Sex and the City is 25 years old this year. It’s an anniversary that few have noticed. Even when commissioning the third season of its sequel And Just Like That… last month, the original show’s birth wasn’t mentioned. Next year the Sopranos reaches the same age. And there’s many who think we will never see their like again.
HBO, the channel that created those shows, has long fostered a reputation for edgy, genre changing programming. Its slogan – “it’s not TV, it’s HBO” – deliberately set it apart from other channels. It had a “creative first” policy that produced The Sopranos and The Wire and allowing writers and directors to follow their heart, which meant Martin Scorsese, Julia Roberts, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Nicole Kidman and Tom Hanks were happy to work there, often making their small screen debut.
In 2023, however, HBO is in trouble. When it won 127 Emmys at this year’s awards, with four out of the eight drama nominees coming from its stable – Succession, White Lotus, House of the Dragon and The Last of Us – one headline read: “HBO is Back on Top, Perhaps for the Last Time.”
Branding changes, show cancellations, and a stream of developments from CEO David Zaslav have put the brand in danger of relinquishing its reputation at a time when it should be reigning supreme – because the streaming model is the HBO model. In 2013, Netflix then co-CEO Ted Sarandos said his goal was to “become HBO faster than HBO could become Netflix.” This year Bela Bajaria, Netflix’s head of global TV, argued the job was done, saying that the company now wants to “replace all television.”
Recently, HBO cancelled its all-star LA Lakers drama Winning Time, following its binning of controversial drama The Idol after just one season. Also this year, HBO has offed Gossip Girl, Batman spin-off Pennyworth, legal reboot Perry Mason, Armando Iannucci comedy Avenue 5 and a host of others. High profile dramas like Watergate thriller the White House Plumbers, starring Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux, and David E. Kelley’s true crime drama Love and Death, starring Elizabeth Olson, have struggled to attract a large audience. Upcoming series include the Kate Winslet political satire The Regime and stylish spy drama The Sympathizer – both look excellent but don’t exactly scream “next Game of Thrones”.
In 2024 we have further helpings of the Game of Thrones sequel House of the Dragon, zombie video game adaptation The Last of Us and more True Detective, this time with Jodie Foster. But HBO may find it hard to rebuild after the writer’s strike thanks to one man – David Zaslav, CEO of HBOs parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.
Zaslav has already outraged writers, commentators and Wall Street for jetting off to the annual “summer camp for billionaires” retreat in Sun Valley, Idaho, the day before talks between studios and actors broke down. When the mogul gave a speech at Boston University in May he was heckled by students chanting “pay your writers”. Add his backing for problematic flops The Flash and The Idol and he has single handedly made himself the most hated man on the picket line.
“Zaslav has reduced HBO, the most valuable brand name in television, to a ‘brand hub’ on a rebranded Max streaming service,” according to journalist and screenwriter Drew Magary. “He memory-holed a great many other films and shows that were released, like HBO’s Westworld series, to avoid paying residuals. That’s why Zaslav got booed by students at Boston University and why striking Writers Guild of America writers, myself included, have made him the face of studio bosses who want to reduce TV and film writing jobs to gig work.”
Zaslav, whose team reportedly put pressure on US GQ to remove a critical piece on its website in July, is considered the architect of HBO’s misfortune. When Warner Bros launched its streaming service in May 2023, it rolled up movies and TV channels into one package branded HBO Max. After Warners merged with Discovery in a $43 billion deal last year, Zaslav decided to rebrand the service as just Max. HBO’s programming now sits in a “hub” within Max, whose all-important home screen tends to shove its more niche output to the bottom.
The move seems to have backfired, with Max losing 1.8 million subscribers in the three months and John Oliver, the host of HBO’s satirical Tonight with John Oliver, offering a new corporate slogan: “Max! There’s entertainment in watching a company die!”. To some observers, however, it makes sense.
“HBO is a niche channel that has been very successful as a premium add-on to basic cable packages,” says Tom Harrington at Enders Analysis. “It has quite a small amount of output and with a couple of very obvious exceptions viewing is generally small. That didn’t make it the best candidate to underpin a mass-market streamer. The Discovery content expands the audience for Max but counterintuitively pushes the amount they can charge down. This also indicates some sort of dilution of the perceptual value of HBO content which has been going on for a while. The previous owners and the current owners keep telling HBO it needs to make more programming, which makes quality control hard.”
