'Boardwalk' gamble paid off in big ways

Whether the criteria is ratings, Emmys or buzz, HBO had a big year. “True Blood” continued to draw bigger audiences, “Boardwalk Empre” was one of the most critically applauded shows to launch in years, the cabler grabbed more Emmys than any other network and the future includes new projects from David Milch and Michael Mann, as well as the highly anticipated fantasy series “Game of “Thrones.”

Stuart Levine, Variety’s assistant managing editor for features, chatted with co-president Richard Plepler and programming president Michael Lombardo to discuss what went right, their concerns going forward and the decisions that keep them up at night.

What pleased you most this year?

Michael Lombardo: I think the most exciting thing is that people are not just talking about one show. You can never predict how any specific show is going to land, but I’m feeling that there’s an excitement about a number of programs on the air.

Richard Plepler: I think that’s perfectly said, and I would add that we have excitement across of a lot of different categories. So “Eastbound & Down” is addictive for millions of people in our audience, and for them that’s the new big show. For other people, it’s “True Blood”; for others, it’s “In Treatment” and for other people, it’s “Boardwalk Empire.” So to have that kind of passion engagement across so many different shows with our audience, that’s building the kind of creative force we’ve strived toward from the beginning.

Was there concern about whether “Boardwalk Empire’s” would succeed, given that it cost so much and Steve Buscemi is so largely known for his character work and not as a lead?

ML: Certainly not the latter. Can we be honest? There’s always a certain amount of anxiety about whether the show will turn out as good as you hope it does. But in this case, when we had Marty Scorsese and Terry Winter at the helm, it was, I have to tell you, this wasn’t the one that caused us any upset stomachs. From the get-go, we knew that they knew exactly what they were going for. They had a very clear vision. Every page of the script we saw was right on in terms of what they had promised us, and every piece of film we saw was better than they had promised us.

Is renewing a show for a second season right after its pilot, as you did with “Boardwalk Empire” and “Treme,” something you want to do more of in the future?

ML: I think there are two things going on. One is we had seen the shows, and if we’re true to what we say we are, which is “It’s not all about ratings,” the quality was there. We knew that those shows — in terms of delivering on what they promised us — deserved another year. If they couldn’t find their audience in the first year, they deserved a second year because they were going to find an audience. And the second thing, for shows that require an enormous writing period, we absolutely are committed to bring them back within a 12-month period as opposed to what was going on here about a number of years ago when we were having 18-month hiatuses between shows, even two-year hiatuses. We are very mindful of the viewer response, but we do believe that a good show will grow in support over time, that people will find quality, and we wanted to get the writers back in the room. It was a combination of those factors that led us to make those decisions very quickly.

RP: We also knew those shows were quintessentially on-brand to what we believe defines HBO programming. So, as Mike said, we had seen them all, we knew they were the essence of what we think HBO is, which is differentiation in quality. So it actually wasn’t a very complicated decision to do it that quickly.

Can you put the ratings numbers in perspective between a show that scores really high like “Boardwalk Empire” and a show that scores really low like “Treme”?

RP: “That’s a good question. The perfect match, obviously, is when you have something that is both critically acclaimed and does a large audience, but we are not parsing to say that if “Boardwalk” had done a lesser number that we somehow would’ve been disappointed with what is the promise of that show. We believe that if we continue to produce work that’s excellent across all of our different categories, that enhances the brand and, at the end of the day, what we’re doing is we are selling that brand to our customers. So, again, the ultimate metrics is quality, if that quality happens to also resonate with the popular culture, all the better.

Do you get subscription spikes during the launch of a new show or season?

ML: The truth of the matter is the spikes don’t happen. The truth of the matter is so much about our business is dependent on the marketing and positioning by the cable operators and satellite deliverers, that unless they’re offering an interesting pricing package in connection with the premiere of a show, it’s hard for us to move the subscriber dial on one show alone. I would say almost impossible.

