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'Blood’ Flowing Again at HBO

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 some 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 of 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.

Some say the Hung pilot was good, but the series really gets better as it goes on. Do you agree, and where do you see Hung going from here?

It’s hard to remember the truism that the worst episode of any series is the pilot. I don’t think that is the case in Hung. But for the conceit of the show to work, you have to believe and root for Thomas’ and Jane’s characters. The pacing and tone of the pilot is a little bit more somber than the episodes that follow. Without that, you can’t go on the ride that follows.

Our hope was absolutely that people watch the pilot and come back for the second episode and those that follow. At the same time, it’s critical to watch the pilot. The pilot did exactly what we hoped it would do, but we are glad people watched where the show picked up after that. I do think the show continues on a fun, interesting, moving ride.

Sometimes from the pilot, particularly with a show like Hung, it’s hard to [ask], where does this go now? I think you really get a sense of that and the journey beginning with the second episode. The pilot sets it up, sets up his decision to do this and think, “Now what?” [This] really signals what the series is exploring. The show gets deeper and richer, the characters get deeper and richer, the storyline gets deeper and richer—and funnier.

How do you plan to keep the momentum up? Will you launch another round of originals once the summer series wrap up?

What we promised to ourselves was not to start programming for ratings success but to just program for shows we believed were high quality, entertaining, something you haven’t seen before. In the fall we’ll have one of the freshest, wildest, funniest seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm you’ve seen in a long time, followed by a new show, Bored to Death. It’s a jewel. Do we expect it gets the same [ratings as summer shows]? Summer is a different time than fall; the competitive landscape is different, every show is different. But it’s a perfect hour of programming, and we’re unbelievably proud of it.

We’re starting the new year with the return of Big Love. And it’s a happy day finally to have that Emmy acknowledgement. [We are pairing that show] with another new show, How to Make it in America, and in March we have The Pacific, which harkens back to the bigger miniseries we’ve done in the past. It’s a very different exploration of war than we’ve ever seen, certainly in TV and maybe anywhere.

We’re feeling really excited about the rest of this year and going into 2010. Looking after that, David Simon’s new show is coming on, Treme, which we hope will be right after The Pacific, and lead us back into summer. We haven’t picked up anything at this point, but would be surprised if we don’t try to replicate what we have this summer. We feel really proud of what’s coming on and the people we’re doing business with.

Big Love’s Emmy nomination in the drama series category came in its third season. What do you make of that?

It’s a late bloomer for the Emmys. I think the show’s been deserving of recognition for a while, but better late than never. The show has continued to grow every season. [This] is the best season, and the season before was better than the first. The season coming up will be better. That’s your best dream for a show that as the creators stay with it, the storylines get richer, characters get more complicated and it keeps delivering.

There was some negative buzz around Joe Buck Live. Did that hurt you?

I think it’s really hard to launch a new show, particularly a personality-focused show, off one try. So I think they learned some things. Joe Buck, I think, worked on some levels, and they learned some things. The good news is when it comes back, they will have learned from the challenges faced in the first outing. That’s the nature of programming. As long as you learned something, it’s all good.