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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

By Aaron Dobbs | Indiewire October 3, 2013 at 10:00AM

HBO's president of programming Michael Lombardo talks "True Detective," why the network remains more focused on making series than movies, whether HBO Go will ever be available as an a la carte service and how Sunday night became the most competitive on the TV schedule.
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'Boardwalk Empire'
'Boardwalk Empire'

For quite a while, HBO has been locked into movies on Saturdays and original series on Sundays. Now documentaries seem to have a comfortable home on Mondays after some experiments a few years back with "Six Feet Under" and then "Big Love" on that night weren't successful. Meanwhile, Sundays have also become the most competitive night in all of television, possibly ever. Do you ever discuss revisiting an expansion of original series to another weeknight? 

When we picked Sunday night many moons ago, it was because the networks were dead on Sunday night. Now, with football and cable and the networks, it's a very busy and competitive night. We've dabbled with other nights, and the truth is, we spent so much time educating our audience -- Sunday night, Sunday night, Sunday night -- that it was really hard to get our viewers to refocus their frame of reference. I'm not saying it's undoable, but unless we are willing to double our budget -- which we're not in a position to do -- and say we're now also going to be on, say, Wednesday night every week, it's difficult.

Also, we realized a couple of years ago that with HBO Go and HBO On Demand, for most of our shows, we're seeing at least 50% of the usage not on the premiere night. The press still asks, "Where is the premiere viewer?" We can't get them off that, but it's not the whole story anymore.

'True Blood'
'True Blood'

I'm not in the ad-supported business. So other than the annoyance I have when I see a little blurb in Deadline Hollywood saying, "Oh, this has seven percent less than its premiere last year," we watch and see how a show cumes up. Our shows are doing really well. "Games of Thrones" is close to being our most watched show ever, in a world that is so competitive. It's beating "The Sopranos" as the most-watched show ever [on our channel], and the landscape is apples and oranges. "True Blood" is still always one of the top 10 cable shows over the summer, and we're only in a third of the households. 

Regarding HBO Go, a lot of cord cutters and younger viewers with only broadband connections would love to subscribe directly to the service. At the recent TCA tour you mentioned that there were no immediate plans to make HBO Go its own a la cart subscription product. In the wake of the Time Warner Cable/CBS feud, has your thinking changed at all? Especially since it appears that the content provider seemed to beat the cable company, and much of the argument up until now seems to have focused on making your distribution partners happy.

When you say "to make our partners happy," it really isn't just a happiness issue. We make a lot of money. I mean HBO is a very profitable company. So the economics of the deals we have in place right now are pretty credible for us. Business is really good. I think we're going to post gains in subscriber growth this year that surpass what we've had in many years.

With our most popular shows that skew young -- "Game of Thrones" or "Girls" -- we're only seeing about six percent of usage on HBO Go. It is not yet a phenomenon that would have us [alter how it's offered] because there would be an impact on what I will call "the mother ship." We have to assess the cost-benefit of a digital a la carte service: What would that do to the very profitable business we have, including the profitable DVD business we have. In a world where no one is buying DVDs, "Game of Thrones" performed incredibly well for us. 

'Girls'
'Girls'

So there's no plan right now. Much is being written about phenomenons or patterns. We're watching as well: We look at the landscape and watch the viewing patterns. We intend never to be unprepared. There is, in fact, a younger audience growing up that is saying, "I want to see shows when I want to see them and how I want to see them, and I don't want to have to buy everything," and that is the part that I think is interesting to consider. So there are conversations about the packaging of [our products]. I don't know that means that you go to an a la carte service, and this is not the moment for us to make a change.

Also at the TCA tour, Larry David said to ask him "in six months" about a possible new season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." It hasn't yet been six months, but now that "Clear History" has aired, has there been any talk about the show's return? 

Internally, all the time. And literally we've been waiting for the end of the summer before descending on Larry. I'm still hopeful.

You've recently announced a number of new series, in addition to Damon Lindelof's "The Leftovers," which you mentioned earlier. Are there any that have you really excited and seem like they could be HBO's next "Game of Thrones" or "The Wire"? 

I can't predict when something hits the zeitgeist that way. I just know the ones that make me go, "Sheesh, this is something fresh and new and I can't wait to see where it goes." "True Detective" is incredible. I've only seen four hours, but as a fan, I want to see the rest. 

By the end of ["The Leftovers"] pilot, I had lost all of my critical abilities as an executive. I was in 100%. I was teary eyed. I only wanted to know what happened. Damon had me. The show had me, and that doesn't happen. I'm cynical. I see the sausage made so it's hard sometimes to get excited. I feel like the show is in great hands with Damon and Tom Perrotta. It's an incredible pilot, but we'll see.

"It feels like the first show I'm watching as a gay man where I'm fully emotionally engaged."

We have a small, half-hour show called "Looking." It's about three gay men living in San Francisco. It's not "Girls." It's not "Queer as Folk." It's not "Sex and the City." It feels like the first show I'm watching as a gay man where I'm fully emotionally engaged; not cringing, not waiting for the punchline. It's not about dealing with being gay; it's about living your life fully, and so in that way, it feels very fresh.

Andrew Haigh, who's directing and executive producing it, made one of my favorite films, a small film called "Weekend." He's a brilliant filmmaker. At this point, I've only seen the pilot and the scripts for the first season, but I'm so proud to be a part of it. I'm just so proud that it's going to be on.

So how does a smaller show like "Looking" or comedies like the recent "Family Tree" or "Hello Ladies" that you aren't expecting to garner multiple-millions of viewers get a second season? 

What I'm learning is that shows have to be built economically. With "Looking," we all agreed early on that this was going to be a lower budget show; that we would shoot it, write it, conceive of it in a way that made it very cost-effective; so that what it's delivering was never taking a big piece of our budget. 

We look at: How passionate is the engagement [with the show]? How consistent is the viewing? Does the viewing go up episode-to-episode? What's the social network response to it? Are people talking about it? Is it being written about? The good and bad about my job is that there's no one criteria in which to assess whether to pick-up a show. It's not just ratings. It's not just mentions in the New York Times. It's not just awards. In the end, it's all of those things.

At the end of the day, we're still in the old fashioned business of sitting down with a creator and asking, "What would your next season be?" and seeing if there's a real reason to come back. With a show like "Girls" even, every year Lena [Dunham] has passion about where she wants to take her characters the next season. That's the most compelling thing for us. A passionate vision, and you have us. We're following.


This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Interviews, Michael Lombardo, Network Interviews, HBO , Steven Soderbergh, Cinemax, The Knick, True Detective, Looking





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