of lousy numbers. HBO was supposed to be the kind of network that didn’t worry about numbers that way.

And frankly, it tried not to. Cop drama The Wire never had good numbers. Actually, they were shockingly small. But sticking with the series made a Bewkesian kind of sense. It was a comparatively cheap show to do, and the huge positive buzz it generated for the service – out of all proportion to its viewing numbers – made it a good investment.

But Deadwood was no cheapie, and sinking millions into a series with such feeble numbers meant less money to put into other shows which might do better. There was no practical way to keep Deadwood on the air.

HBO just couldn’t get itself to say that. What it did say was everything but. Deadwood, the company explained, was only supposed to run four seasons at most, paralleling the short existence of the historical Deadwood. David Milch was already working on other HBO projects, but the service would do two two-hour movies to wrap up the Deadwood tale (although nobody in the company believed those movies would ever be produced…and they never were).

The show Milch was working on premiered the year after Deadwood went off the air: John from Cincinnati. A Jesus allegory set in the contemporary surfing scene of southern California, the show was a bad mix of the obvious (Jesus Christ = John from Cincinnati – get it?) and the annoyingly opaque, and was a ratings and review disaster. As for Deadwood’s rabid if numerically limited fans, who had looked at their favorite show’s cancellation and the commitment to John/Cincinnati as some sort of trade-off, they called and emailed “You cancelled Deadwood for this?”

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HBO had also dropped the PR ball, although not in so glaring fashion, with Rome (2005-2007). One of the most expensive productions ever for television (cost of the first season was north of $100 million for 12 episodes), Rome was a big canvas spectacle intended to depict the ancient empire with all the grit, gore, and carnality that the grand scale epics of Old Hollywood couldn’t/wouldn’t show. The idea was something of a cross between big screen epic and the layered, adult drama of an I, Claudius. While Rome never generated the kind of viewing numbers hoped for after that kind of outlay, and the reviews weren’t quite in The Sopranos category of raves, overall viewers and critics were impressed by the opulent production values and entertained by the juicy goings-on among the toga set.

HBO had gone into Rome labeling it a miniseries, but the show had done well enough for the company to call for a second season. But even before the second season aired, Albrecht announced that the second season would be Rome’s last.

The only way HBO could afford the monumental costs of Rome was as a coproduction with overseas partners, particularly the BBC. Those coproduction arrangements extended to a second season if all the partners agreed. But there was no such option for a third season. To continue on would’ve severely crippled HBO’s original programming budget. Albrecht explained this to the press, but the word didn’t quite get down to the viewers. “Where’s Rome? What happened to Rome?” was the question that kept appearing in the company’s viewer emails. To many, it looked like – in Deadwood fashion – HBO was, again, acting like one of those nasty broadcast networks, cancelling yet another good show because of the numbers the company had so often, in the past, declared to govern program decisions the way it did for commercial TV.

By the end of 2007, the company had been through a streak of shows subscribers didn’t like, some programming decisions subscribers didn’t understand, its Big Three – Sex and the City, The Sopranos, and Six Feet Under – had all had their finales. The only show close to a major success the service had produced since Albrecht had assumed command was Big Love (2006-11), a contemporary drama set among a polygamous community. The series received mixed reviews and turned in strong numbers, although they stood below those of the Big Three.

And then came the strike.

Signs of a possible Writer’s Guild strike had been showing throughout much of 2007 and HBO, like every other TV programmer, was scrambling for a fallback strategy if and when a strike was called. The company had weathered an earlier WGA strike in 1988 with little problem, but, in those days, HBO had still primarily been a movie-driven service. But now the company’s flag had been planted high on the hill of original programming, and the service now had many of the same vulnerabilities as its more conventional network counterparts. A strike would not only meant no material for either new shows or existing shows could be developed during the strike, but it would throw off the TV calendar for months afterward, particularly the 2008-09 pilot season.

As it turned out, HBO was in better shape than most programmers. There was programming already in the pipeline: the second season of Rome, Generation Kill and John Adams were completed and could be run during any strike-produced void instead of spacing them out as had been the original intent, and the possibility of a strike had helped HBO decide to call for another – and last – season of the low-cost The Wire. Together with documentary and sports programming not affected by a strike, as well as its movie programming, HBO would be able to present a stream (although a thin stream) of original programming for several months while the commercial broadcasters would have been filling their time with repeats and strike-proof reality programming.

