Is HBO’s Luck Starting to Run Out?

After the premature cancellation of its latest prestige drama, the ‘Not TV’ network looks to get back on track

Ten years ago, it wasn’t hard to decide what to do on a Sunday night. Everyone watched HBO. The programming on the premium cable network was like nothing else on the tube.

But then, Carrie Bradshaw finally landed Mr. Big, the entire Fisher family died, Tony Soprano stopped believin’ in a New Jersey diner, and Tommy Carcetti became governor of Maryland.

By the time Sue Naegle arrived from United Talent Agency to take the network’s top job in 2008 (alongside co-president Richard Plepler and president of programming Michael Lombardo), the programming larder was looking bare. “We walked into a schedule that was mostly empty,” she told The Observer. And what could be better? “From a development and programming perspective, that’s the dream.”

Recently the network has gone on something of a programming binge, putting forth its most aggressive new slate in memory. Luck, the horse-racing drama from director Michael Mann and creator David Milch, debuted in January to respectful reviews and strong ratings; it was then swiftly renewed for a second season—then even more swiftly cancelled two weeks ago due to the on-set deaths of three horses (or perhaps, some speculated, because of a precipitous drop in viewers). Last month saw the debut of a new Ricky Gervais comedy, Life’s Too Short (his third for the network), and in April, HBO will debut two new comedies, the youth-oriented Girls and the political farce Veep, as well as the second season of the fantasy epic Game of Thrones. Summer will bring Aaron Sorkin’s latest look behind the scenes of something (this time it’s a cable news show). An adaptation of The Corrections is filming now, and A Visit From the Goon Squad is reportedly in development.

It’s about time HBO, which got its start airing heavyweight boxing matches, came out swinging. After years in which the broadcaster came to define quality television, its lessons are visible up and down the dial. The hourlong contemporary adult drama in The Sopranos mold is now standard-issue. The buzziest Sunday night drama this year was Downton Abbey, on PBS.

The competition will heat up still further later this year, when Netflix debuts an hourlong drama of its own, the David Fincher-directed House of Cards, to be followed by the revival of Arrested Development and the women-in-prison series Orange Is the New Black. (Original programming from Hulu and Amazon is said to be just around the corner.)

But between HBO’s genre hits (Game of Thrones, True Blood), its sepia-toned period curios (Luck, Boardwalk Empire), its noble-if-ignored charity efforts like the New Orleans drama Treme, and its low-risk comedies (whatever passing fancy Gervais happens to alight upon), HBO now seems as unsure of how to present itself to the world as Carrie ransacking her shoe closet—and at the very moment networks such as Showtime, AMC and FX are ascendant.

Did every channel learn from HBO’s success except for HBO?

“Their brand to me is, truthfully, a little bit dated version of high quality,” said Mo Ryan, a longtime Chicago Tribune television critic, currently at the Huffington Post. “HBO is doing what HBO does: hire big-name talent to do expensive projects, and take chances on a few things that don’t cost them very much money. Their approach is safe and predictable. That leads to competent programming, but it doesn’t lead to the next Homeland.”

Showtime’s hyper-paranoid counterterrorism thriller picked up the Best Drama Golden Globe this year and has put a creative defibrillation paddle to that network’s collection of aging hits. Those series, greenlit by Showtime’s former president of entertainment, Robert Greenblatt, gave the network a clear identity, hinging on dramedies about women with secrets—Weeds, Nurse Jackie and The Big C among them—and blood-and-camp drama tentpoles such as Dexter and The Tudors. (Greenblatt has since been called up to the majors and is now running NBC.) Other competitors also have used programming to brand themselves. AMC does meditative and highly watchable dramas about men in difficult situations (The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, Mad Men), for instance, whereas FX has specialized in black comedy and heightened violence (Justified, Louie, and the departed Nip/Tuck and The Shield).

HBO is still an extremely valuable component of Time Warner, and its subscriber numbers remain the highest on premium cable. But rivals are gaining ground. In the final quarter of 2011, HBO added 190,000 subscriptions after two declining quarters (just in time for Game of Thrones), while Showtime and Starz added 700,000 and 595,000, respectively. (That said, Starz and Showtime are more flexible in setting promotional rates with cable providers.)

In part the problem appears to be one of marketing: Having seen its longstanding identity—as the home of quality entertainment for grown-ups—adopted by so many upstarts, the channel seems to have lost its bearings. When asked about HBO’s brand, Naegle replied, “I think about this a lot.” She cited the series Enlightened, a half-hour program starring Laura Dern, as one that is core to the network’s identity. “I don’t think that show could exist any other place,” she said, noting that within HBO, it was called “a half-hour hour,” presumably in light of its unusual mix of big themes and a stunted running time.

