HBO’s Rivals Say It Has Stumbled, Though Catching Up Is Tough
Has HBO, the pay-television channel stocked with so many outstanding shows that it declared itself in a category all its own — as in “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” — finally tumbled from its pedestal of prestige?
While the channel rejects that notion as both inaccurate and unfair, some of its long-suffering competitors are only too eager to advance that message. As evidence they point to the final exit from center stage of HBO’s greatest performer, “The Sopranos,” and the subsequent quick demise of the show that inherited its spot on the schedule, the quirky surfer tale “John From Cincinnati.”
John Landgraf, president of the FX network, which has introduced a series of highly regarded dramas including “Nip/Tuck,” “Rescue Me” and this season’s “Damages,” said of HBO, “I wouldn’t call them vulnerable. What they were was unassailable. And they aren’t that anymore.”
Showtime, the next biggest pay-cable channel, has had some of its executives go so far as to use a new title for their biggest rival: “HB-Over.” Matthew C. Blank, the chairman of Showtime, said, “I’ve heard that term used for HBO both outside and inside our network.”
Dismissing that remark as a cheap shot from jealous competitors, HBO executives labeled the suggestion that their channel might have anything serious to worry about as a misrepresentation of how well its programs beyond “The Sopranos” have performed this year and a misreading of what its business is about.
Michael Lombardo, the president of the HBO Programming Group, said “We’re disappointed that ‘John’ got a poor critical response and didn’t resonate with audiences, but I would not for a second trade our slate in 2007 with any other network.” He added that HBO took a risk with David Milch, the creator of “John From Cincinnati,” because “that’s what we do.” HBO has made a new long-term deal with Mr. Milch and expects a new show from him soon.
As for the rest of its lineup, Richard Plepler a co-president of HBO, offered a long list of accomplishments, topped by the channel’s continued dominance of the Emmy nominations. The channel has also seen its subscriber numbers increase this year, according to a survey by Kagan Associates.
Mr. Plepler pointed to positive recognition for HBO’s movies, like “Longford,” as well as for its documentaries, like “When the Levees Broke,” which recently won a Peabody Award. And he cited the continued success of the comedy “Entourage,” the drama “Big Love” and the new comedy “Flight of the Conchords,” which was renewed for a second season.
In terms of raw numbers “Conchords,” with only about a million viewers on average for its initial run on Sunday nights, is not in the same league as previous HBO hits like “Entourage,” which has drawn as many as 3.8 million viewers. But increasingly HBO is measuring its success both by how many viewers a show accumulates over multiple plays and especially by how well it drives the on-demand business, where viewers can order specific episodes of shows.
HBO says that its on-demand business is not dominated by its hit shows but by the niche interests of its audience for choices from theatrical movies to sports programs. According to the channel, “Flight of the Conchords” has been a strong on-demand entry with men between the ages of 18 and 34.
Robert Greenblatt, the president for entertainment at Showtime, acknowledged that the “HB-Over” term was “a zeitgeist comment,” and that “it was never going to be over for HBO.” But he argued, “This sort of thing is inevitable when you get to where they got to, where you’re saying, ‘It’s not TV, it’s HBO,’ and that you’re superior to everyone else, and then you hit a fallow period.”
Mr. Blank meanwhile boasted about Showtime’s lineup, led by shows like “The Tudors” and “Dexter” that he called hits. But comparisons in ratings terms or financial terms always favor HBO by wide margins. In audience terms HBO and Showtime are still in separate leagues. Shows on Showtime, which almost always fall well below a million viewers for their first runs, have far fewer viewers than even “John From Cincinnati” and nowhere near what HBO brings in for “Entourage.” Showtime, with 14 million subscribers, has only about half the reach of HBO.
This week Showtime purchased full-page newspaper ads to trumpet some critical raves that a pair of its shows, “Weeds” and “Californication,” have received. The move emulated HBO’s aggressive marketing strategy with its own acclaimed shows, and at the same time represented a shot across the bow of its rival.
Still, other cable channels are pointing to successes with their own high-profile shows, dramas like “The Closer” on TNT and “Mad Men” on AMC, and saying that HBO no longer has an automatic edge with viewers as the network of high-quality programming. “Mad Men” seems an especially HBO-like series and was offered first to the channel. (Showtime also passed on it.)
Matt Weiner, that show’s creator and a longtime writer on “The Sopranos,” said he had sent the pilot script to HBO and heard nothing back for a long time. He concluded that HBO “might not be interested in another period piece.” Some HBO executives now quietly concede “Mad Men” might have been a good choice for them.
Some of that has to do with the shifting sensibilities of the executives in charge. HBO’s series success was forged under the leadership of Chris Albrecht, who was forced out this year after a domestic violence charge. Mr. Plepler and Mr. Lombardo now head the creative team. But Mr. Lombardo said the offerings in the next year should answer all questions about the strength of the channel.
HBO has another season of its widely praised comedy “Curb Your Enthusiasm” about to start, as well as a much-talked-about drama series about sex therapy called “Tell Me You Love Me.” Longer term is a lavish “John Adams” miniseries, and a new drama about vampires from Alan Ball, the creator of “Six Feet Under.” Among the ideas in development is an Atlantic City casino drama from Martin Scorsese.
But HBO made what some considered a puzzling decision by inserting “John From Cincinnati,” a show many critics labeled all but unfathomable, in the channel’s center-ring time period, 9 p.m. Sunday nights. At the same time HBO relegated the second season of its most promising new drama, “Big Love,” to Monday nights.
Though Mr. Plepler said the move was not a mistake because “Big Love” has accumulated just as big an audience this season as it did last season, HBO seemingly acknowledged that Monday might not have been the best place for “Big Love” when it shifted the show back to Sunday for its last two episodes of this season. Last Sunday “Big Love” doubled the audience that “John From Cincinnati” had been attracting.
“Over time you start to make stumbles like that,” Mr. Landgraf of FX said. He did not argue that HBO had fallen apart, simply that it had fallen back to the pack. “HBO was really the only game in town,” he said. “It was the only place to go if you were a producer or writer or actor who didn’t want to play that 22-episode, broadcast network game.” But he said that FX and Showtime were now proving to be just as hospitable to talented people.
Mr. Plepler said HBO has never been concerned about other networks having hit shows. "There is plenty of room for other people’s shows to do well,” Mr. Plepler said. “ It’s not a zero sum game. If we do what we do well, we’ll continue to be the most vibrant business in our category."