HBO is pondering a post-“Game of Thrones” universe, but it’s been here before. Of course, the TV landscape is a lot more competitive than it was when “The Sopranos” ended a decade ago and left the network hunting for a new hit. But HBO is also much bigger than it was in 2007, with a deeper bench of content and a thriving digital service. That’s why HBO still at the top of its game, despite being beset on all sides by an ever-increasing TV landscape that includes some serious competition from streaming platforms.
In 2017, HBO continued to dominate in ratings and awards, putting its faith in delivering quality shows that have household name recognition as well as critical appeal. In 2018, “Game of Thrones” will likely be on hiatus, but the pay cabler has plenty of fare to fill the void until the final season of George R.R. Martin’s epic series returns in 2019.
In a very noisy year in which politics reared its bombastic head, the #MeToo movement woke up the entertainment industry, and hackers infiltrated every space imaginable, the business of TV became more chaotic than usual. To help distill the state of television, IndieWire kicks off the new year by examining how the top premium and streaming services fared in 2017, in addition to eyeing what’s next in 2018 and beyond. Here’s the state of HBO as the new year unfurls.
When HBO launched its standalone streaming service HBO Now in 2015, CEO Richard Plepler pooh-poohed the idea of following the Netflix model and releasing all first-run episodes of a season at once. “I don’t think it would have been a great thing for HBO or our brand if that had been gobbled up in the first week,” he said, according to Consumerist. “I think it was very exciting for the viewer to have that mystery held out for an extended period of time.”
Instead of bingeing, HBO has stood behind branding, and that goes beyond its iconic opener with static and that harmonious chord. “In this era of expanded content production, where you have 500 series of scripted fare being produced in the U.S. alone, brands matter more than ever,” Plepler said, according to Variety. “What you want is a transcendent brand, which we obviously believe HBO is.”
Racking up critical acclaim and lots of statuettes doesn’t hurt either, and because of this, viewers aren’t the only ones who are drawn to the HBO brand. “Big Little Lies” had the whiff of awards and prestige all over it from the start thanks to names like Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, and Jean-Marc Vallée. The network continues to attract greats like Steven Soderbergh, David Simon, Alan Ball, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Sarah Jessica Parker, Anna Deavere Smith, and Holly Hunter, to name just a few.
At the Television Critics Association summer press tour last year, HBO programming chief Casey Bloys said, “I think that brand name and how we treat talent and how we launch shows… makes our place in the television ecosphere feel pretty good to me. I like our hand. I like where we are.”
Overall Hits and Misses
A year with a new season of “Game of Thrones” would’ve been enough to keep HBO in the game in 2017. Not only has it been a staple of the cultural conversation since its first season – and its stars’ real-life adventures have also infiltrated the news – it continued to break records even with hackers and snafus causing episodes to be leaked early.
Meanwhile, mainstays such as “Veep,” “Last Week Tonight,” and “Silicon Valley” continued to perform well, while the returning “Insecure” received even more acclaim in its second season. Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” also returned after a six-year hiatus to much fanfare and a pretty, pretty good critical reception.
In addition, HBO introduced several new shows, among which “Westworld” and “Big Little Lies” captured viewers’ attention. While the former delivered epic world-building on a “Game of Thrones” scale with stellar performances to match, the latter became the start of a cultural anthem for women in 2017 who were done with covering up abuse and mistreatment by men. “The Deuce” was also critically lauded and went on to get a second season order.
Not drawing quite that much attention were Pete Holmes’ semi-autobiographical “Crashing” and the Duplass Brothers’ ambitious anthology series “Room 104,” both of which earned renewals. “The Young Pope,” an Italian co-production by Paolo Sorrentino, left many viewers befuddled and therefore had a far more modest impact, but the series did inspire a sequel series, slated for whenever Sorrentino is done with his latest films.
The network also bid adieu to “Vice Principals” with little fanfare as well as much more attention to IndieWire’s No. 1 TV show of 2017, “The Leftovers” and Lena Dunham’s “Girls.”
HBO tends to stick to original programming when it comes to series, although its daily programming are theatrically released feature films. In a move worthy of a championship Quidditch captain, the network recently offered up all eight “Harry Potter” films for streaming.
In 2017, HBO got tipped off by “Game of Thrones” star Kit Harington that he was filming BBC One’s three-part miniseries “Gunpowder,” which the network snapped up for some unusual holiday programming.
The Awards Factor
The juggernaut hasn’t stopped yet. HBO had the most nominations of any network for the 17th year in a row in 2017 and nabbed the most wins also: 29 compared to runner-up Netflix’s 20.