“For us, it’s a signature HBO show,” she added. “But I don’t think everything needs to have a signature feeling.”

The brainchild of director Mike White, Enlightened centers on a spiritually adrift woman in a competitive, ugly world. It’s a frequently brilliant show, but a quirky one—seeming at times custom-made to be unjustly ignored. It was recently renewed for a second season despite averaging fewer than 200,000 viewers per episode.

But the show exemplifies HBO’s longtime strategy of cultivating relationships with talented show-runners and letting them do more or less whatever they want. White, who was one of Naegle’s clients when she was an agent, said that he’d received precious few notes on the series. “They were just along for the ride,” he said.

The network’s taste for heavyweight talents hasn’t always worked out. For every True Blood, there’s been a Treme or two. Meanwhile, TV’s breakout series have lately come from writers’ room veterans stepping up to run their own shows, a group that is in short supply on HBO these days. “Where is the talented writer-producer who no one’s ever heard of who has industry experience?” asked Ryan, citing Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, as a case in point. An equally apt example might be Matthew Weiner, who was hired to write for The Sopranos on the basis of his spec script for Mad Men, a project HBO ultimately turned down.

One could write an alternate history of HBO beginning on June 10, 2007, in which Mad Men—or an equally groundbreaking series—made its debut immediately following The Sopranos finale. Former chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht had resigned just a month before, following an arrest for domestic violence, and president Carolyn Strauss would soon be ousted. After The Sopranos cut to black, though, HBO introduced the world to John From Cincinnati, a faux-mystical surfer drama created by Deadwood auteur David Milch.

The post-Albrecht, post-Tony period was a time of reckoning for HBO, not least because Mad Men also premiered that summer. Naegle told The Observer that the first script she read for HBO was Game of Thrones, which grew into a flagship hit. “These shows bring 10-part movies into your home every Sunday night. They are big shows,” she said, adding that both Game of Thrones and Luck were logistically difficult but worthy of the network’s efforts.

The game has changed since Albrecht was running HBO. “At that time, we were just looking for great shows with great show-runners and trying to bring a different sensibility into the way shows were originated,” he said. And to some extent, that spirit remains. Girls creator Lena Dunham didn’t even have a pitch prepared when she first met with Naegle. “I wasn’t pounding the pavement trying to get Girls out there,” said Dunham, whose show is also produced by comedy consigliere Judd Apatow. “What HBO does is champion a creator,” she added.

HBO hasn’t had a zeitgeist-hit comedy since Entourage—and longtime favorite Curb Your Enthusiasm is prone to long hiatuses. We asked Naegle why more recent efforts—like the just-canceled trio Hung, Bored to Death and How to Make It in America, the various Ricky Gervais series, and Enlightened—had had a hard time connecting with audiences.

“What’s your definition of HBO comedy success?” she asked.

We cited Carrie, Larry and Vinnie.

“You would say something that feels like it’s generating something culturally,” she said. “Cable comedy has had a broader definition of success. With Girls and Veep, I’m not putting extraordinary pressure on the shows to perform in a way shows in the past have.” She added, however, “Eastbound and Down gets great numbers.”

Where HBO has enjoyed some branding success is in the area of original movies. Brian Lowry, Variety’s chief TV critic, noted that the one-off films, while not broadly popular, are central to HBO’s image as a high-class outfit: “That’s the only reason the movies exist, strictly so they can show they have movie stars. Game Change was a good rating for HBO, 2 million viewers. But the bigger payoff was that it was on every goddamn cable network. Someone said to me once, pay cable is like a really nice coffee-table book. You don’t always have to be flipping through it to be glad you have it.”

The original movies also tend to fare well during awards season, where HBO’s series have lately been passed over. AMC and Showtime both leapfrogged the network in terms of total nominations for series programming in 2010, and Mad Men has taken the Best Drama statue four times running—most recently defeating Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones.

It’s one more way in which HBO’s brand identity is slowing eroding, which might be the network’s biggest problem of all—especially as the ascendancy of à la carte viewing platforms such as DVRs, Netflix, Hulu and AppleTV separate programming from its source. “Brands are and will become increasingly more important as technology continues to disconnect networks from our individual attributes,” Albrecht explained. “What we would like to be is not commoditized as the pieces but commoditized as the brand.”

In the early days, Albrecht recalled, “the brand at HBO was ‘It’s not TV.’ A lot of people have copied that mantra, even if they’re not stating it. In a sense, as HBO has dropped it, everything is trying to not be TV.”

The network that redefined television recently rolled out a new slogan: “It’s HBO.” The ardent hope among TV fans is that that’s still enough.