Is HBO Giving Up on TV Altogether?

Jeff Daniels, The NewsroomHBO

Will McAvoy is officially signing off for good. HBO has announced that the third season of The Newsroom, which has just started production, will be the show’s last. No reason was given as to why the show is ending, but there have been reports that the show’s creator, Aaron Sorkin, was finding it hard to work the show into his busy schedule. The Newsroom also recently added Paul Lieberstein, best known for playing Toby on The Office, as an Executive Producer for the final season, which could suggest that the show is hoping to end on a more light-hearted, comedic note. 

HBO also recently announced two new projects for the network: the first is a deal with director Darren Aronofsky to develop two television projects, although since the deal has just been signed, there has been no word about what to expect from the collaboration. The second is that they are planning a sequel to the upcoming movie The Normal Heart, which is directed by Ryan Murphy and stars Mark Ruffalo and Jim Parsons. A sequel announcement shows that the network has a great deal of faith in the film, which is slated to air sometime in March, and that they are expecting major ratings. The new film will written by Larry Kramer, who penned both The Normal Heart and the Tony Award winning play it is based on, and will move forward into the last 1980s, and focus on the medical developments that began to help treating the AIDS virus. Both deals seem to represent a shift in HBO’s programming from a series-heavy lineup to a more cinematic model that focuses on movies and mini series directed by some of the biggest names in film. 

Despite its strong start, no doubt boosted by having Martin Scorsese direct the premiere episode, and its connection to HBO’s most famous program, The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire has never managed to become the massive drama that most expected it to be. Although it has earned a mostly positive reception from critics, the ratings have never been particularly high, and the show was never able to become a cultural touchstone the way that The Sopranos was. Similarly, The Newsroom looked to capitalize on Sorkin’s name, and although the political subject matter gave it a strong connection to his most famous program, The West Wing, the show was never able to capture an audience in the same way. In both cases, HBO attempted to recapture some of its old television magic in order to compete with the other cable networks who have been producing the must-see dramas of recent years, but found their programming lacking.

The network’s move towards more cinematic fare likely comes as a result of its most recent television movie, Behind the Candelabra, which took home two Golden Globes over the weekend. The film enjoyed massive ratings, and has swept the awards circuit, which may prove that HBO’s strengths currently lie in the television movie and mini series categories. Their newest mini series, True Detective, also earned major ratings for its premiere episode, no doubt helped by the star power of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, which seems to support the network’s decision to change their focus. HBO is the ideal platform for stars and directors looking to branch out into television, because the lack of commercials and censoring standards allow them to approach their projects in the same way that they would approach a normal film. The network seems to have recognized the advantage that they have over cable networks, and is using it to corner a new market. 

From a business standpoint, it makes sense for HBO to move in a different direction rather than attempt to compete with networks like AMC or Netflix, who are putting out some of the best reviewed and most talked about shows currently airing. However, the channel is practically tailor-made for television movies, and by exploiting that advantage, HBO can continue to bank on major ratings and awards. Even their mini series are moving in this new direction, as both True Detective and the upcoming Olive Kitteridge utilize big names as producers and stars. They seem to be clearing out all of their drama series – the major exception being Game of Thrones, which still remains one of the biggest shows on television – and only have one new drama in the works. That show, The Leftovers, will benefit from the name recognition of creator Damon Lindelof, and if its shot in the same epic, cinematic style as Game of Thrones, those two are set to become the cornerstones for HBO’s major overhaul.

The recent changes in HBO’s lineup all seem to support the same message: this is a channel all about movies now. And if their upcoming projects manage to blend a major Hollywood director with solid performances, then we’re sure to see HBO films sweeping up awards for a good while longer.