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Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Aaron Dobbs
October 3, 2013 10:00 AM
3 Comments
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How HBO Has Stayed on Top of the Game by Embracing Stories With Endings and Making Sunday the Best TV Night of the Week

'Game of Thrones' Keith Bernstein/HBO

For the 12th year in a row, HBO dominated the recent primetime Emmys, winning 27 awards, the same amount as CBS and NBC combined. "Behind the Candelabra" won 11 awards, more than any other program, including Best Miniseries or Movie, a prize the channel has received for 18 of the past 21 years. Leading the pack is nothing new for the nearly 41-year-old channel, which became the first nationally available cable network in 1975 and provided the foundations of this third "Golden Age of Television" with series like "The Sopranos" and "The Wire."

The legacy of success has caused critics and audiences to hold HBO to a high standard, comparing each new drama to those best-ever contenders that came before, but the network has also produced more modestly scaled comedies that also garner devoted audiences, like the Danny McBride starrer "Eastbound and Down," which began its fourth and final season Sunday night. Also new to the network is "Hello Ladies," a half-hour comedy created by and starring Stephen Merchant, best known as Ricky Gervais's frequent partner-in-crime.

HBO has been in the spotlight of late for non-Emmy news as well. Last week, news broke that Robert De Niro would step into role originally played by the late, great James Gandolfini in the upcoming limited series "Criminal Justice." The channel announced last Monday that Sue Neagle was leaving her post as President, HBO Entertainment to form her own production company. Neagle oversaw original series for the channel, and reports state that her duties will be absorbed by her now-former boss, Michael Lombardo.

Michael Lombardo

Lombardo became President, HBO Programming in 2007 and is responsible for overseeing all of HBO’s original programming from series and movies to documentaries and sports. He took a different route to his position than most programming executives, first joining HBO's legal department in 1983. By 2003, he had become executive vice president, Business Affairs, Production and Programming Operations. In the fourth installment of our regular series of interviews with network heads, Indiewire spoke with Lombardo about the upcoming series that excite him the most, HBO's continued commitment to original movies, HBO Go and how Steven Soderbergh's upcoming series "The Knick" will affect the future of Cinemax.

[Full disclosure: I worked at HBO for nearly nine years, first for the east coast-based original movie division HBO NYC Productions from 1996-1999 and then for HBO Sports from 1999-2005.]

How do you feel the expectations of TV audiences have changed over the past five to 20 years, in no small part due to several HBO series?

I tend to think of "The Larry Sanders Show" as a pivot moment in terms of television going from a medium of pure entertainment, or even a wasteland, into a place where expert storytelling could happen. It was a comedy, so it hasn't been remembered with quite the same importance as "The Sopranos." But instead of looking at series as a second-tier medium compared to films, TV started to be viewed as an enhanced method of storytelling. 

What was amazing about "The Sopranos" wasn't just that it got a positive critical response, but there was also a huge audience for it. "The Sopranos" proved that highly serialized storytelling and morally complex characters were not turn-offs to the audience. 

What we've seen over time is a trend of more shows dealing with smart storytelling and complicated characters that challenge viewers. Television entertainment is no longer passive; it asks viewers to be engaged in the storytelling.

'The Sopranos'

How has this changing landscape affected the current programming we see on HBO?

Our original programming has increased perhaps tenfold over the last 20 years both in terms of volume and the amount of money we spend on it. First-run [theatrical] feature films still represent 70-75% of viewing on HBO, and for years when we asked subscribers why they picked HBO, first-run features was the reason. Now the number one reason is original content.

Also, for years it was assumed that a successful series had to go six or seven years and have X number of episodes-per-year, and I don't think that's true anymore. People come in and pitch me really great ideas that by design are only intended for two years. Five or 10 years ago, we would have said, "What is that?" Now, if it's great storytelling, it doesn't matter what the length is or how many years it runs.

There's a lot more competition in the original content arena among cable networks. Do you take that competition into account in considering your own programming decisions? 

There is certainly great work being done all over the place now. It's exciting and good for everybody, I believe that we continue to be in the vanguard; we continue to push and hopefully stay true to why we got into this business. When we started [producing original content], the goal was to tell movie-like stories in a television series format. Now that's no longer the right reference point, but we don't assume the viewer just wants to sit there and be entertained. We assume our viewer wants to pay attention and is not going to wander off in the middle of an episode.

More frequently, we're seeing people from outside the world of television -- filmmakers, playwrights, longform journalists, radio producers -- developing series. What is HBO's approach to seeking out new voices for your scripted projects?

I've been here a while. I was here when someone might have done some movie and would agree to direct something here, and we thought, "Oh my god, is this not fantastic?" because most directors and actors would say, "No, I don't do television." There were TV writers and there were movie writers.

"I think the movie business has for the most part started abandoning serious engaging adult-oriented programming, other than around the Oscars."

