With the final leg of The Sopranos approaching and Deadwood and The Wire ending, HBO is hard at work to unearth the next big hit to reinforce the network's dominance.
Heading up the big dig is Entertainment President Carolyn Strauss, who's placing her hopes in a batch of offbeat shows. Even as its Zeitgeist meter spikes and dips, Strauss insists the HBO philosophy remains unchanged. "Like the expression says, 'Dance with the one who brung ya,'" she says. "We'll keep looking for original voices and for people who can execute their vision."
Strauss, who says a Sopranos spinoff is unlikely, singles out the quirky David Milch drama John From Cincinnati, which premieres on the heels of the final Sopranos episode June 10; Flight of the Conchords, about a New Zealand singing duo; and sexy drama Tell Me You Love Me as shows that might pick up the slack.
Still, she's reluctant to predict that any will attain breakout status. "Who knows?" she says. "We didn't know with Sopranos, and we didn't know with Sex and the City. We know things that make us say, 'Wow, that's really good,' and we just hope the audience respects them."
With relatively less buzz-worthy shows like Big Love and Entourage heading up the originals slate, not to mention disappointing series like The Comeback and Lucky Louie that flopped in recent years, much has been made of HBO's misplacing its mojo. Strauss, a Harvard grad, is unsurprised—and unbowed—by such claims. "That's the game we all play. It's people hating the Yankees," says the New York native. "It's human nature to root for the underdog."
She has heard repeatedly that other cable networks, such as FX and Showtime, are co-opting the HBO model with dark, nuanced and richly shot programs like The Riches and Weeds. Though saying that better programs on a wider range of networks is simply good for the television business, she strikes a defiant tone when addressing whether these newcomers are, in effect, out-HBOing HBO. "It's a lot easier to follow in [a network's] footsteps," she says, "than to be the one to create the mold."
Having created that mold, however, Strauss is not above reshaping it now and then. HBO is known as a good place to work; as a result, many executives stay for decades (Strauss is in her 21st year). She concedes that, while corporate continuity is a strength in most any business, it's not always conducive to fresh ideas in the creative world. "It's up to all of us who work here to continually challenge our thinking," she says. "We're all on our toes about being just a little too smug."
While she gives HBO high marks for its video-on-demand strategy—offering premiere episodes on-demand prior to their linear debut has been particularly effective, she says—Strauss hints at significant changes coming to HBO.com. "We'll take a big, hard look at [the Web], in terms of trying to make it more compatible to some of our shows."
And as Tony, Carmela and the rest of the Jersey mob family—whom she calls "almost living, breathing creatures"—take their bows, Strauss cops to mixed feelings about the show's conclusion. "There's a certain amount of relief, because we had to deal with 'when's it gonna end? when's it gonna end?' all the time. "But more than anything," she says, "I'm very honored to have been associated with the show. How many people get to be a part of something like that?"