This is a transition year for many networks as executives begin preparing for a number of their flagship series to sign off for good. HBO (a subsidiary of Time Warner (NYSE:TWX.DL) is included in that mix, but for this weekend in particular it is less about saying goodbye and more about embracing the future.
The drama game
Usually a cable network has one or possibly two shows coming off the boards every season after long successful runs; this year HBO has three. With the upcoming exits of True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, and The Newsroom, the network needs to restock the shelf and possibly reevaluate which areas it wants to focus on in 2015.
The loss of those drams will leave Game of Thrones as the lone established dramatic series on the network. You can argue True Detective is also under that umbrella, but as of press time it hasn't been officially renewed, so for now Thrones is it.
It goes without saying Thrones is an amazing show to have as your new flagship drama and given that it still has another three or four good seasons left (plus a potential movie), HBO is guaranteed to have at least one stable anchor on its 2015 slate. The series has also earned three straight Emmy nominations for Best Drama and taken home the hardware in a number of other categories, securing its place as both a critical and pop culture winner.
It likely won't be the lone entrant for long though as HBO's Detective will almost certainly come back and the buzzy Damon Lindelof produced drama The Leftovers is expected to do well this summer given its pedigree (and just announced timeslot leading out of Blood's final run). HBO also has Utopia in the works, which is a drama series that will have a pilot directed by David Fincher (The Social Network) and script from Gone Girl scribe Gillian Flynn. Combined that's a nice roster and should paint an even nicer picture for the network in 2015.
A laugh track record
Yet many forget comedy has always been a network hallmark as well, with Garry Shandling's The Larry Sanders Show becoming the first cable comedy to earn a Best Comedy Emmy nomination. In the years since the net's had luck with shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Sex & the City, and Entourage, but currently it only has Lena Dunham's Girls and Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Veep on its mainstream comedy slate. Yes Looking and Getting On are also technically "comedies," but neither is going to fuel a network the way Girls and Veep do thanks to a strong combination of name recognition and award season presence.
Speaking of Veep, this Sunday the comedy returns and is coming off a year where the show saw repeat Emmy success with both Louis-Dreyfus and co-star Tony Hale taking home acting prizes. Unlike Girls, which is more dramedy than comedy, Veep is a humor-driven series and has been embraced by the critics and a large share of the mainstream public. Still though, its episodes don't do as well on their initial airings, which average a little over a million viewers ... yet encores and time-shifted airings bump the numbers up.
While both Enthusiasm and Entourage had slightly higher numbers, Veep caught on a little quicker and has secured a Best Comedy Series nomination in both of its first two seasons. The series is only growing and looks to eventually hit the same heights as the shows that came before.
Niche vs. mainstream
With that said, HBO still needs to bolster its comedy slate and this Sunday the network will debut Silicon Valley, a new comedy from Office Space's Mike Judge, which takes a satirical look at the computer industry.
The show fits the schedule nicely as it has the benefit of Thrones as a lead-in and then Veep as a lead-out. ABC tried a similar strategy this year when it debuted Resurrection between established hits Once Upon a Time and Revenge and saw one of the season's best launches as a result. Valley won't hit the 13.5 million Resurrection did, but if it can pull 2 million viewers and then not drop off by a lot in subsequent weeks, that's probably mission accomplished.
Keep in mind, it's not that HBO can't launch a new hit comedy, it's that because of its subscription-based business model it doesn't always have to go the usual route in that quest. Since 2010, HBO has launched at least 10 comedies that only play to certain audiences -- as such, these niche series don't perform well overall. It's an experiment and one that a network like HBO can afford to take. The presence of shows like True Blood and Boardwalk Empire allows HBO to take fliers on shows like Hello Ladies or Family Tree. Yet with those mass-appeal dramas gone, the risks are now greater.
Valley is a unique project because it is still a very niche show, but the appeal of Judge and the placement between those established shows gives it a larger chance to catch on. Still Valley doesn't have to be a hit for HBO (though it would be nice) as the network has a pair of big name comedies on the horizon that are gaining buzz.
Ballers will star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who will also produce alongside friends Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg. The series will center on a group of former and current professional football players and their daily lives. In addition to Johnson, Rob Corddry (Hot Tub Time Machine, Children's Hospital), Omar Benson Miller (CSI: Miami), and John David Washington, son of Oscar winner Denzel Washington, will round out the cast.
In addition the network has The Brink headlined by Tim Robbins and Jack Black, with Jay Roach (Game Change) directing and iconic producer Jerry Weintraub behind the scenes. The comedy focuses on three incompetent men who somehow are the only people who can save the world from destruction.
Both of those shows will likely have more draw than Valley, but that doesn't mean you should write off Judge's newest project. Office Space was a genius movie and Judge will be looking to take that style of humor and translate it to the small screen.
Together this is a strong lineup for HBO and one executives hope will continue to perform well over the coming weeks. Losing so many programs in such a short time is not going to be easy to bounce right back from, but it's also something HBO has overcome in the past and should be able to do again in the future.