Change Is Coming to HBO Very Soon

We're only six weeks into the new year, and 2014 is already shaping up to be a fascinating one for a number of networks. It's easy to point to CBS scooping up Thursday-night NFL games and speculate over the upheaval that purchase might bring to the Eyeball's successful comedy block, or what it's going to do to NBC's, uh, less successful Thursday comedy block. Or we could look ahead to some of the event series that FX and other networks have planned, as obvious BIG things to come this year. But a slew of recent programming changes and developments at HBO means that the pay cabler, with its ever-increasing subscriber base, could actually have the most interesting road ahead. Change is coming to HBO over the next 12 to 18 months, and it could alter the network forever.

Changes Are Afoot

I don't mean to put HBO on blast or suggest that the network is in any MAJOR TROUBLE. When you've got Game of Thrones, a show that seems to keep growing in popularity and pop culture impact, capital-G Great comedies like Veep and Girls, and then you bring in a cool concept like True Detective that appears to have caught on with audiences, you're not in MAJOR TROUBLE, or even major trouble. Nevertheless, here's what we've learned about HBO since the beginning of 2014:

(1) Boardwalk Empire, a show that's really grown into its own over the past two years, will conclude after five seasons in the fall of this year.

HBO is touting the end date as if it was dictated by showrunner Terence Winter, and while that absolutely may be true, it's difficult not to assume that HBO might be a little disappointed that Boardwalk didn't grow into the post-Sopranos super-show the network hoped it would when it launched back in 2010. Boardwalk's ratings haven't been spectacular, and award shows haven't been all that enamored with it either. With all that in play and a massive cast/huge production budget, HBO had probably had enough—even if HBO says it doesn't care about ratings.

(2) The Newsroom will conclude its relatively brief and pretty bumpy run with a third season slated to air this fall, probably alongside Boardwalk Empire in some fashion.

Although I'd argue that The Newsroom improved in some moderately important ways in Season 2, it's kind of been a disaster from the beginning, hasn't it? The second season had some weird production issues because Aaron Sorkin scrapped a few storylines, and then HBO took a loooong time to commit to the third and ultimately final season. Plus, the ratings weren't that impressive, and outside of Jeff Daniels' troll Emmy win last fall, the accolades weren't exactly pouring in.

(3) Family Tree and Hello Ladies—two less-heralded but pretty solid comedies—are both dunzo.

This news came out long after HBO's sessions at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour had concluded, and near the end of a work week at that. It makes sense that HBO wouldn't want to field questions about canceling two freshman offerings, but these moves were surprising nonetheless. Heck, even Enlightened made it to Season 2.

(4) Looking, the network's brand-spankin'-new comedy about three gay men in San Francisco, debuted to terrible ratings.

Like, Enlightened levels of terrible. That's not necessarily bad news because HBO shows tend to grow their audiences over time, but Looking held onto only half of Girls' already small viewership. It's certainly not good news. 

Supplementing these four developments are some important pieces of news that we already knew: True Blood, HBO's summer staple, is also bowing out this year, and Treme and Eastbound and Down just wrapped up their multi-year runs in the fourth quarter of 2013. 

The Mass Exodus

So, if I'm doing the math correctly, by the end of 2014, HBO will have said goodbye to EIGHT original series that appeared on its schedule at some point in 2013 (this includes Enlightened, which aired early in 2013, but does not include co-productions like Life's Too Short or Ja'mie: Private School Girl). If Looking flails and HBO gets impatient, that number could rise.

Even for a powerhouse like HBO, that's a lot of programming to shuttle off the schedule. Technically, with so many shows on the way out, HBO would only be left with Game of ThronesTrue DetectiveGirls, Looking, and Veep (and I guess Curb Your Enthusiasm, assuming Larry David wants to do more of it at some point in the nebulous future). We also know that three shows—The LeftoversSilicon Valley, and Togetherness—are still to come this year, starting in April when Silicon Valley makes its debut. Three shows replacing eight is quite the difference. This is HBO's biggest mass exodus since the 2006-2007 period, when it said goodbye to The SopranosDeadwoodJohn From CincinnatiExtrasLucky Louie, Tell Me You Love Me, and Rome

Now, bidding farewell to The Sopranos and Deadwood within a year is a much bigger challenge to overcome than losing The Newsroom and Boardwalk Empire, and HBO actually did struggle to find itself there for a bit in the mid-aughts. The loss of shows like Family Tree and Treme won't be THAT hard to overcome, because of a perceived lack of audience and age, respectively. Nevertheless, True Blood has done big business for HBO, its fluctuating quality aside, and it won't be immediately replaceable in that plum summer spot. Boardwalk might not be a Sopranos stand-in, but it's a damn good show. And Eastbound and Down happens to be one of the greatest comedy series of the last decade, starring a relatively recognizable leading man. This won't be easy.

A New Class of Showrunner

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these show departures is who's going with them. Unless something changes quickly, for the first time in a while, we'll be looking at an HBO without a show developed or run by someone affiliated with The Sopranos, DeadwoodThe Wire, or Six Feet Under. People like David Chase, David Simon, David Milch, Alan Ball, and Terence Winter have been making big, "important" dramas for HBO for a long time. And some of them are likely to return to HBO in the very new future—Milch has a pilot in the works that could probably make it to air by 2015. But still, it's weird to think about not having that lineage on HBO's schedule. Those dudes are all part of an era of programming that changed both the network and television forever. 

In their place, HBO has inked deals with folks who could be seen as the next class of high-profile showrunners/producers. Judd Apatow brought the initial name recognition to Girls, but Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner have made the show into something special. D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have pulled off quite a feat with Game of Thrones. And so far, handing over the True Detective reigns to first-time showrunner and novelist Nic Pizzolatto is working out pretty well

Looking at the network's upcoming projects, The Leftovers is adapted from the book of the same name by Lost's Damon Lindelof. Togetherness is from the Duplass brothers. Just yesterday, the network ordered Utopia—an adaptation of a British series from David Fincher and Gone Girl novelist and screenwriter Gillian Flynn—to series. Clearly impressed by the upcoming TV movie The Normal Heart, HBO is also developing a pilot with Ryan Murphy called Open. And an adaptation of Westworld from J.J. Abrams and Jonah Nolan. There's no guarantee that Open and Westworld will make it to air, of course, and not every upcoming HBO project fits my thesis (Silicon Valley is from Mike Judge) but these projects are still a signal of what HBO is interested in growing into, and who it's interested in associating with. Maybe this means the network wants to get a little younger, or that it hopes to bring in the diehards who love Lindelof, Murphy, Abrams, and Nolan.

What's to Come

A lot of HBO's series are moving out in 2014, many of them with recognizable names attached. The channel is better-equipped to keep things going than it was when The Sopranos left. Yet, the amount of competition is always increasing, with competitors like Netflix putting a whole lot of time and resources into projects that, a decade ago, probably would have at least been in contention at HBO. I don't necessarily think that HBO is in trouble, or that it should be too terrified of what Netflix is trying to do. And I don't want to mythologize the network too much. But HBO got where it is by pushing television in new directions. To stay on top of Netflix or Showtime or whatever other entity puts out original programming in the next few years, HBO will have to continue to do that. And perhaps moving on from good-but-not-great shows like Boardwalk Empire and True Blood, and branching out from the same small group of creative masterminds, is actually the first step in making sure HBO can continue to dominate.