HBO may be riding high on its 22 primetime Emmys, but a major test arrives with a batch of premieres in early October. After drama Westworld debuted Oct. 2, the offbeat comedies Divorce and Insecure premiere Oct. 9. All three are hustling to help HBO reestablish its eminence.
“Each of the three new series lives up to the implicit promise we make to our subscribers,” says Casey Bloys, president of programming. “Something you can’t see anywhere else.”
After the success of crime series The Night Of, and Game of Thrones and Veep repeating their Emmy wins for drama and comedy, HBO is hardly in crisis mode. “The Emmy gods were kind to us,” demurs Bloys.
Yet even an elite network must prove itself every day in a world of hundreds of original series—especially after Vinyl’s high profile flop. “HBO’s challenge is how it continues to articulate a sense of distinction in an environment where the mind space around prestige TV is more crowded than ever,” says Myles McNutt, assistant professor of communications at Old Dominion. “HBO can no longer coast on its brand and expect that critics or viewers will perceive that content as ‘greater than’ by default.”
Summer Is Coming
Game of Thrones won a dozen Emmy awards on Sept. 18, but the end is nigh for the dragon drama. Season seven, with seven episodes, airs next summer, and season eight will wrap the series. “What’s working against HBO is, how long until Game of Thrones comes back, and how few episodes are left,” says Preston Beckman, former Fox scheduling chief and now principal at consulting outfit Beckman Group.
Beckman says the aims for an HBO series are critical praise and a degree of quality that gooses the subscriber rolls. “Do these shows add to the current base, or do people say, (screw) this, I’ll wait for Game of Thrones to come back and save myself a couple hundred bucks?” he says.
Depraved Appetites Welcome
Westworld is a high concept western that HBO describes as “a dark odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the evolution of sin,” where “every human appetite, no matter how noble or depraved, can be indulged.” According to Bloys, it is “smart, fun, and will take viewers on a heck of a roller coaster ride.”
Dark comedy Divorce sees Sarah Jessica Parker back at HBO a dozen years after Sex and the City ended; Bloys describes it as a “solid pivot away from Carrie.” Insecure, created by and starring Issa Rae, is about a pair of friends navigating the “tricky professional and personal terrain of L.A.” Bloys suggests bonus points for any series with a writer/performer lead, along the lines of Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
McNutt says it’s fitting that one of HBO’s upcoming series is called Insecure. “While HBO might have something to prove to viewers, I also think they have something to figure out for themselves,” he says. “And so these shows—both in their creative strengths and weaknesses and in their ratings performance—are an important bellwether for the future of the HBO brand.”