Despite ups and downs, HBO sets standard

IN BASEBALL TERMS, think of HBO like the New York Yankees: While it’s always fashionable to badmouth them, they set the standard to which others aspire.

Contemplating HBO’s place in TV’s perennial pennant race seems timely, what with the pay channel occupying a larger-than-usual role in other networks’ fortunes as cablers present lineups to the TV Critics Assn. this week, followed by another Golden Globes Awards where — increased competition notwithstanding — the Time Warner-owned network invariably garners the most nominations and, not incidentally, throws the ritziest parties.

There’s no arguing HBO has felt its collar tighten somewhat, struggling to develop another hit remotely approaching the commercial appeal of “The Sopranos” or “Sex and the City” and grimacing while channels like Showtime and FX yip at its prestige-hungry heels — the former making inroads with “Dexter” and “Weeds.”

Take a step back, though, and HBO continues to deliver an enviable array of quality series, with two of the more brilliant and unsung, “Extras” and “Rome,” returning Sunday. That follows, in just the past year, a season of “The Wire” that merits knighthood for show creator David Simon, “Deadwood,” “Big Love,” 310-area code darling “Entourage,” powerful documentaries like “Baghdad ER” and “When the Levees Broke,” and the glorious miniseries “Elizabeth I,” all establishing HBO as a repository of much of TV’s finest.

SO WHY THE ELEVATED critical carping — the glee in dismissing a subpar year of “Sopranos” and savaging the sitcom flop “Lucky Louie”? Because past performance rightfully raised expectations, and HBO has experienced notable misfires, including “Louie,” Lisa Kudrow vehicle “The Comeback,” and anything that featured comic Dane Cook. It’s always comforting to see the mighty brought down a peg or two.

Viewed in a larger context, however, there’s at least logic behind those failures, in part because the comedy genre cries out for risk-taking given the shortage of breakthroughs.

Clearly, HBO faces pressure to restock a thinning cupboard, especially if the channel is going to peddle edited versions of “Sopranos” and “The Wire” to A&E and BET, respectively, sacrificing its exclusive claim to those signature offerings, just as “Sex and the City” has become a TBS mainstay. Moreover, flat subscriber levels make the need for fresh blood more than an academic exercise.

As with the Yankees, signs of faltering will surely yield howls from the cheap seats, and HBO must ante up for new heavy hitters to renew its winning ways. Then again, as “Rome” reminds us, such is the price of empire.

STAR TOUR: When David Gerber pitched a show at the networks back in the day, he would arrive early so he could chat with every assistant and secretary in the place. Barry Diller dubbed the one-man show “Gerberama.”

“You never know,” Gerber would say, “that kid could end up running the network.”

If only to endorse the wisdom of polishing the totem pole from the bottom up, then, it’s nice to note that Gerber — the veteran producer and executive associated with shows ranging from “Police Story” to “thirtysomething” to last year’s Emmy-nominated A&E movie “Flight 93” — will receive a star Thursday on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have a longstanding soft spot for Gerber, probably in my head. On that score I’m in extremely good company, joined by News Corp. chief operating officer Peter Chernin and former CBS Entertainment chief Jeff Sagansky, who cut their creative teeth as co-heads of development for him.Chernin and Sagansky recently threw their old boss a surprise birthday party, which represents an act of considerable faith inasmuch as Gerber — who served in the military during World War II — cops to a date of birth, but not a year.

After writing about Gerber in 2001, one fact that became apparent is that virtually anybody who has ever known him has an anecdote to share, further evidence of a unique and colorful figure that has somehow stayed active in TV from its early days until now.

Indulge me, then, in speaking for secretaries and assistants everywhere by extending Gerber congratulations. Anyone who has seen TV through the wonders of “Gerberama” will doubtless enjoy stepping all over him.

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