And, when the strike was called for in November of 2007 (it would run until February 2008), that’s how things played out. Despite the low ratings for Generation Kill and John Adams, HBO came through the strike in not-so-bad shape. However, that didn’t solve its more serious underlying problem which was that with the arguable exception of Big Love, the service didn’t have a single major hit on the air.

Part of the problem was HBO was, as one exec explained to me, a victim of its own success. “Nobody will ever know how lucky we were having three big shows on the air at the same time,” he said, referring to Sex and the City, The Sopranos, and Six Feet Under. By this he didn’t mean HBO had fluked into a string of good shows. Successful programming isn’t simply a matter of a network programming staff sifting through a pile of pitches and then, in an exercise of taste, expertise, and insight, declaring, “Ah, this is the one!”

Programming success requires the right people – both behind and in front of the camera – coming together and doing what they need to do to execute a show’s vision as well as it can be done. And then, providing all concerned pull off that feat, the show needs to be scheduled on just the right day at just the right time and promoted in just the right manner to pull an audience. And then…

The audience has to come.

It’s not a lock. When Napoleon said, Give me lucky generals, he knew what he was talking about because in TV, you can do everything right, and still fail. The annals of programming are filled with great shows that never found an audience. The failure rate for new shows on the major networks each fall is somewhere around 90%, for both junk and some very good TV. You can do everything right, but then you still have to get lucky.

For HBO to be that lucky three times in such a short space of time – bing, bang, boom – was remarkable. It’s probably not going to happen again, this exec told me, but it’ll be judged as our failure.

That was part of the problem. The other part was that HBO’s ever-extending string of duds through the mid-’00s was viewed as less about luck then in picking lousy shows.

I don’t pretend to know what the thinking was uptown at Time Warner concerning Chris Albrecht: were they going to let him continue on as he’d been going, hoping he’d ultimately pull it out (one HBO programmer told me, “Give Chris this; he may have rolled the dice on some chancey shows, but if the numbers came back bad, he didn’t hesitate to pull the plug on them”)? Were they going to leave him in place but restrain the company’s recent penchant for overly-challenging programming? Or were they going to show him the door?

And that’s where Fate took an ugly but resolving hand. In 2007, Albrecht was arrested in a physical confrontation with a woman friend in Las Vegas. During the press coverage, it came out this was not Albrecht’s first such incident, and Time Warner called for his resignation.

Albrecht’s departure left HBO with a managerial dilemma. There was no clear heir apparent in the company. Certainly no one from a programming division with a less than impressive track record would do. Nor did the company want someone from the outside. Throughout HBO’s history, its bosses had come from inside the company; people who understood the HBO culture, who had a feel for where the company had come from, and from that an understanding of where it needed to go.

The answer, at least in the short term, was a triumvirate arrangement. Bill Nelson, who’d joined the company in 1984 as a vice president and assistant controller, was given the executive chairman and CEO seat responsible for overall management of the company. Nelson had proven himself in his 23 years coming up through the business areas of the company, and it was the business centers of the company that would primarily fall directly under him.

Eric Kessler had been with HBO almost as long, but had come up through its marketing areas, having come into the company in 1986 as a marketing manager in the company’s home video division. All of the company’s marketing areas were placed under Kessler who was given the title co-president.

But perhaps the most interesting choice was rolling in programming under another co-president, Richard Plepler. In the late 1980s, Plepler had been hired by HBO as a consultant, working with the company on enhancing its profile in non-entertainment circles. In 1992, he was hired as Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications, with the company’s programming and non-programming PR arms under him. A dapper, erudite, culturally-informed guy, despite not having a programming background, Plepler demonstrated an understanding of the kind of programming that worked for HBO, and, just as tactically important, the way it worked for the service.

I remember Plepler once explaining what the rebuilding plan for the service needed to be as the company was still trying to shake off Chris Albrecht’s exit. “We need one or two big shows,” he said, “and then a couple of shows in the middle range.” He was confident about finding those mid-range shows; the open question was, naturally enough, could HBO find its Big Show mojo again.

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The following year, HBO hit its first home run since the days of the Big Three with True Blood. Based on a series of southern Gothic vampire novels by Charlaine Harris, and adapted for the service by Alan Ball, who’d been the creative mind behind Six Feet Under, True Blood was – with replays and on-demand numbers rolled in – generating viewership numbers in the Big Three range. Although the reviews were mixed, the fan response wasn’t.

