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HBO's Lombardo 'Surprised' by Vitriol Aimed at 'Newsroom'

Love it or hate it (and critical opinion is pretty well split), everyone seems to have an opinion about HBO’s new Aaron Sorkin drama, The Newsroom— and that’s a good thing for a premium cable network in the business of building buzz.

A week after the cabler gave The Newsroom an early second-season renewal, Michael Lombardo, president of HBO programming, spoke with B&C programming editor Andrea Morabito about the “heightened vitriol” in some critics’ reviews and defended Sorkin’s female characters and perceived preachy tone. An edited transcript follows.

How are you feeling about the show creatively so far?

I’m feeling excited, strong and happy about the show. We’re very bullish on this show. We think Aaron took a big swing and we think he did a fantastic job. We picked it up after the second episode aired in part because of the numbers and in part from us having seen 10 episodes and knowing what a beautiful piece of work he did.

Have you been giving Sorkin notes throughout the process? What kind of things have you discussed?

We’re not a company that micromanages our creators. We bet on the voice that creates the show and we’re not interested in micromanaging that voice. At the same time, we absolutely read drafts, we have conversations with him, we go to table reads, we talk about what we hear in the table read, we look at cuts and we have conversations about it. But it’s been a very collegial, collaborative and positive process.

Would you like to see anything change about the show, since you have renewed it for a second season?

No. This is Aaron’s vision. The first question is to Aaron—what would Aaron like to see changed? What has he learned? This is not how we develop or produce shows. We don’t go in and tell Aaron, here’s what we’d like you to change. When we need to do that with a creator, it’s not a successful show for us.

The show premiered fairly strongly to 2.1 million viewers, dipped about 20% in its second week and then rebounded in week three to a series high 2.2 million viewers. What do you attribute that to?

I don’t know what was going on, but the second episode has cumed up to almost 5.5 million viewers. So people are clearly watching it. I don’t know what happened that Sunday, but it has not affected at all the cumulative viewing on it. The first episode is cuming almost 7.5 million and the second is approaching 5.5 million and counting. Whatever happened with the [July 1] premiere viewing has been more than made up with the on-demand and repeat airings of it.

Everyone who watches the show seems to have a really strong opinion about it; they either love it or hate it. A lot of the reviews from critics have been negative, with Emily Nussbaum ofThe New Yorkersaying, “[The characters’] outrage is so inflamed that it amounts to a form of moral eczema—only it makes the viewer itch.” Are you surprised by the amount of vitriol you have seen against the show?

Look, critics are entitled to their opinion and I respect their right to like or dislike a show. I think the thing that surprised me with some of the reviews was [this level of] vitriol. It’s fine not to like the show. And I don’t know what to attribute that to. But I think it’s been written about, it’s been talked about and the heightened vitriol from some of the reviews surprised me.

Is there any way that helps a show?

For us, a show that pushes buttons—because the people that love this show love it, and think it’s the finest thing on television. And obviously there are people who it pushes their buttons in a very different way, and that’s OK with us. Again, we’re not looking for shows that get the largest number of eyeballs. That’s just not the business we’re in. We’re in [the business of] shows that people are passionate about. Our shows don’t have to be everyone’s favorite show; they have to be some people’s favorite show. And this show is certainly some people’s favorite show. And if that means it’s also some people’s least favorite, which I find really hard to believe, that’s OK too. We’ll take that.

A common criticism is that The Newsroom, as has been said of other Sorkin shows, is too preachy. Do you think it is? Are you concerned about that?

I can’t even comment on that. I think Aaron’s a brilliant writer. Obviously there are people who want to debate that issue. I’m not willing to really have a debate. I think Aaron’s voice is really strong. He has a character who’s searching to find his truth, and some people find it preachy and some people find it really moving and inspiring. All I can say is I respect everyone’s right to have their opinion and make a decision about whether they want to watch it or not.

Another opinion of some is that women on the show are portrayed as fairly weak. Where does HBO fall on that argument?

We don’t come down on those, that’s just not our business. I find it interesting—if anybody is watching the entirety of the television universe and all the shows out there, that this show which has at least two and probably three really strong female characters is being criticized for not having strong enough characters when the majority of television out there doesn’t even attempt to have compelling female characters who work, and juggling professional and personal lives. I find that interesting, and I don’t know what to make of it.

The show has also gotten the attention of real-life people in TV news; Dan Rather is reviewingThe Newsroomfor Gawker and seems to like it. Have any of your Time Warner colleagues at CNN shared their thoughts with you about the show?

To me, no, I have no idea. I’m sure they all have opinions about it, although I haven’t spoken with anyone. I’ve certainly seen Dan Rather, I know there are a number of other news people who are big fans of the show, and that’s heartening. That feels good, and I think that means a lot to Aaron.

Have you started having discussions about season two yet?

No. In the next couple of weeks we’re going to be sitting down and starting the conversations about season two. Literally they are still finishing editing on the final episode, so we’re going to let them finish their work on season one before we all sit down and start talking about two.

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