'Blood' Is Flowing Again at HBO

Rejuvenated ratings and Emmy nominations give pay-cable network needed boost

After admittedly needing to right the ship since the departure of shows like The Sopranos and Sex and the City, HBO finally seems to be gaining steam. The premium cable network's trio of summer series—True Blood, Entourage and new comedy Hung—is delivering ratings not seen since the Mob-supported glory days, and the network just hauled in 99 Emmy nominations, once again more than any other network.

Michael Lombardo, president of HBO's programming group and West Coast operations, talked with B&C's Melissa Grego about the network's plans for keeping up the momentum, his reaction to Emmy nominations HBO did and didn't get, and what he thinks of Showtime and other rivals. Following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Are you feeling momentum at HBO?

When [HBO co-president] Richard Plepler and I got these jobs a little more than two years ago, the press was writing epitaphs for HBO programming. It's much nicer to read the press we are getting lately. It feels like it's working.

What is your reaction to HBO's 99 Emmy nominations?

Other than ecstatic, dancing on the ceiling? I'm enormously proud of HBO. I think the Emmys shine a light on the enormous breadth of our programming, [and that] is tremendous—unlike many networks out there doing original programming, the series absolutely are well represented but [so are] the movies, the specials, Bill Maher, the documentaries. It really is great for the entire company. It so reflects all the visions delivering.

Are you surprised True Blood didn't get more recognition?

Not really. Truth is, we premiered the new season of True Blood right before the nominations, so timing-wise it really didn't have time to have impact with Emmy voters. I think its time will come. Next year, I would be very surprised and disappointed if it weren't recognized more.

On July 12, True Blood drew a series high 3.9 million viewers, Hung built big on its premiere to 3.6 million viewers, and Entourage returned with its largest audience since following one of the final Sopranos episodes. Is this the performance you expected out of the lineup?

To say we expected this would be a huge overstatement. Richard Plepler, [HBO Entertainment President] Sue Naegle and myself all believed in these three shows, we believed in this as a strong night of programming. You always hope people embrace it, but it exceeded our wildest expectations.

What is the status of some existing shows that don't have orders yet, such as In Treatment and Entourage?

With In Treatment, stay tuned. Entourage, the deals are all in place. We want to get all three [summer] shows on the air. We're in conversations right now.

Showtime has had good buzz lately. Can you help but be a little happy to have rediscovered some of your own?

The truth of the matter is yes, there's been lot written about a lot of networks in the last couple of years, not just Showtime but AMC, FX, USA. So you know that the biggest challenge for us is to do the best we can. I think Showtime is doing fantastically well, and will continue to deliver great shows.

The step up in creative delivery across the board has only challenged us and made us do better, and it challenges creators. So we don't look at this summer for us as misfortune for anybody else. Everybody seems to be doing really well. But it is validation that if you deliver quality programming, audiences show up. I think everyone's seeing that.