She’s back! Last week, HBO announced that the woman who helped it tap into — hell, create —the zeitgeist with Sex and the City is poised to stage a triumphant return to the network. Only this time, Sarah Jessica Parker will produce, not star in, various projects. With any luck, Parker’s charm will brighten the pay cabler’s increasingly unclear forecast. Faced with the absence of Sex, the coming final season of Six Feet Under, and the looming end of The Sopranos, HBO is now being judged more for what it doesn’t have than what it does.
In the last five years alone, HBO’s innovative series and telepics (including Band of Brothers and Angels in America) have helped earn the 33-year-old network 110 Emmys — 24 more than NBC and 23 more than CBS and ABC combined. But for the first time since 1999, the season’s most talked-about shows — Lost and Desperate Housewives — are not on HBO (the net nixed an early pitch for Housewives). Carnivàle‘s a snore, The Wire‘s plotlines scare off new viewers, and Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage are critically beloved shows that few people watch. Deadwood gets decent ratings (3.1 million viewers), but it won’t likely spark national conversations the way Sex did. Meanwhile, cablers like Showtime and FX are earning HBO-style buzz with Fat Actress and Nip/Tuck, respectively. No wonder rumors persist that HBO is negotiating for a seventh season of The Sopranos.
”The level of expectation from the outside can mean things get judged more harshly than in the past,” says HBO chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht. ”You’re awed by what’s been accomplished and maybe it makes you a little tentative. Do [we] take that into consideration or do we keep doing what we were doing?”
What they’re doing has worked incredibly well financially. Last year, HBO exceeded $1 billion in profits and is, according to Variety, the first net — cable or broadcast — to do so. Subscriptions are still the channel’s bread and butter, but they have limited growth potential. Maintaining and surpassing this level of profitability depends largely on having a steady pipeline of programs to sell internationally, on DVD, and into syndication and on retaining customers with the help of HBO On Demand. So far none of the most recent series show signs of Sopranos-level life beyond HBO. A problem today? Not really. Five years from now? Possibly.
The very way HBO does business could be hindering its search for the next hit. Sure, the net’s insistence on owning its shows can yield huge back-end profits, but that means it rarely deals with outside TV studios that might harbor the next great idea. And unlike the broadcast nets, which are willing to pay six figures for a hot new script, HBO is known for topping out around $75,000.
But ultimately, HBO can offer what the broadcasters can’t: the chance to make fewer episodes over a longer period of time. And when the series are completed, ”HBO makes the shows feel and look special,” says UTA partner Martin Lesak. ”They are the best marketers in the business.” Which is why they just might remain on top. ”Do they have to come up with a hit every day or week? No,” says Wall Street entertainment analyst Dennis B. McAlpine. ”If they go through several Emmy years without a big onslaught, then maybe they’ll start looking like the other networks. But they can come up with another hit very quickly. It only takes one.”