Can HBO’s new entertainment chief pull it out of its slump?

[11 April 2008]

By Maureen Ryan

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

We’re used to HBO making news, but in recent weeks, most of the buzz has revolved around who would get the channel’s most visible job - president of the network’s entertainment division.

Longtime HBO executive Carolyn Strauss, who helped bring forth signature shows such as “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” was eased out of that job a few weeks ago, amid much “where has HBO’s mojo gone?” chatter.

On Wednesday, HBO confirmed that a former talent agent named Sue Naegle got Strauss’ old job. Naegle is now charged with reviving a still-important network that is in serious disarray.

I don’t make that charge lightly. But here’s just one bit of evidence that things have gone awry at this once-dominant network: HBO does not have an original series on the air at present - and that will remain the case for the next five months.

The miniseries “John Adams” wraps up in a couple of weeks. “Generation Kill,” a 7-part miniseries from “Wire” creator David Simon, will debut on HBO July 13. Both are one-offs that won’t return.

HBO won’t have an original series on the air until September - that’s when Alan Ball’s new vampire series, “True Blood,” debuts.

Until then, aside from the usual array of original films, Hollywood movies, documentaries and specials ... nada.

The mind boggles. It’s as if Godzilla had suddenly been shrunk to the size of a field mouse.

A year ago, “The Sopranos” went off the air, but it’s clear that things were already going wrong at HBO. The excellent historical drama “Rome” had died a too-early death and millions of “Deadwood” fans were dealt a cruel blow when a planned fourth season failed to materialize. It emerged that HBO had passed on “Mad Men,” an AMC series from a former “Sopranos” writer that became the most acclaimed drama of the year.

Speaking of AMC, director Darren Aronofsky is working on “Riverview Towers,” a new horror-thriller series, for that network. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the project had been in development at HBO for two years.

As Canadian TV critic Rick McGinnis put it, “AMC is this year’s Showtime, while Showtime has become the new HBO, and HBO is, well, the company that somehow lost Aronofsky’s project ... while the `Sopranos,’ `Deadwood’ and `Rome’ were all going off the air. Just what, precisely, is HBO actually doing these days?”

Well, last year the network spent a reported $25 million making six episodes of the Linda Bloodworth-Thomason series “12 Miles of Bad Road,” which the channel found wanting and won’t air (critic Eric Deggans posted a brief snippet of it here). Now HBO executives must endure the embarrassing spectacle of Bloodworth-Thomason sending DVDs of “12 Miles” to critics and airing her grievances in the press in a quixotic attempt to make a sale at another network.

“HBO ... apparently didn’t like the broad tone of the series. And they are right, it’s ridiculously broad. But someone should have figured that out, oh, about $20 million ago at least,” San Francisco Chronicle critic Tim Goodman recently wrote. “You don’t hire Bloodworth for dramedy and not expect to get broad sass. It’s what she does. Waiting for six completed episodes is just bad management rooted in either fear or (incompetence).”

Over the next few months, things won’t get any easier for HBO. Other cable networks will spend the summer doing what they’ve done since “The Sopranos” exited - stealing HBO’s thunder. As Mediaweek noted, “the sharks are circling.”

USA, TNT, FX, Showtime and AMC all have ambitious slates of new and returning originals planned for 2008, and the summer season, on cable anyway, will be especially crowded. “Mad Men,” USA’s “Burn Notice,” TNT’s “The Closer,” and Showtime’s “Weeds,” as well as a host of new shows from various cable networks will be soaking up media attention and grabbing viewers’ eyeballs while HBO sits on the sidelines.

In the last year or so, I’ve enjoyed HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords,” “Tell Me You Love Me,” and “In Treatment,” all of which drew some of that elusive media buzz that HBO so depends on. But those programs lacked the broad appeal that “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos” had - and HBO needs those kinds of big-tent shows to keep a large chunk of its 29 million subscribers happy.

I look forward to “True Blood,” but that’s the network’s only big premiere this year. I hope that “Entourage,” which also returns that month, will be as sharp as it was in its early days, not the bloated parody of itself it has become.

As for new seasons of “Tell Me You Love Me,” “Big Love,” “Flight of the Conchords” and the new series based on the “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” novels, we’ll have to wait until 2009 for those programs, according to HBO. (There’s a hopeful sign for those who want another season of “In Treatment” - Naegle made positive comments about it in a Thursday New York Times piece.)

And according to Variety, “in the pilot pipeline are the David Milch-Bill Clark cop entry `Last of the Ninth,’ the biker drama `1 Percent,’ the laffer `Driving Around with Joni,’ the Barry Sonnenfeld-helmed `Suburban Shootout,’ Darren Star’s `Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl’ and the Bob Odenkirk/David Cross comedy `David’s Situation.’”

HBO executives probably just want to forget the year that’s passed since Tony Soprano exited the scene, and get through 2008 as best they can. In fairness to Naegle, we should give her until this time next year to assemble a full slate of programs that reflects her creative vision. Then we can decide whether HBO’s top executives - none of whom come from the creative side of the business, as a recent Business Week piece points out - made the right decision in hiring her.

Actually, it may not be fair to ask whether one person can return HBO to its former status as TV’s creative leader. At this point, just pulling the channel out of this slump will be enough of a challenge.

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