“Game of Thrones” was out of the running in 2017 due to its late premiere date, but this means that it’s eligible for this year’s awards — which should keep the show uppermost in the hearts and minds of viewers as part of ramping up for the final season.
Despite the absence of Westerosi, “Big Little Lies” stepped forward to be the big winner, earning eight Emmys for outstanding limited series, as well as directing, casting, costuming, and music supervision, and acting wins for Nicole Kidman, Alexander Skarsgard, and Laura Dern. Other big winners for HBO included “Last Week Tonight,” “Westworld,” “Veep,” and “The Night Of.”
Key Programming for 2018
Breaking tradition for the first time since 2011, HBO looks like it won’t be airing “Game of Thrones” in 2018 unless a production miracle is achieved. But since Season 8 will be the final season of the epic series, this could be a wily tactic to draw out interest.
Meanwhile, HBO subscribers can look forward to returning favorites such as the highly anticipated second season of “Westworld,” in addition to “Insecure,” “Silicon Valley,” “Divorce,” “Ballers,” and “Last Week Tonight.”
IndieWire TV Critic Ben Travers broke down in detail every new show that will be coming to HBO this year, including returning series. The following are some of the buzziest newcomers:
”Mosaic”: Steven Soderbergh’s choose-your-own-adventure storytelling app comes to the small screen in miniseries form starring Sharon Stone, Garrett Hedlund, Beau Bridges.
”Here and Now”: Alan Ball’s darkly comic series starring Holly Hunter and Tim Robbins will explore two American families in today’s culture.
”Barry”: Bill Hader is a hitman who gets the acting bug in this half-hour comedy.
”Succession”: Jesse Armstrong’s drama about a family’s media conglomerate stars Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, and Sarah Snook.
”Fahrenheit 451”: Michael B. Jordan, Michael Shannon, and Sofia Boutella star in this adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel by Ramin Bahrani.
”Sharp Objects”: This adaptation of “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn’s novel about a crime reporter released from a psychiatric hospital who investigates the murder of two young girls is directed by Jean-Marc Vallee and stars Amy Adams, Patricia Clarkson, and Chris Messina.
The Aftermath of 2017 Scandals
HBO wasn’t hit quite as hard as other networks or platforms when it came to execs or talent being accused of sexual misconduct, although it was swift to yank Louis C.K. from participating in its “Night of Too Many Stars: America Unites for Autism Programs” special and removed his past projects from its on-demand services.
Plepler also addressed how uncovering so many sexual harassment and abuse allegations will change the industry. ”If there’s a silver lining in any of this, it’s that it will be a demarcation point for zero tolerance for willful ignorance or turning a blind eye to questionable activities,” he said in a Bloomberg interview. “That’s a good thing… I’m proud to say that under my tenure, my predecessor Bill Nelson’s tenure, it’s been zero tolerance, nothing but zero tolerance.”
HBO isn’t slowing down creating top-tier content in the near future with the end of “Game of Thrones,” a third season of “True Detective,” the return of “Big Little Lies,” the Jared Harris-starring miniseries “Chernobyl,” and “Veep’s” final season all on the horizon. More nebulous are timetables for Paolo Sorrentino’s “The New Pope,” Damon Lindelof’s “Watchmen” adaptation, an eight-episode order of the adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend,” and Sally Wainwright’s “Gentleman Jack” with BBC One.
Looking ahead to the post-“Game of Thrones” era, HBO is hoping that the Night King’s spear strikes true again by developing several spinoffs on the chance that one or more would appeal. The network also caused controversy last year by announcing that “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss were developing “Confederate,” a new series for the network that is set in an alternate history in which the Civil War ends in a stalemate with the South successfully seceding from the Union and keeping slavery legal.
Although HBO is rightly focused on riding that “Game of Thrones” loot train as far as the dragons will allow, the network is also looking to diversify a bit. Bloys said at TCA, “What you’ll see over the next year, is we’ll have family shows, we’ll have tentpole shows, we’ll have genre shows. I’m trying to get high-quality dramas in a lot of with a lot of different feels to them a lot of different genres and sizes also. I think, for a little while, we were only looking at what’s the next huge tentpole, which is important and I get, but I also want to have smaller shows or family shows or shows that are not designed to be the next ‘Game of Thrones.’
2017 Primetime Ratings: 726,000 viewers (up 7 percent from 2016) — No. 34 among all TV networks
2017 Subscribers: Approximately 50 million subscribers in the U.S. and 134 million worldwide
2017 Emmys: 111 nominations, 29 wins