NEW YORK: So, HBO. What else you got?
On Sunday night, the network airs the finale of “Game of Thrones,” its most-popular show ever, leaving a programming void big enough for a dragon to fly through. Even HBO comedian John Oliver joked this month about the network’s anxiety after the fantasy series completes its eighth and final season.
“In two weeks’ time this network is so deeply f***ed,” Oliver said.
But HBO executives have known for a while this day would come and have been filling their pipeline with ambitious new shows, including a “Game of Thrones” prequel, to keep subscribers happy. Under new owner AT&T Inc, the network is boosting its original programming slate by 50% this year, creating more chances for another blockbuster.
“We do have a culture of nurturing talent and spending on talent, and we want a creator’s vision to come to life,” Casey Bloys, HBO’s president of programming, said in an interview. “We’ll spend the money to do that.”
In 2019, the network boosted production of scripted programming to 150 hours from 100 hours, an increase that Bloys said had been planned for several years. HBO has hired more people in development and production to shepherd that larger slate.
Finding another hit on the order of “Game of Thrones” won’t be easy, especially with about 500 scripted TV shows fighting for attention industry wide.
The era of streaming has ratcheted up the pressure on HBO in new ways. Competitors like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are churning out more ambitious programming and competing for a finite amount of consumers’ leisure time and money.
At the same time, it’s gotten easier to drop HBO if a show such as “Game of Thrones” is all you want to see. Instead of spending time on the phone with a Comcast or DirecTV representative, a viewer can cancel HBO online with just a click, according to Rich Greenfield, an analyst at BTIG Research. As one Twitter user wrote, “The only good thing about Game of Thrones ending is that I can finally cancel my HBO subscription.”
HBO has about 140 million subscribers globally, including around 50 million in the US, according to a network spokesman. Of the domestic total, more than 7 million subscribe through the online version HBO Now.
Finding new hits becomes even more important for AT&T as HBO becomes the linchpin of an upcoming online service. The potential for viewing on smartphones and tablets was a big reason why the phone giant spent US$85 billion to acquire HBO’s parent, Time Warner. The online service, which will debut later this year, will also include Warner Bros films, like “The Lord of the Rings,” and TV shows, possibly including the hit “Friends,” a Netflix favourite.
“We’ve got a lot of really great content coming online as ‘Game of Thrones’ winds down,” AT&T Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson said at a recent investor conference. “And that’s really the key here. We’re going to have to step up our investment.”
HBO has faced doubters before after a popular show ended. Over a decade ago, “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” finished their runs, and entertainment journalists were saying the network’s cupboard looked bare. Some HBO rivals even called the channel “HB-Over.” Then came “Girls,” “Veep” and “Game of Thrones” – and enough Emmys to silence the critics. “Thrones” has accounted for 47 of them.
But the executive who led HBO through those years is gone. Network chief Richard Plepler, who greenlit “Game of Thrones,” resigned earlier this year as part of a broader corporate reshuffling after AT&T took control of Time Warner.
HBO’s creative leader today is Bloys, a 15-year veteran who faces the daunting challenge of increasing HBO’s output while maintaining the network’s reputation for quality.
“There’s certainly room to push at what would historically be considered HBO, but the one thing that doesn’t change is the quality,” he said. “2019 is a good example of what we can do with more resources and more programming.”
AT&T’s commitment to boosting HBO’s budget is allowing the network’s programmers to try new shows that reach younger audiences. Bloys cited “Euphoria,” a series that follows a group of high school students. It’s among the youngest-skewing shows HBO has ever made, he said.
As for the subscriber tally, it has climbed when new seasons of “Game of Thrones” kicked off and dipped when they ended. But the expectation over time, Bloys said, “is there will be a net increase.”
Industry observers say HBO has an impressive lineup on the horizon. Next month, “Big Little Lies” returns with Meryl Streep joining the cast. New seasons of “Succession,” “Ballers,” “Silicon Valley,” “The Deuce” and “Westworld,” along with a “Deadwood” film are around the corner, as well as a new show produced by Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams.
“Despite its relatively low output volume, HBO has the strongest programming slate of any traditional or digital network,” said Matthew Ball, the former head of strategy at Amazon Studios. “When Richard Plepler left HBO, he also left AT&T with a pipeline that will deliver for years.”