HBO had its big hit, and now came the smaller-drawing but critically-lauded shows that filled in the second tier: the opulent period gangster drama Boardwalk Empire (2010); comedy-drama Enlightened (2011); horse race drama Luck (2011) from David Milch; The Newsroom (2012) from one of the most literate writers in TV, Aaron Sorkin; the sharp-eyed political comedy Veep (2012) with Julia Louis-Dreyfuss in an Emmy-winning role as a fumbling vice president.

Were they all gold? Enlightened generated more press than viewers, and Luck was cancelled after the deaths of several horses involved in the production, but the company was flexing its programming muscle in a way it hadn’t in nearly a decade and the press had turned from its broken record of “Has HBO Lost Its Mojo?” to “HBO Is Back!”

But then the company did strike certifiable 24k success with Girls and Game of Thrones.

Girls is the creation of series star Lena Dunham. A controversial, love-it-or-hate-it series about a group of young female friends in New York, some call it the next generation version of Sex and the City. And, like SATC, it draws many of the same criticisms that earlier series did in its early seasons; that its protagonists are a bunch of spoiled, self-indulgent, self-involved types trapped in superficial concerns. Yet others see an on-target explorations of Millennial Generation angst and uncertainty. With viewing numbers that are solid though hardly stellar, Girls biggest contribution to the service is that it has people talking about an HBO show – arguing, debating – in a way no HBO program has done in years.

With Game of Thrones, the company has been able to put all the right components together. Based on the fantasy novel series A Song of Fire and Ice by George R. R. Martin, GOT is like a Lord of the Rings for grownups, earning both praise and viewer devotion and posting the highest viewer numbers for any HBO show…ever. Including previous all-time champ The Sopranos.

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The success of True Blood, Girls, and Game of Thrones also signals HBO’s ability to recalibrate its direction, a recognition that the game has changed for the company. The Big Three were products of another generation’s sensibility, a holdover from the kind of creative sensibility that had ranged from Chinatown (1974) to Goodfellas (1990). It’s a tickling question, wondering whether the Big Three would do as well today…or if Blood or Thrones would do as well back in the late 1990s.

A new generation of consumer is coming into the marketplace, growing up without a particular affinity for the realistic, gritty content of a generation or two ago, but more attuned to elements of the fantastic. HBO has re-targeted itself at a new generation of consumer, read it well, and scored its hits.

Still…

Does the company stand as tall today, even with these successes, as it did 10-15 years ago? I’d argue not, but not through any failing on the part of HBO. One of the company’s biggest challenges going forward is that it is no longer the only tall tree in the forest.

- Bill Mesce

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Click here to read every article in this series!

Preface

Introduction 

Towards Felix The Cat

Baby Steps

In The Beginning Was The Word: Radio

The Numbers Racket

Wasteland 

Greener Grass

Walson’s Mountain

The Green Channel 

Into The Skies, Junior Birdmen!

 Title Fights: The King of Pay-TV

The Movie Duels

The Wall

An Original Voice

Expanding the Brand Part 1

Expanding the Brand Part 2

Golden Age Part 1

Golden Age Part 2

Golden Age Part 3

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By Bill Mesce

Bill Mesce, Jr. is a produced screenwriter and playwright, and a published author of fiction and nonfiction, including Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema. He spent 27 years with pay-TV giant Home Box Office, and now teaches at several universities in his native New Jersey.

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3 Responses to It’s Not TV: HBO, The Company That Changed Television: Fall and Rise

  1. Max February 2, 2014 at 12:52 am

    Great article. I really enjoyed your analysis.

    Reply
  2. Bill Mesce January 20, 2014 at 1:54 pm

    There was a grown-up, exploratory sensibility that dominated cinema during the pre-blockbuster 60s/70s (yeah, GOODFELLAS comes long after that, but Scorsese was always a cinema child of the 70s), and it’s easy — for me, anyway — to see where either of those titles, or even THE SOPRANOS, THE WIRE, DEADWOOD could’ve fit in as a big screen project back then. The people who went to those movies as college kids grew up, bought houses, had families, and subscribed to HBO, and they were the backbone of the subscribership into the early 00s. The people doing the programming were of the same generation, and I think that’s why those shows connected so well. But in the same way that generation had aged out of the movie-going audience, I think they’re also aging out of the pay-tv market and the generation coming up behind them has a different sensibility. I grant, this is more gut than science. Thanks for the question.

    Reply
  3. Brian Solomon January 17, 2014 at 3:40 pm

    What do Sex and the City and Six Feet Under have to do with “the kind of creative sensibility that ranged from Chinatown to Goodfellas”?

    Reply

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