Updated: 21st February 2018

Game of Thrones is back, but HBO needs other success stories

The premium cable channel is struggling to find its next hit

The cult fantasy drama Game of Thrones begins its much-anticipated sixth season next Sunday. But what else has HBO, once a byword for high-quality television, got to offer these days? Its a question increasingly being asked by industry experts, following a series of big-budget programming misfires.

On Monday, Variety reported that, for the first time, most American consumers believe the best original content comes from the online streaming service Netflix, which beat HBO into second place.

Then New York magazines influential Vulture blog ran a piece suggesting that HBO hasnt come up with an undeniable drama hit since [Game of Thrones] bowed in 2011. Hollywood Reporter paints a picture of an under-pressure channel taking big swings at expensive celebrity-stuffed projects that dont always connect. And HBOs much-hyped but underperforming music-industry drama Vinyl has recently parted ways with respected co-creator Terence Winter. It appears that Game of Thrones, probably the biggest television series in the world, might be masking a sudden and disturbing decline.

Game of Thrones is HBOs standard-bearer and the rest of the troops are marching miles and miles behind, says Daniel Fienberg, television critic for the Hollywood Reporter.

Fienberg believes HBO is suffering because viewers now have more options, from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon to premium cable channels, like FX, and reinvigorated basic cable channels, such as AMC and USA. When The Sopranos came out [in 1997], HBO was alone, he says. They were the only cable channel doing what they were doing at the level they were doing it. That will never be the case again.

VINYL
Vinyl has disappointed critically and commercially for HBO. Photograph: HBO

The problem seems particularly acute where drama is concerned. With Vinyl HBO had to believe it was going to be a well-received show, if not a hit. And it was neither, says Fienberg. True Detective squandered every bit of goodwill from its first season and who even knows whats happening with Westworld

Todd VanDerWerff, culture editor for Vox.com, says the channel can draw positives from the dominance of Game of Thrones. The success of Game of Thrones is pretty much the reason The Leftovers, which is one of the best shows on TV, has been allowed to stay on air for three seasons, even though not enough people are watching. It allows them to be lenient with lower-rated shows.

Julia
Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep, which won HBO the best comedy Emmy. Photograph: Patrick Harbron/AP

Its also arguable that naysayers are writing HBOs obituary prematurely. It won 43 Emmy awards last year, the most for any channel, including best drama for Game of Thrones, best comedy for Veep and best mini-series for Olive Kitteridge.

If I were trying to sell my show and was torn between HBO and Netflix, I still might go with HBO, says VanDerWerff. Theyre better at working to improve shows and its easy to forget theyve been in this position before: when The Sopranos ended in 2007, they threw a ton of art-film TV against the wall, none of which stuck, but then True Blood came along and they rebounded pretty quickly. All it takes is one hit.

Its also hard to measure the real success of Netflixs original programming. The streaming service doesnt release ratings and, in contrast to HBO, doesnt have to worry about scheduling. Netflix also has zero concern about oversaturating the marketplace, says Fienberg. They have seemingly bottomless coffers and endless money plus limitless bandwidth are big advantages but [they also] havent had a huge failure yet. Well have to see what that looks like.

Equally, although Netflixs hands-off approach to commissioning has helped it attract A-list talent, it has a way to go before it supplants HBO as the channel no actor can turn down. David Simon, creator of The Wire, Treme and, most recently, Show Me A Hero, has compared HBO to the Medici family, implying that, like Renaissance patrons, they nurture talent, placing artistic vision above more mundane concerns such as ratings.

HBOs upcoming slate looks formidable. As well as Simons own 1970s-era porn industry drama, The Deuce, which will star James Franco, and Westworld, with Anthony Hopkins and Evan Rachel Wood, this summer it will air The Night Of, a limited series based on the BBCs Criminal Justice, with John Turturro and Riz Ahmed. An adaptation of Gillian Flynns Sharp Objects is also in the works, with Amy Adams, while Sean Penn will take the lead in American Lion, about US president Andrew Jackson. Comedies include Divorce, written by Sharon Horgan and starring Sarah Jessica Parker, and Issa Raes Insecure.

If youre HBO, you have confidence that youre never far from the next winner, says Fienberg. Were only beginning to see how they will respond to the challenge of streaming TV, but ultimately it is still HBO. The brand has a lot of clout.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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