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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

How HBO Has Stayed on Top of the Game by Embracing Stories With Endings and Making Sunday the Best TV Night of the Week

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

In addition to original series, HBO still makes feature-length scripted and documentary movies, miniseries, sports docs as well as other original content. You have strong teams overseeing each of those areas, so how much direct attention do you personally provide once a show receives the greenlight?

It really depends on the show and my relationship with the creator. There are times where I’ve developed a particularly close connection with the creator, and I tend to stay more involved because a trust has developed. In that case, I tend to stay involved in the first year of a series; beyond that, I think it’s probably not the most effective use of my time. I try to spend my time where I think I’m value-added.

Your path to overseeing programming was unorthodox compared to most programming heads. Did you always have an interest in the creative side of things, and how do you believe your business affairs background serves you in this position?

I think people go down paths somewhat dependent on parental expectations and their own insecurities, but there’s a reason I wound up doing business affairs at an entertainment company instead of being a corporate lawyer on Wall Street. I’ve always been passionate about content. I can only say this in hindsight because when I took this position I had no clue, but I do feel that my prior training equipped me to listen, which I really believe is the most critical skill for anybody in this kind of job at a studio or network. I don’t mean that lightly. As a business affairs executive — someone who worked side-by-side with creative people and talked to producers about budgets — I was a really active listener. That’s critical when you’re dealing with talent. Asking the right questions is also a part of that. 

I’ve grown up at HBO, and a little bit of fearlessness is in the DNA here and has become part of me. I think you’ve got to have that for these jobs. The minute I start worrying about ratings, about a New York Times review or about what my husband’s going to think about a show, I’m lost.

Feature-length scripted movies were a primary focus of HBO’s original programming strategy throughout the 1990s and into the first half of the 2000s. Now, you still produce several original movies each year, but they’ve taken a backseat to series. How and why is it important for HBO to continue making scripted feature-length movies?

I’ve actually been thinking a lot about that lately and talked to Len Amato [President, HBO Films} about it too. Historically, movies were our bread-and-butter. They were our sexiest, noisiest form of original programming. We used to do somewhere between eight and 12 a year; we’re now doing four a year, plus a miniseries here and there.

Every once in a while there’s a “Behind the Candelabra,” which just works on every level for us. It’s beautifully done; it gets a lot of buzz in the press; and it gets an enormous response from our viewership. We obviously can’t program for that, and I don’t ever want to feel like we’re making movies just to make movies. I don’t want to just to satisfy timeslots because then we’re programming for mediocrity

Historically we tended to do docudramas so that we might get some ink outside the entertainment pages because we do not have the budget to market just one film. In the noise out there, to get people to pay attention to just one movie is really challenging for us. With a series, we’re marketing over a number of weeks; movies, we’re driving people to one night. 

Larry David’s movie [“Clear History”] obviously wasn’t fact-based. We’re almost done shooting “The Normal Heart” [adapted from Larry Kramer’s 1985 play about the rise of the AIDS crisis, which also won the 2011 Tony for “Best Revival of a Play”] with Ryan Murphy directing. When Ryan came in to talk and mentioned this, to me it was a no brainer. That’s a movie that needs to get made. It’s been out there in the studio world for over 20 years, and this is the moment to tell that story. 

I don’t think we ever want to be out of the two-hour business. We’re trying a lot of different things: higher budgets, lower budgets — we’re playing around.. The stories I hear about the amount of time and energy it takes to put together financing for low-budget, independent films are really depressing. So we’re looking at projects that we wouldn’t have looked at a while ago.

Since you just mentioned “Behind the Candelabra,” Steven Soderbergh is directing the 10-hour series “The Knick” for Cinemax and not HBO. What is the overall strategy for Cinemax?

A few years ago, our sales people reported that they were having a hard time discussing Cinemax with the affiliates [cable, satellite and other distribution providers]. Cinemax was the only subscription pay service that had no branded content. People were watching it, and it was doing quite well for us, but historically Cinemax had been taking the film inventory and rescheduling and repackaging it, almost exclusively being a film service. So we thought about how we could quickly and inexpensively jump into original programming for Cinemax, and what should that be?

We looked around at what was going on [at other networks], and we looked at what films were really doing well on Cinemax as opposed to on HBO, and they were action genre. The number one film on Cinemax was “The Transporter.” We couldn’t air it enough. So we thought, let’s lean in to that. It also was a genre that had coproduction opportunities. BSkyB was looking for a coproduction partner for “Strike Back,” and we jumped in. We adapted the show a little — brought in an American protagonist — and it worked really well. We’re talking about doing our fourth season now. 

We tried a show called “Hunted,” another similar coproduction, this time with the BBC. We started to tell people about this direction for the channel, pitches started to come in, and we developed and produced “Banshee” in-house, which will be premiering its second season [in 2014]. I think every new series has helped the definition of the channel evolve. We wanted to give Cinemax its own identity, not to make HBO-lite.

So how did “The Knick” wind-up on Cinemax, and how does it fit into Cinemax’s evolving identity?

We had finished “Behind the Candelabra,” and [Soderbergh] came in and said, “You know, I have an idea for a show. I have this great script. I’ve got Clive Owen. I want to direct everything, 10 episodes.” I did not have a need right then for 10 hours next year for HBO. But Steven Soderbergh is not only brilliant; he’s iconoclastic. He asked, “What are you doing over there at Cinemax? I want to be part of that.” It was the right moment for Cinemax: we had a hole, we had a need, and it will clearly be a moment where you have to pay attention to Cinemax.

The Cinemax brand is growing and evolving with the shows that present themselves. “The Knick” is a slight deviation: It’s not action at all, but it is propulsive show. It has an incredible male lead and a fair amount of grit and blood. “The Knick” is the first show that will be on Cinemax with a version that could absolutely be on HBO, and I think we have to be careful of that. The idea is not to have Cinemax cannibalize HBO. It is a very comfortable second pay service to HBO, so it’s something we’re mindful of. 

I don’t think we’re going to have a slate of “Knick”s. We just shot [“Quarry”], a pilot that John Hillcoat directed that’s about a hitman [based on the Max Allan Collins series of novels]. It’s really good, but it’s not in “The Knick” frame; it’s a little more action. But it feels like that service is growing up and quickly.

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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