Winter Is Coming, and It’s About Time HBO Changed Its Game Plan

Vinyl HBO
Courtesy of HBO

HBO has had some rocky times of late, but at least in cancelling “Vinyl,” it made a Sansa decision, not a Jon Snow decision.

In the most recent episode of “Game of Thrones,” HBO’s flagship drama, Sansa did something that was deeply unpalatable to her in order to serve a larger purpose. But her brother, Jon Snow, made some calls that simply weren’t pragmatic given the reality he faced.

Cancelling the flawed “Vinyl” was the right move, and one that might indicate that the network is finally ready to fight a realistic battle with the army it has and the tactics it needs.

For years, once it had established itself as House Prestige with “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos,” HBO resided in the kind of lofty tower that allowed it to gaze upon the TV fray from afar. Like the Lannisters, the HBO clan only moved with the most connected movers and shakers, and it typically had the largest purse in the land.

But now it’s down in the muck with everyone else, just trying to survive — and, to be clear, it should. A TV scene with a strong, vital HBO taking chances and making risky, challenging fare makes my job much easier. TV is undisputably better with the network in fighting form. 

As in Westeros, the previous ways of doing things just don’t work anymore. Formerly solid hierarchies are coming down fast, and winter is not coming — for TV, it’s already here, in the form of fractured audiences, evolving tastes and ever-changing revenue streams. And to be fair, HBO is not the only network that appears to want to make it 2006 again through science or magic. AMC’s tepid “Feed the Beast” is straight out of the anti-hero bargain bin, as is Showtime’s “Roadies,” and TNT’s lackluster “Animal Kingdom” feels similarly retro. The old ways die hard. 

The fact that the network bet so big on “Vinyl” in the first place was somewhat troubling. It’s smart of new HBO president Casey Bloys, via this cancellation, to rein in the network’s “talent friendly” reputation a bit, because “Vinyl” was all over the map, a mishmash that didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be. Of course the network should never rule out working with ambitious auteurs, but letting creatives run the show entirely is like to going into battle with only half the forces you need. It’s unlikely to end well. 

There are no White Walkers streaming down from the North (unless there’s something terrifying happening under the radar in Canada), but that role in the TV industry is more or less filled by Netflix. Like the White Walkers, Netflix is relentless and not about to slow down. It has altered almost every basic paradigm — sometimes for the better, sometimes not — and the company is not terribly concerned with how that plays out for anyone else. To extend the imperfect analogy, the deep-pocketed Amazon is not unlike Daenerys’ dragons: House Bezos is untamed, sometimes sluggish and frequently unpredictable, but Amazon Studios is another another force capable of bringing great and possibly terrifying change.

These seismic shifts are not just affecting HBO, which saw the exits of Michael Lombardo and Michael Ellenberg. Just in 2016, Steve Mosko exited Sony Television, which was reorganized after he left. Bela Bajaria left Universal TV, and a new regime has taken over at ABC as well. 

Of course, executives play musical chairs all the time in the TV industry, but this wave of shakeups feels like something else. The entertainment industry is doing two things simultaneously: It’s recognized just how important and lucrative TV is, and it is trying to extract ever-greater piles of money from it, and simultaneously, it’s trying to crack the code of how TV will work in the non-linear, streaming world, in which schedules and affiliates matter less and subscribers and binging patterns often matter more. It’s a confusing time, and a much more competitive one; the amount of TV being made has doubled in the last few years, and Peak TV shows no sign of contracting any time soon.

That’s a lot of change to try to absorb, and trying to negotiate all those transitions has had an impact on HBO. In the last year or two, shows have come and gone earlier than expected (“Togetherness,” “Getting On” and “Looking,” which airs a wrap-up movie soon); unaired programs have had bumpy rides (“Westworld,” the Lewis and Clark miniseries); once-lauded shows have hit stumbling blocks (“True Detective”); and others (“Girls,” “The Leftovers” and “Game of Thrones”) will soon set finale dates. 

Does some of the churn at HBO arise from taking big swings? Sure. And might the network have some things in its pipeline that will grab the public’s attention (and that of the media — after all, the thinkpiece-industrial complex is almost as important to HBO)? That’s quite likely. After “The Sopranos” went off the air and “John From Cincinnati” crashed and burned, the network debuted “True Blood,” which went on to be the kind of buzzworthy drama the network thrives on, as well as a host of well-regarded half-hours, including “Veep,” “Silicon Valley,” and some of the shows named above. A few years ago, “Luck” also only survived for only one season, but it debuted the same year as “Game of Thrones,” which has conquered popular culture. And coming next month is “The Night Of,” from writer-director Steven Zaillian, which brings tremendous buzz.  

But the big changes at HBO seem frankly overdue, given that Netflix and Amazon have been power players for a few years now. They’re not the only causes of deep and lasting alterations in the industry, where competition gets fiercer by the day. But there are so many entities competing to make good and great TV now — basic-cable networks, premium cable networks, streaming networks and possibly your dry cleaner — that radical shifts were inevitable. The terrain has changed, and HBO has been playing catchup. Today’s move may indicate it’s playing a deeper, savvier, long-term game. 

HBO, like every other network, can’t keep fighting the last war. In the game of TV, after all, you win or you die.