HBO’s hit period drama Game of Thrones (also pictured above)? Lets just put it this way: the producers of that show came in with an eponymous adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s best-selling novels; when he was pitching The Sopranos in the late-1990s, David Chase was well-regarded as a top show-runner, but all he had was a resume that had Northern Exposure on it.
And, of course, it’s always tough to re-create the magic: After Deadwood (right), for example, HBO let Milch develop John From Cincinnati, a strange, etherial drama about a family of Southern California surfers that left viewers and critics trying to get water out of their ears. And last year, Milch and HBO missed again with Luck, a period drama themed around horse-racing that ended up losing the network about $35 million.
The cultural touchstones might be gone — not just from HBO, but from TV … everywhere. Has AMC come up with anything as fresh, profound and poignant as Mad Men or Breaking Bad? (I mean, come on, Walking Dead is fun, solid TV, but it is, in the end, just good genre television). And for however many comedic-dramas Showtime creates around female anti-heroes, will it ever top Weeds?
Yeah, I think Greenwald might be right — that magic hour, when desperate forces collided in the cable programming business and innovated the narrative story-telling capability of television, is gone. It probably ended in 2007, when Chris Albrecht, the brilliant architect of the programming renaissance HBO foisted upon the industry, beat up his girlfriend in a drunken rage and got fired; or when Rob Sorcher and Christina Wayne, the creative executives who introduced Mad Men and Breaking Bad, left AMC in a huff.
I wonder if, in the ultra-fragmented video age we operate in, where DVR/VOD appointments are always pending and the spoiler-alert status is always on orange, if we could even coalesce a water-cooler hit anymore. What would happen if you told your office mates about a new show you saw the night before set in 1960s-era Madison Avenue? If you weren’t told, “Don’t tell me about it — I have it recorded,” you might hear “I watched Downton Abbey on PBS” instead.
Maybe, as they try to get attention to their emerging original series accumens, Netflix or Hulu will achieve an old-fashioned HBO level of alchemy, but so far initial efforts like Lilyhammer and Battleground have fallen far short of the mark.
The brand plays on
For its part, HBO has moved on to its next phase of product innovation — proliferating across platforms. And the programming mandate is different.
Its hits may not command the national conversation as say, The Sopranos once did, or Mad Men and Breaking Bad still do. But measuring its audience across platforms — something HBO started doing several years ago, way ahead of most other traditional programmers — the audience for Game of Thrones this season has averaged over 10 million viewers. That’s twice the size of Mad Men‘s audience.