Cabler's success rate reaches new highs following 2008

“True Blood” is driving the turnaround of HBO’s fortunes in more ways than one.

The vampire drama, which was picked up for a fourth season on Monday, has become a merchandising juggernaut for the pay cabler, which is marketing everything from Tru Blood-branded soft drinks to comicbooks, set for release in a few weeks at the upcoming Comic-Con gathering in San Diego. The fizzy blood orange soda has become a sensation with fans of the skein.

The licensing program for the show was stepped up considerably in advance of this season after HBO saw strong demand for all manner of “True Blood” tchotchkes. “True Blood” items have dovetailed with the success of “Twilight”-themed merchandise, which have been big movers at specialty retailers such as teen-focused Hot Topic stores.

On the music side, HBO partnered with Elektra Records for the second “True Blood” soundtrack, which bowed in May. Beck, Elvis Costello and Lucinda Williams all contributed exclusive songs.

Two weeks prior to the show’s third-season bow on June 13, HBO hosted midnight screenings with recaps from season two, a teaser of season three and a live Q&A with members of the cast and creator Alan Ball to create even more fan interest.

And merchandise sales are the icing on the cake compared to the coin coming in from “True Blood” DVD sales. The show’s first-season set was the highest-selling TV series on DVD in 2009, generating an estimated $61 million in sales (not including Blu-ray sales), according to DVD sales tracker Nash Information Services. Season two is outpacing season one sales by 77% in its first month, according to HBO.

“This is a show that people are becoming emotionally involved with,” programming topper Michael Lombardo told Daily Variety. “When fans are like that, it’s really powerful. Creatively, we’re inspired to do stuff like this in terms of branding and what fans want to touch. There’s a desire for more news about the show.”

With the fourth-season pickup, “True Blood” will go back into production on 12 segs early next year for a summer debut, with Ball and Gregg Fienberg as exec producers. Show’s third season bowed to 5.1 million viewers, a 38% spike over its season-two preem.

“True Blood” was a game-changer for HBO from the start in September 2008 (its preem was actually delayed nearly a year because of the WGA strike in late 2007-early 2008).

After a run of original hits like “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City” and Ball’s own “Six Feet Under,” HBO hit a slump in 2007, with “John From Cincinnati,” “Tell Me You Love Me” and sitcom “Lucky Louie” all quickly getting axed. The pay cabler also took a PR hit as a haven for distinctive TV when cult-fave “Deadwood” was yanked after its third season without a proper conclusion.

Questions were raised about HBO’s focus when it pulled the plug on Lily Tomlin starrer “12 Miles of Bad Road” after six episodes were already in the can.

Furthermore, HBO underwent a major management change around this time as Chris Albrecht abruptly departed as chairman and CEO and Carolyn Strauss stepped down as head of series programming. “True Blood” was the first project greenlighted for series production by Richard Plepler and Michael Lombardo, who were upped to HBO co-prexy and prexy of programming, respectively, in the 2007 exec shuffle.

Since “True Blood,” HBO has had traction with skeins including “In Treatment,” “Hung,” “Eastbound & Down,” “The Ricky Gervais Show” and, most recently, “Treme.” The New Orleans-set drama from “The Wire” creator David Simon has drawn critical raves and wrapped its first season this past Sunday night.

HBO’s batting average is not perfect, of course. Its one-season-and-out misses include “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” “Summer Heights High” and “Little Britain.”

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