RP: People used to ask incredulously, and still do, “Oh, are you saying when ‘True Blood’ airs, your subs don’t go up? Or when ‘Boardwalk’ is on they don’t go up? Or in the old days, ‘The Sopranos?’ ” The truth is, no.

So you’re not seeing any churning cycles?

ML: We always see churn. Churn exists all the time as people move. That happens. But what you don’t see is a spike in a period when one show is on, and it come down when that show is off. We believe it’s the combination of all of our programming — being of a high quality across all the genres that we play in — over time, that’s where the strength is, and that’s what we’ll read as a success. It’s not any one program.

What’s your most difficult these days?

ML: Honestly, and maybe this is a position we wouldn’t have been three years ago when we took this job, it’s saying no to projects that are really good, but we just don’t have the room for, or more importantly, we don’t need right now. That is the hardest part. Saying no to good material and good projects.

RP: It’s a high-class problem, but that is the most difficult thing. How do you say no to something that is differentiated, that is of high quality, but we just don’t have the real estate for it right now? That’s the toughest thing.

In the next year, you will have roughly 17 original series on the air. That’s a lot of bandwidth. Is there a limit to what you are capable of putting on the air in terms of marketing dollars spent and other promotion?

RP: It’s not only that, it’s simple real estate. We are there with 52 Sundays of programming, and that’s not including our movies, docs, miniseries, specials and Bill (Maher). We are there.

ML: Yeah, next year will be our first year that, I think, when we look at the schedule for what we’ve penciled in and we will have literally 52 Sundays of the year with an original series and, in the case of “Mildred Pierce,” miniseries blocks throughout the entire year.”

ML: “I think is the limitation for us — in the series business at least — is managing the Sunday night real estate. Again, will we ever go past the Sunday night? We’re absolutely thinking about it, talking about it, but right now the focus is on making sure we have strong, exciting, high-quality shows every Sunday night. That’s what we’re doing right now.

Several years back, you went to Monday night, right?

RP: We did that with “Big Love.” That was more a scheduling play than a real estate play. We would never say never but, as you point out correctly, at some point there may be a law of diminishing returns. Because we have original movies, 22 or 23 documentaries, miniseries and specials, we’re quite pregnant with quality stuff across a wide range of categories, so we’ll see. The door is hardly closed, though. We’re taking pitches.

ML: We need new shows. We’re still piloting, but we can’t pilot every script that’s being developed, and we’re not ordering every series in pilo
t. And unfortunately, we’re seeing some really interesting, good, high-quality work that we’re not able to proceed to pilot with, and that’s the hardest part, honestly.

What do you say to the critics who claim the last half of the Emmys became an infomercial for HBO?

ML: You know, I’m not sure who the critics were saying that. I think, from a viewer’s perspective, it was a moment where they probably had more movie stars on the screen than any other time during the hour. And I would ask anybody to challenge that the most emotional moment was Temple Grandin standing up. I understand that there are other networks who find it disturbing, but the show chose to put the movies and miniseries in that same segment back-to-back. Trust me, we don’t ask our talent to give us shout-outs. I’m sure there are networks that think that they’re giving time to an HBO commercial. I understand. The critics are not critical because it cuts into the quality of the show. They’re critical for a totally different reason, which I don’t understand.

RP: How can it be a bad thing for the show to have Al Pacino called onto stage talking about his work, or Claire Danes? I don’t understand — I truly don’t understand that.

ML: The show is really about honoring quality on television.

Now that the wheel deal is up, would HBO ever consider airing the Emmy broadcast?

ML: What was clear, I think, to us the last time we had this conversation with the Emmys committee was that they really want to be on a network that has the broadest possible distribution.

RP: One-hundred percent of television homes instead of 30.

ML: I don’t know the numbers at that point. We made a very competitive bid, and it was clear that that was not the issue. The issue was. . .

RP: . . .exposure.

ML: It’s not been a conversation this time around for us.

Are you concerned about “Game of Thrones,” considering that it’s a wholly new genre for you?

