HBO announces series pickups

'Blood,' 'Entourage,' 'Hung' renewed

HBO performed a hat trick Thursday afternoon, picking up all three series currently on the air — “True Blood,” “Entourage” and frosh skein “Hung” — for another year.

“The size of these shows have broken into the popular culture in a way we haven’t seen in a while,” said HBO co-president Richard Plepler.

Plepler and HBO West Coast Operations/programming group prexy Michael Lombardo announced the orders at the start of the pay cabler’s portion of the TV Critics Assn. press tour.

News repped the latest example of how HBO has managed to get its groove back in recent months. Plepler and Lombardo admitted the channel went through a rough patch in recent years, and not just because smash series like “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” had ended their runs.

The sudden departure of longtime HBO leader Chris Albrecht (under controversial circumstances) forced a change at the top that took some time to get used to, Plepler and Lombardo said.

“Two years ago it was about us being new in the jobs,” Lombardo said. “It was a very sudden and dramatic transition at HBO in terms of programming executives. And we were the newbies. It was tough. It was a much more stressful (TCA press tour) session for us two years ago.”

Plepler said the channel had to sit down and figure out “what defines the brand, what defines success for us and (open) the doors to as much talent out there as we possibly could. We’re obviously very pleased with the results.”

The duo said HBO has managed to so far be recession-proof, as viewers opt to save money by staying home and watching TV. According to them, subscriptions have not been hurt by the economic downturn.

“‘Resilient’ is the way I’d describe how the business has held up,” Plepler said. “What we have seen, people are cocooning, they are staying home. All our viewership is up across all categories. We provide a pretty good value.”

Lombardo said that doesn’t mean the channel suddenly has more money to play with, nor will it beincreasing its original programming budget — “We work within pretty steady guidelines every year,” he said. But Plepler said the cabler still has “an enviable amount of money to do the kind of projects we want to do.”

Among programs on the docket next year is HBO’s long-awaited Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks longform “The Pacific,” which they said would bow in early to mid-March. “The Pacific” will also be used to help launch the New Orleans-based drama “Treme,” from “The Wire’s” David Simon, in April.

Net could also have the Martin Scorsese entry “Boardwalk Empire,” which is expected to be picked up, on tap for next year.

Up in the air is a third season of the Emmy-nominated “Flight of the Conchords,” but only because series stars Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie haven’t yet committed to another year.

“When they’re ready, we’re ready,” Plepler said. “They have the added challenge of writing an album. It’s double pressure. We’re waiting, and as soon as they tell us they’re ready, we’d be thrilled.”

HBO is also still mulling whether to pick up a third season of “In Treatment.” Lombardo noted that the Israeli show from which “In Treatment” is based only ran for two seasons — which means the show would have to write new scripts from scratch.

“But I think Gabriel (Byrne) is interested in doing it again,” he said.

The channel is also looking right now at new episodes of “The Life and Times of Tim,” and is considering pairing it with the upcoming animated series from Ricky Gervais (Daily Variety, May 18).

As for former topper Albrecht, who’s developing a drama at rival Starz, Plepler said HBO is talking to him about a project as well.

“Our doors are wide open to Chris,” Plepler said. “He’s a producer and should go where the work is, and if he has something he should come to us.”

“True Blood” comes from creator Alan Ball, who exec produces with Gregg Fienberg. Dmitry Lipkin and Colette Burson created “Hung” and exec produce with Alexander Payne, Michael Rosenberg, John Morayniss and Noreen Halpern. “Entourage” was created by Doug Ellin, who exec produces with Mark Wahlerg, Stephen Levinson, Denis Biggs, Rob Weiss and Ally Musika.

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