Not unlike those mildly terrifying cicadas that pop up every once in a while, so too does there seem to be a seasonal rhythm to obituaries about HBO — or, at the very least, strongly worded think pieces about how bad things are at the premium cable network, and why the end is almost certainly near.
The doomsday analyses are not completely groundless: “Game of Thrones,” the premium cable net’s only current real hit, has just two more seasons left, and most of HBO’s recent drama slate either hasn’t delivered viewership numbers deemed suitably impressive or hasn’t grabbed a certain critical cachet. “Vinyl,” which combined the forces of Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese for a show that no one watched and critics hated, was canceled Wednesday, reversing a renewal that came in February. High-profile projects from directors like David Fincher have vanished into the ether. Longtime programming head Michael Lombardo just jumped ship after eight years in that job, and comedy head Casey Bloys is taking the reins.
But if all this doesn’t sound familiar, you might have missed the last round, when “True Blood” was about to take its last bite and Netflix appeared to be coming for HBO’s lunch with shows like “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black.” Or the round before that, in 2007, as the megahit “The Sopranos” was coming to its end. HBO has always managed to bounce back.
To be sure, this is not a great time for HBO. And yet most networks — basic cable, broadcast and other premium channels — suffer through similar rough patches. Drama development can lie fallow for a couple seasons as tastes and the fortunes of other networks wax and wane. Yet HBO still has a stable of well-regarded comedies. And although increased competition in Emmy races like Outstanding Miniseries is beginning to cut down on the hardware the network takes home, it’s still considered the gold standard in terms of series quality.
There are differences between this go-round and those in the past. Canceling a show you’ve already renewed is never a good look, but when Netflix is doling out two-season orders without even seeing a pilot, there are creative types who might opt for what they consider a more secure future. The cost of simply creating a show keeps creeping up, and the number of shows competing for eyeballs is approaching a number some might consider ludicrous.
But recall that 2007 was also a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad time for HBO. “The Sopranos” was ending. David Milch’s supremely expensive (but critically beloved) “Deadwood” had been unceremoniously unrenewed after its third season wrapped up, and his follow-up, the bizarre “John From Cincinnati,” was an expensive dud. David Simon’s “The Wire” and Alan Ball’s “Six Feet Under” had finished their runs. CEO Chris Albrecht had left the company after being arrested for publicly assaulting his girlfriend. (Albrecht is now CEO of Starz.) The New York Times published a lengthy reported piece that bordered on an epitaph.
There were even “Not so fast” pieces back then. Forbes touted HBO’s “rich roster of potential hits” like “Tell Me You Love Me” and “In Treatment” and a Southern gothic vampire drama from Ball. The first two never gained much traction, but Ball’s project turned out to be massive success “True Blood.”
In TV, you just never know. In a couple years, some project that hasn’t even been announced might be the next source of the internet’s hot-take machine. Until then, just listen to the chirr of the cicadas.