Critics and viewers alike probably wouldn't hesitate to name HBO, FX, and AMC as the networks with the most impressive slates of original programming. But all three are at a crossroads and have to look at 2014 as a transition year with a number of their top programs preparing to take their final bows. The question then becomes, will the networks' new shows do the job?
HBO (a subsidiary of Time Warner (NYSE:TWX.DL))
HBO survived when The Larry Sanders Show ended, just as it survived when Sex & The City wrapped and The Sopranos took a permanent vacation. In short, the network will always survive because of its arsenal of talented creative partners and forward-thinking executives. Yet 2014 will be a year the network isn't used to as three of its top series are poised to end their runs. With the departures of Boardwalk Empire, True Blood, and The Newsroom, HBO is going to have three big holes to fill in its 2015 slate of dramas. Executives hope they have the right tools in their 2014 roster to help launch their next big thing.
The first series HBO debuted this year is already proving to be a success. True Detective, an eight-episode mini-series starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, debuted the other week to 2.3 million viewers (HBO's largest debut for a new drama since Boardwalk Empire in 2010). In the same anthology vein as FX's American Horror Story, the series will explore a different mystery each year with a different high-caliber cast.
During the summer, HBO will bow The Leftovers, a new series based on the book by Tom Perrotta and overseen by Lost shepherd Damon Lindelof. Starring Justin Theroux, Liv Tyler, and Amy Brenneman (among others), the series focuses on the residents of a city after a "rapture" like event carries away 140 million people around the world. In addition to Lindelof's skills, Hollywood director Peter Berg is a co-producer and also helmed the first episode. This buzzed-about series will likely see a massive roll-out and could easily become one of 2014's big "it" shows, especially if paired with summer staple True Blood.
FX (a subsidiary of News Corp (NASDAQ:NWS))
Just like HBO, FX has gone through a rebuilding stage and emerged stronger. From 2002 to 2004, FX launched three back-to-back bona fide hits that remain the definition of a TV trailblazer (The Shield, Nip/Tuck, and Rescue Me). By the time The Shield exited in 2008, the network had hit it big with Damages and saw potential in a little show called Sons of Anarchy, so when Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me came to a close a few years later, they had reserves (including the underrated Justified). Now as Sons of Anarchy and Justified are riding off into the sunset (Sons in December and Justified next spring), FX is looking to restock its lineup once again.
FX has three series on the drama side to launch in 2014, all within a few months of each other. The first is Fargo, the TV adaption of the Oscar-winning movie by Joel and Ethan Coen. Set after the events of the movie, the anthology series will have a new storyline (and unlike Horror Story a completely new cast) with every year. Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman headline the first season, which premieres on April 15.
In June, Homeland producers Howard Gordon and Gideon Raff will launch Tyrant, a series about a Middle Eastern dictator whose prodigal son returns home from the U.S. along with his American wife and children. Finally in July, FX will debut Guillermo del Toro's The Strain, which stars House of Cards' Corey Stoll as an epidemiologist who must battle a deadly virus.
The network is in a good position because it has three established series ready to take the mantel (American Horror Story, The Americans, and The Bridge) regardless of how the freshman crop performs this year. Each of them also traditionally air at different parts of the year and each usually on Wednesdays, so that means the network will have one anchor drama going into each season that it can use to help promote its newest rookie.
AMC Networks (NASDAQ:AMCX)
With the trifecta of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead, AMC had the luxury of having a number of top tier shows to help launch potential new hits. Unfortunately AMC hit a rough patch and shows like Rubicon, Hell on Wheels, and Low Winter Sun couldn't become appointment TV. While Wheels has turned into a respectable Saturday night player, the sun quickly set on Winter, and Rubicon remains its own (cancelled) puzzle. Those failures, paired with Bad's 2013 exit and the upcoming (two-year-long) Mad Men swan song, leaves the network with the need for an infusion of new blood.
Still the future looks bright for AMC with a trio of shows set to debut in 2014, including Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul. Scene-stealer Bob Odenkirk reprises his role as Saul Goodman, the slimy lawyer who helped Walter White and Jesse Pinkman throughout Bad's run. The fan favorite will return to the AMC lineup in November and his series will be positioned as a prequel to the events of Bad. However by the time fans can call on Saul, AMC will have already debuted its other two new dramas and audiences will have an idea of just what kind of shape the network will be in going into 2015.
AMC's first drama to premiere this year is Turn, starring Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot). Based on the book Washington's Spies by Alexander Rose, the series looks at The Cupler Ring, the group that helped turn the tide of the Revolutionary War. Turn will debut with a special 90-minute episode in April and then serve as a lead-in for the first half of Mad Men's final season. Two months later AMC will add Halt & Catch Fire to the lineup. Top-lined by Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies), the drama captures the rise of the PC era during the 1980s, specifically in Texas' Silicon Prairie.
Bell, Pace, and Odenkirk all have breakout potential and it's entirely possible they follow in the footsteps of Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston who rose to superstar level following their success on Mad Men and Breaking Bad. This is a strong crop of stars for AMC and the odds are at least one of these new shows will become the network's next big smash.
Fool contributor Brett Gold has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends AMC Networks. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.