Why HBO Is Once Again TV’s Most Relevant Network

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It was just one more small step for TV Everywhere. HBO Go will now be available on yet another tablet, the Kindle Fire, through eight out of the top 10 pay TV services in the U.S.

And it was just one more incremental move for HBO, as the premium cable company — the leading edge of parent Time Warner’s effort to move the traditional pay TV model into the IP-device world — re-establishes itself as television’s most relevant programming brand. (Time Warner is also the corporate parent of TIME.)

Yes, HBO is just as important to the evolution of the television business as it was a decade ago, just for different reasons. Instead of bucking the TV establishment with groundbreaking shows, the subscriber-supported service, which still touts an industry-leading 29 million customers, is now carrying the establishment on its back.

As traditional TV’s most proliferate brand — available on Xbox 360 game consoles, iPads, Roku set-tops and now Android tablets like Kindle Fire, through a consensus roster of pay TV operators — the fate of HBO Go is the fate of TV Everywhere.

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Netflix is out there teaching consumers that they can stream all they want for $7.99 a month; HBO is trying un-teach the concept that eight bucks a month will really sustain the kind of truly premium television content you’ve grown accustomed to.

And until Netflix proves that it can reliably create a full slate of original hits, no other programmer is as boldly venturing into the multi-device world on the strength of its own content.

My zeitgeistiness is gone. Has anyone seen my zeitgeistiness?

Certainly, a number of media industry pundits have pondered what HBO isn’t anymore. In April, media writer Michael Wolff explained in The Guardian that in the post-Sopranos era, the network is no longer the “sine qua non of the modern television generation,” i.e. those who are “upwardly mobile, zeitgeisty with-it, and media savvy.”

Wolff’s essay followed a March New York Observer story headlined, Is HBO’s Luck Starting to Run Out? The Observer also pondered just how special HBO is anymore, competing in a business in which other cable programmers, from AMC to Showtime, have developed their own Emmy-winning, cinematic-quality adult programs, driven by sharp, independent creative voices.

I’ll concede that HBO has lost something in terms of cultural weight and artistic merit — it’ll never be 2004 again, a year in which critically beloved achievements like David Milch’sDeadwood, David Simon’s The Wire and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm all filled out HBO Sunday night schedules already anchored by still-running hits The Sopranos and Sex and the City.

That year was the middle of what Grantland writer Andy Greenwald called television’s “golden age” — an era, kicked off by the introduction of The Sopranos, when a former newspaperman like Simon could get a green light to explore, in the densest of all possible narratives, the interwoven institutional dysfunction of Baltimore (The Wire); or Matthew Weiner, a writer’s-room underling to David Chase on The Sopranos, could get license to make a period drama set in the white-collar world of an ad agency (AMC’s Mad Men).

These shows, Greenwald effectively argues, were developed when HBO and AMC were in their younger brand-building stages, able to take chances on acclaimed producers willing to work cheaply in order to freely explore out-there series concepts.

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The business models — and the ratings expectations — have changed. Top level producers still enjoy ample creative freedom, but they need to be working off of source material with solid commercial foundations.

A producer like Alan Ball can make a show like HBO’s True Blood because it’s themed around a popular genre concept (vampires); Frank Darabont can create AMC’s Walking Dead because zombies have also proven to be box-office winners; HBO’s Girls (pictured above) can exist because Sex and the City already showed that female friends living in Manhattan works.

HBO’s hit period drama Game of Thrones? Lets just put it this way: the producers of that show came in with an eponymous adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s best-selling novels; when he was pitching The Sopranos in the late-1990s, David Chase was well-regarded as a top show-runner, but all he had was a resume that had Northern Exposure on it.

And, of course, it’s always tough to re-create the magic: After Deadwood, for example, HBO let Milch develop John From Cincinnati, a strange, etherial drama about a family of Southern California surfers that left viewers and critics trying to get water out of their ears. And last year, Milch and HBO missed again with Luck, a period drama themed around horse-racing that ended up losing the network about $35 million.

The cultural touchstones might be gone — not just from HBO, but from TV … everywhere. Has AMC come up with anything as fresh, profound and poignant as Mad Men or Breaking Bad? (I mean, come on, Walking Dead is fun, solid TV, but it is, in the end, just good genre television). And for however many comedic-dramas Showtime creates around female anti-heroes, will it ever top Weeds?

Yeah, I think Greenwald might be right — that magic hour, when desperate forces collided in the cable programming business and innovated the narrative story-telling capability of television, is gone. It probably ended in 2007, when Chris Albrecht, the brilliant architect of the programming renaissance HBO foisted upon the industry, was forced out following a very public Las Vegas arrest; or when Rob Sorcher and Christina Wayne, the creative executives who introduced Mad Men and Breaking Badleft AMC in a huff.

I wonder if, in the ultra-fragmented video age we operate in, where DVR/VOD appointments are always pending and the spoiler-alert status is always on orange, if we could even coalesce a water-cooler hit anymore. What would happen if you told your office mates about a new show you saw the night before set in 1960s-era Madison Avenue? If you weren’t told, “Don’t tell me about it — I have it recorded,” you might hear “I watchedDownton Abbey on PBS” instead.

Maybe, as they try to get attention to their emerging original series accumens, Netflix or Hulu will achieve an old-fashioned HBO level of alchemy, but so far initial efforts like Lilyhammer and Battleground have fallen far short of the mark.

The brand plays on

For its part, HBO has moved on to its next phase of product innovation — proliferating across platforms. And the programming mandate is different.

Its hits may not command the national conversation as say, The Sopranos once did, or Mad Men and Breaking Bad still do. But measuring its audience across platforms — something HBO started doing several years ago, way ahead of most other traditional programmers — the audience for Game of Thrones this season has averaged over 10 million viewers. That’s twice the size of Mad Men‘s audience.

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There was a time when shows like The WireDeadwood and the creepy, Depression-themed Carnival helped HBO stand out and distinguish its brand. The attention from TV critics was nice.

But when you’re fighting with Netflix, Hulu and other original-series aspirants, seeking to make potential cord cutters not just cable subscribers, but cable subscribers who pay an additional 12 bucks a month for premium channels, merely appealing to well-educated media consumers in Manhattan and L.A. may not be enough.

The Wire gets you the “zeitgeisty with-it.” Game of Thrones gets you authenticated.

Republished with permission from paidContent, which writes about the transformation of the media-and-entertainment industries in the digital era, with a focus on emerging-business models and technologies.

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