After ‘Sopranos,’ a Need for a Hit
With a last burst of episodes starting April 8, “The Sopranos,” will exit the television arena for the final time, leaving millions of fans without their all-time favorite series, and a network, HBO, without its Hall of Fame performer.
In its eight-year run on HBO, “The Sopranos” has set all sorts of new standards for cable television, collecting scores of awards, amassing record-setting audiences and providing perhaps the most precious commodity of all to HBO: cultural impact.
But after the last nine episodes starting April 8, HBO, a unit of Time Warner, will have to carry on without its signature show. Chris Albrecht, the premium cable channel’s chief executive, has been preparing for this denouement for many months. He portrayed the close of “The Sopranos” as, in a way, the completion of the first movement of a long-term artistic venture.
“It sort of cuts both ways,” Mr. Albrecht said in an interview at HBO’s Manhattan headquarters. “On the one hand, we’ll never have anything like that experience again, because between ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘Six Feet Under’ all happening in that short period of time, we came of age in a way we hadn’t before.”
But Mr. Albrecht also said he believed that “the end of ‘The Sopranos’ is really the beginning of something else.”
That something else is going to consist of a months-long splash of new and returning programs, an additional hour of Sunday night shows, an expansion into other days of the week with original series, and an array of high-profile and high-cost special projects.
“We’re going to have more new programs than we have ever had before,” Mr. Albrecht said.
But will any of them be a “Sopranos”? No one at HBO would ever predict that, because no one knew what the channel had in “The Sopranos” before it made its debut. HBO faces a risk, not only because it may disappoint HBO subscribers if no new show measures up to that standard, but also because some other channels have been developing the kind of talked-about shows that HBO has become known for.
Earlier this month, for example, the FX channel — which has styled itself for years as the HBO of basic cable because of successful shows like “Nip/Tuck”— won critical praise for a new series called “The Riches,” about a contemporary family of Gypsies. Some critics wondered if this was the kind of show that would have landed on HBO in an earlier time.
Showtime, the most direct competitor to HBO, has also tried to emulate its far more successful rival by adding more ambitious series, like the suburban comedy “Weeds” and the dramas “Sleeper Cell” and “Brotherhood.” Next month it will introduce an expensive costume epic, “The Tudors,” with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers playing a young and sexy Henry VIII.
None of these channels, though, has yet produced anything close to “The Sopranos” or any other of HBO’s celebrated series. Mr. Albrecht points out that the breadth of the channel’s offering, not “Sopranos” alone, has driven HBO to its current high of 30 million subscribers.
“We are in a unique business,” Mr. Albrecht said, one that has never been dependent on sheer audience size because as a pay-cable channel it is mainly about satisfying customers.
Michael Nathanson, a media analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein, said Mr. Albrecht’s confidence about the channel’s future is probably well placed. He said HBO has been adept at taking advantage of the expanding ways to get programs to viewers, especially through services like video-on-demand.
HBO has taken advantage of that technology, which allows viewers to watch HBO’s shows whenever they want, better than anyone else in the television business, Mr. Nathanson said.
“If you look at it in the traditional way,” Mr. Nathanson said, “you might say HBO should be worried because it might lose viewers if its doesn’t have another ‘Sopranos.’ But its subscriber base keeps growing, and I think it’s because of how well they are doing with video-on-demand.” Mr. Albrecht said HBO was promising its customers the channel would deliver “the goods,” which he defined as “something you can’t get anywhere else.”
In that category, he includes “John From Cincinnati,” a drama that combines the zen of the surfing culture with doses of philosophy, quantum physics and dysfunctional family life. And a visit from what may be an extraterrestrial.
Though that does not sound like a genre that would have built-in appeal — like, say, gangster stories — “John” has been fast-tracked, moving into production quicker than anything HBO has done. It is also getting a blessed push-off on June 10 at 10 p.m. immediately after the final scene of “The Sopranos.”
“John” will emerge as a new signature show for the channel, becoming the 9 p.m. centerpiece of an expanded three-hour Sunday block running through the summer. Previously HBO had filled only the 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. block with original series; starting in June that will begin at 8 p.m.
The show, which stars Rebecca DeMornay and Luke Perry, was created by David Milch, who was behind the HBO drama “Deadwood.” That western series, if not quite earning a place on HBO’s album of greatest hits, had an ardent following. Fans felt blindsided by the news that Mr. Milch and HBO were shutting down “Deadwood” at the end of last season.
That decision was later rescinded and HBO now plans to do two movie versions of “Deadwood” to tie up loose ends. Mr. Albrecht said the experience had taught HBO some lessons about the need to wrap up big serialized dramas, out of obligation to those paying customers who had been devoted to the shows.
Bracketing “John” at 8 and 10 p.m. will be HBO’s two most-talked about returning series, the drama “Big Love,” with its family of increasingly desperate polygamists, and the comedy “Entourage,” which, with its adventures of footloose young men in Hollywood, ranks as HBO’s chief holdover cultural phenomenon.
HBO will be adding a new comedy at 10:30 p.m., “Flight of the Conchords,” about a singing duo from New Zealand encountering life in New York. Larry David’s comedy series “Curb Your Enthusiasm” will also be returning for another season of episodes, early next year.
One new comedy Mr. Albrecht said he expected to make a significant contribution to HBO’s next phase is “12 Miles of Bad Road,” a new show from Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (“Designing Women”), which stars Gary Cole and Lily Tomlin and plays like “Dallas” remade by Christopher Guest.
HBO will use a new scheduling format for a drama called “In Treatment.” Adapted (actually, translated) from a hit Israeli show, the half-hour series stars Gabriel Byrne as a therapist who holds sessions with a different patient each night and then undergoes his own therapy session (with Dianne Weist as the doctor). The other patients, played by, among others, Blair Underwood and a young actress named Mia Wasikowska, will return for appointments on the same nights for 10 weeks.
A somewhat similar premise is the framework for “Tell Me You Love Me,” which traces the lives of couples in therapy, though their sessions will fill only a small part of the hourlong drama. The rest will cover their intimate lives — and the series, which was once titled “SexLife” and stars Sonya Walger and Jane Alexander, will actually uncover a lot of that.
A mini-series kidnapping thriller called “Five Days” was a hit in England, and HBO, which co-produced the series with the BBC, will show it here later this year. But HBO’s most anticipated mini-series in production is “John Adams” based on the biography by David McCullough, produced by Tom Hanks and starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney.
Another series returning for its final season is “The Wire,” the crime series set in Baltimore that received lavish critical praise last season. But this Sunday will mark the end of another highly regarded drama, “Rome.”
The audience for “Rome” has grown in its second season, but the decision had already been made to end production, mainly because of high costs. HBO expects to lose perhaps $30 million on the series, but Mr. Albrecht said he would make a deal like that again.
HBO can afford to spend more lavishly than other networks, he said, thanks to its business model. That model, he said, is expected to keep the cash flowing even if one crime family in New Jersey will no longer be delivering those little envelopes stuffed with riches.