Terence Winter was determined to bet big on Atlantic City or go home.
His plan for a Prohibition-era mob drama for HBO was wildly ambitious, requiring both serious coin and painstaking attention to period detail, right down to a 300-foot-long boardwalk he wanted to build from scratch as part of the show’s set. Before pitching his vision to the premium cable network’s execs, Winter — one of the Emmy-winning writer-producers behind “The Sopranos” — braced himself for the worst.
“Even after 10 years with HBO, I felt this is going to be a no,” he recalls. “It was going to be too big or too daunting. I thought they would say, ‘We don’t know that we can really pull this off.’?”
Instead, HBO gambled on “Boardwalk Empire,” investing a reported $65 million for the pilot and 12-episode first season, and hit the jackpot. Since its Sept. 19 premiere, the sweeping period drama, which also boasts Martin Scorsese among its pedigreed set of exec producers, has garnered near-universal critical acclaim and triumphed in viewership. (Its first episode was the most-watched debut on the pay cabler since “Deadwood” in 2004 and has, to date, been seen by more than 14 million viewers.)
More importantly, the series, which quickly locked up an order for a second season the day after the premiere, has proven that HBO is still capable of wowing auds with the sort of lavish, provocative big productions that were once the series’ division’s signature.
That’s undoubtedly good news for the net, which, after a well-documented fallow period post-“Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos,” is in the midst of a fertile programming period.
Vampire drama “True Blood” is a buzzworthy smash, not only taking a bite out of the ratings but permeating pop culture so pervasively that it’s inspired everything from a “Sesame Street” tribute to an X-rated parody. What’s more, HBO currently boasts a diverse slate of well-received series, from relative newcomers such as “Treme,” “Eastbound & Down,” “Bored to Death,” “How to Make It in America” and “Hung” to veteran Golden Globe and Emmy winners and nominees including “Entourage,” “Big Love,” “In Treatment,” “Real Time With Bill Maher” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
They’ve even gotten into the toon business, recently ordering a third season of “The Life and Times of Tim” as well as prepping for season two of “The Ricky Gervais Show,” based on the Brit comedian’s widely popular podcasts.
“We’re proud of the work that we’re doing,” says HBO president of entertainment Sue Naegle. “It’s an exciting time for television, and I feel like we’re right in it, taking risks and making great shows.”
Choosing which shows to put on the air inevitably begins with what’s on the page.
“We look for strong material,” Naegle explains, adding that without intense ratings pressure or advertiser appeasement that the broadcast networks must contend with, “we don’t develop for certain demographics, but we feel when we look at our schedule, there’s a little something for everyone.”
One HBO series hallmark is certainly material that delves deeply into worlds not often seen on the smallscreen, whether it’s the booze-soaked infancy of organized crime in the ’20s with “Boardwalk” or the modern-day exploration of suburban prostitution in “Hung.”
“We want to give our viewers an experience they can’t get anywhere else, because they’re paying for our service,” Naegle says. “We want that experience to be beautiful and cinematic. It’s very important to us that our shows have high production value, as well as great actors and (top-tier talent) across the board.”
The net’s belief in and fierce commitment to its creative community is paramount to success, say the writers and producers who work there.
“Their confidence in you makes you want to do a better job,” says Winter. “It makes you want to really push the envelope and deliver something special because you’re backed by a team that is so supportive creatively. That’s not to say they don’t ask questions and want to hear your thought process, but they respect it, and that’s a lot more than you can say for other places.”
“True Blood” creator Alan Ball, who was previously responsible for the cabler mortuary hit “Six Feet Under,” echoes the thought.
“I haven’t worked at the broadcast networks in 10 years but when I did, I felt like nobody trusted me,” he says. “It was like, ‘Yeah, we love you and your voice. OK, we think maybe you should go this direction instead.’ At HBO, they trust us as storytellers to know what we’re doing.”
That’s not just hyperbole. Naegle and her fellow executives — co-president Richard Plepler and programming president Michael Lombardo — have been known to go to unusual lengths to support a producer’s vision.
Take, for example, David Simon’s pilot script for “Treme,” which arrived accompanied by a burned CD of the music he planned to use onscreen and which he asked the execs to listen to while reading his script. The reasoning was simple, says Simon, who also created “The Wire,” one of HBO’s (and television’s) most respected series ever.
“To read it on the page is almost not the point of ‘Treme,’ which is sort of an immersive cultural experience,” Simon explains.
It took some prodding but the execs did as Simon requested. “I didn’t think that was that crazy,” he says with a laugh, “but they were cracking up. To their credit, though, they put up with it.”
HBO’s esteemed reputation within the creative community is reflected in the high number of producers who opt to do repeat business there. When not at his movie-star day job, Mark Wahlberg is serving as an exec producer on a number of HBO shows, including “Boardwalk,” “In Treatment” and the semi-autobiographical “Entourage.” He’s also been known to refer his influential friends.
“Marty (Scorsese) was kind of on the fence about doing television,” Wahlberg reports of the auteur he recruited for “Boardwalk” after working together on the Oscar-winning film “The Departed.” “I said, ‘Marty, you’ll never be happier. You’ll want to do everything that you do with them.’ And he called me in the middle of production (on the “Boardwalk” pilot, which Scorsese directed) and was like, ‘I’m so happy I did this. I feel like I’m back in the ’70s doing my own thing. Nobody’s bothering me and if I need something, I have the whole organization behind me.'”
While many of the risks HBO has taken have paid off, there have also, inevitably, been disappointments along the way. But, according to Naegle, the misfires have hardly made the net gun-shy.
“No one turns to David Milch and says, ‘Wow, “John From Cincinnati” really didn’t work, therefore, you’ve gotta do X, Y and Z,'” she says. “I’m not revisiting (that short-lived series) with David. I’m about helping him to develop his show now.”
That show, “Luck” — about the inner-workings of the horse-racing industry — is just one of the promising projects HBO has in the pipeline. Next year, the net will debut of “Enlightened,” a half-hour single-camera comedy from Mike White starring Laura Dern, as well as the highly anticipated fantasy drama “Game of Thrones,” based on the beloved George R. R. Martin novels, from producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss.
Clearly, HBO is continuing to aim high in the future. Its execs don’t believe in any other way.
“If our audience is happy, the critics are happy and we’re happy, that’s a recipe for success,” Naegle says.