RP: I would just say this: While it is a different genre, the storytelling piece, meaning the themes that it takes up — power and strife and people vying for their piece of the crown, metaphorically — those are themes that have been all over the network for years. And David Benioff, who’s the creator, had a wonderful line at the very beginning of this project. He said, “You’ll quickly forget where you are, because the themes are universal.” Having read all the scripts, I think that’s absolutely true.

ML: At this point, we have not seen any cuts. All we have seen are dailies.

RP: And the pilot. It’s beautiful.

ML: So we’re excited and nervous as we would be with any new show. The fan base is a challenge because they love the books, and you really have to deliver a show that delivers on the expectations of that fan base. They follow every piece of casting news, but I think we’re going to do that.

RP: (Author) George R.R. Martin, who’s been on set and been a part of it, has been publicly very supportive of the care that the producers have taken in making sure that we deliver on that promise.

And sci-fi fans and fantasy who have been very satisfied with “True Blood” are probably willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.

ML: You know the interesting thing about this show is I am not a sci-fi fan, and this show really transcends the genre. When we first read the pilot script, there is nothing that really gives you a full hint of the magic in the Martin books. It’s a bunch of compelling and well-crafted stories. There are such interesting and complex characters that we were excited by the drama, not by the genre. I hope people don’t look at this as a genre play and refrain from taking a look at it, because I think it is much more than that.

RP: I think it’ll satisfy the passion of its natural fan base, but also intrigue and satisfy those people who might not typically be connected to the sci-fi genre. That would be fantastic for us, and I think that’s really likely.

When will the show premiere?

RP: Second quarter.

How are David Milch and Michael Mann working together on “Luck?”

ML: I will say they are working really well together. I think they learned a lot about each other during the pilot.

And Michael is involved with the whole series?

ML: Yes. He will be running the production on the show, the visual and production on the show, for the first season at least.

How far will it delve into the nuances of horse racing? Will the general public be able to pick it up immediately?

RP: Absolutely. It’s accessible to the non-horse racing aficionado. I know nothing about horse racing, and it was a very, very clear translation for me, and I think the viewer will feel the same.

And when is that set to air?

ML: Again, we’re looking at either fourth quarter of ’11 or first quarter ’12.

How are Alan Ball’s “All Signs of Death” and your other pilots coming along?

ML: I spoke with Alan last week. He’s very excited about it. We haven’t gotten a cut, but we hope to see it within a couple of weeks. We’re starting production on a lower budget halfhour in New York by a very talented young woman named Lena Dunham, and we’re looking at a few halfhours right now.

And how is the John Logan/Kathryn Bigelow “The Miraculous Year” coming?

ML: We just received a cut over the weekend, and we’re going to take a look at it and have some conversations. So we just got that in.

And “Tilda,” which acts as a parallel for Nikki Finke?

ML: We met with Bill Condon and two writers who have been brought in. It’s one of those instances where, after the pilot, we sort of discovered some truth about what the series needed to be. And Alan Poul has been attached as an exec producer, and then we have added Alexa Junge and John Hoffman as writer-exec producers to work with Bill Condon to conceptualize the series should it go forward. We’re still very excited about it.”

So should 2011 should be as bountiful as 2010?

ML: From your lips, Stuart. From your lips.

RP: We hope so. We certainly have the talent creating what we think is every bit of our promise to our viewer, which is to do things that are original and unique. We’re as excited as we’ve been in a long time.

What are your concerns for 2011?

ML: We’re always worried about the next thing. You want to deliver on the promise. You’re always hoping the next show is as good as you hope it’s going to be. I mean, the good things and the bad thing about these jobs is you can never just take a breath and go, “Ah.” You’re always worried about the next one, and the next one after that.

RP: The good news and the bad news about this team — Sue (Naegle, president of HBO Entertainment), Len (Amato, president of HBO Films) and Kary (Antholis, president of HBO Miniseries) — is we’re all neurotic. Nobody gets complacent.

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