Over the last few years, I've just watched that whole thing flip-on its head. It's been great for television, and it's great for the American public because without what's happened in television, people would have nothing to talk about on Monday mornings. Unfortunately, I think the movie business has for the most part started abandoning serious engaging adult-oriented programming, other than around the Oscars. [Film] studios have been gravitating more toward pure entertainment and less-challenging movies because of their own economic model.

What's been fantastic is more and more writers are looking to television as a way of unleashing their storytelling ideas. Rather than looking at it as a medium that confines what they do, in the last couple years, what we've seen is a number of writers who previously only worked on movies trying to figure out how to do what they used to do in a series format.

With all this talent wanting to write for TV, how do you ensure that in addition to their distinctive voice and writing talent, you also have strong showrunners? 

We've been through this process for a while. Unlike the film business, television is a writer's medium. The writer becomes the showrunner and ultimately the voice of the entire show as well as the boss of the show. Not every writer is equipped with the skillset to basically run a company and to think about the multitude of things relating to both above- and below-the-line issues. 

For writers who have not been showrunners, we try to partner them with very experienced creative producers who can be their alter egos and help them learn. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss ["Game of Thrones"] are a perfect example: Great writers who had never worked on a television show. The first season was a real growth year for them, and now in the fourth season, they're as adept showrunners as I've ever seen. We partnered them with two really good non-writing producers who they trusted, and they were smart enough to pay attention to. 

We really have to assess who we're dealing with, and what they need to support their vision without losing their voice. The idea of saying, "The pilot script is fantastic, and now we're going to hire a showrunner," that's just not the business I'm in. I'm betting on a voice.

So are there specific characteristics that you and your team look for in a scripted series before greenlighting it?

We're always looking for a distinct voice. I don't think we've ever defined ourselves by what's not being done elsewhere. We're not only development executive, but also people who -- like everybody else enmeshed in pop culture – watch movies and television and read books. When we see a script or hear a pitch from a passionate writer that feels fresh and distinct, we place a bet on it. That continues to be our rallying cry.

'True Detective'

We have a series coming up called "True Detective" by one writer, Nic Pizzalotto, who writes all eight hours, and one director: Cary Fukunata is directing all eight. It's masterful. And the idea is that after we do this season, this same writer would think about a detective police show with different characters, in a different world. It's just a different way of storytelling that's very exciting.

We just ordered to series a much more traditional show in terms of structure: "The Leftovers," from Damon Lindelof, that Pete Berg directed. That feels like a show that can go multiple years with the same characters.

I think that [neither format] is preferred; they are each what their creators envisioned. Writers are playing around with formats in a way that's exciting, and I think that's embraced here.

Regarding  "True Detective," your recent release of the trailer led to a great deal of excitement across social media. This season-to-season anthology approach has worked so far over at FX with "American Horror Story," and you just mentioned the opportunity for additional seasons of "True Detective." Do you see your playing with formats in this way as a continued attempt to reinvigorate and reinvent how people think about television?

I think it's actually pretty organic. There's been a pretty historic idea that if something works, you want more. We've learned that more isn't necessarily better, and that's not just our decision, but also a creator's decision. Sometimes, a show is really finished at the end of two years. The story is told. Let's not take it to a third year just because it was done really well.

Our first priority is great storytelling, as I think it is for most artist,. So I care less whether it's something that can go seven years than whether it feels fresh, distinct and vital. When I used to get pitches, the question inevitably came up, "Well how do you sustain that?" I'd think about series arcs. I don't ask that anymore. I don't think that's as important anymore. If you have a great 12 episodes, I think an audience will think that's fine. 

3 Comments

  • Gia | October 3, 2013 7:13 PMReply

    i cancelled cable years ago because i HATE time warner, but, i bought it so i could see season 3 of game of thrones. i love game of thrones but it is not worth $140 something i have to pay to see one show. i was happy to see a few of the other things hbo offered but i would have happily waited to see them some other way. i was able to buy the last season of breaking bad on amazon (amazing!) and watch and re-watch previous episodes of breaking bad on netflix streaming (though I would have happily waited for discs in the mail). perfect. i guess i'll wait for the next season of GoT to go to dvd because it's no longer worth it. btw - canceling your cable is not easy, as time warner wants you to believe, and i was once again, overcharged. hbo, please get a new business model.

  • Marc Schenker | October 3, 2013 7:10 PMReply

    HBO, in reality, remains the most consistent rip-off in the rip-off industry called "premium channels." That means that you're paying for their Sunday night, since 98% of the other movies and documentaries are the worst fare Hollywood offers. Yes, it is Hollywood's selfishness that keeps decades and decades of decent movies off television, but HBO seems to go out of it's way to get the worst of them. Of course, if you like seeing an utter failure like Prometheus 45 times a month, I must be mistaken.

  • shelly | October 3, 2013 10:20 AMReply

    There's so much internalized homophobia in every single comment about Looking. It's fascinating. Also Girls gets no live viewers and they always claim all the viewers watch it on HBO Go. Yet here he states only 6 percent of viewers watch it that way. So where are all the magically supposed viewers of that show coming from...?