Quality control is a big issue for HBO. Jesse Armstrong created Succession for HBO thanks to the company’s freewheeling support of talent. Ten years ago, Frank Rich, a journalist and freelance HBO producer read Armstrong’s failed film script inspired by the Murdoch family. He kept tabs on Armstrong and executive produced Armando Iannucci’s political satire Veep for HBO.
Rich and Armstrong collaborated on a show called the Imperialists for HBO, which died in development, so when Armstrong finished his Succession pilot, his agent called Rich first to tell him HBO had one last shot based on the trust between the two. Rich called HBO’s then boss Richard Plepler, who moved quickly enough to get filming under way swiftly.
That sort of slow build flexibility doesn’t seem to be in HBO’s future, explains Ed Waller, managing editor of industry bible C21 Media. “Zaslav wants to focus on franchises like DC Comics, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings,” he says. “He’s already backed HBO commissioning a TV retelling of the original book era. That is not going to sit with HBO’s edgy drama – niche, short run, the opposite of the spandex franchises that are driving Hollywood. But these shows reach a different audience that superheroes can’t. That’s why Disney is so keen to protect edgy drama on its FX channel. It’s hard to see Jesse Armstrong preferring to bring his next Succession to a channel filled with Harry Potter and The Flash.”
Waller says writers and directors have placed their hopes in HBO honcho Casey Bloys, whose been given more breathing space than most of Zaslav’s subordinates. “Bloys’s success has given Zaslav bragging rights in the Hamptons,” he says wryly, although he points out that the fastest growing source of quality drama on Max comes from AMC, a rival company to Warner Bros, which is sharing shows like Fear the Walking Dead and Killing Eve in a bid to grow its own subscriber base.
In the UK, much of this is academic. HBOs programming is tied in with a range of broadcasters for a number of years, meaning Max isn’t launching here any time soon. That makes it hard for fans to follow the click, hiss and swelling chord ident that opens every HBO show – Love and Death is on ITVX, How to with John Wilson is on the iPlayer while Succession rests on Sky. Eventually, when the deals expire, Warner Bros Discovery will call them all back home and launch Max over here. But if Zaslav continues his policy of dumping old shows to save paying residuals and future Jesse Armstrongs look elsewhere, will it be worth watching?
HBO’s greatest hits
1. The Sopranos (1999-2007)
The accents. The music. The goddam baked ziti. The show which ushered in the “Golden Age of TV” – and HBO’s position as the network with the Midas touch – followed James Gandolfini’s New Jersey mob boss over six seasons as he dealt with his crumbling marriage, overbearing mother and the need to occasionally sanction a spot of ultra violence. Structured as a series of confessions to his therapist, it’s intricate, thrilling and profound.
2. The Wire (2002-2008)
This Baltimore-set crime procedural was knotty, morally-murky and, for British viewers, quite often incomprehensible. (Of course, everyone pretended to understand the dense, dialect-flecked conversations, whilst watching with subtitles on the sly.) It cemented the status of stars Dominic West, Idris Elba and Wendell Pierce.
3. Game of Thrones (2011-2019)
DUH, DUH, DUH, DA, DA, DAD, DAAR… Anthropologists maintain there are Amazonian tribes who don’t think it all began to go downhill after season seven. But for the rest of us, this world-conquering adaptation of George RR Martin’s sprawling fantasy novels is as much part of the cultural wallpaper as Harry Potter. Despite its ubiquity, it still carries an undeniable charge: marrying high-fantasy tropes with Machiavellian realpolitik. Irresistible.
4. Chernobyl (2019)
Proof that you don’t need multiple seasons to capture lightning in a bottle, this five-episode miniseries told the story of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and its aftermath. Based on Svetlana Alexievich’s landmark work of nonfiction Chernobyl Prayer, it soberly dramatised the nuclear disaster whose clean-up is only scheduled to complete in 2065. Despite starring a bevy of British acting talent, including Emily Wilson and Jared Harris, it captured the dry deliberations of Soviet grey-suits, and the outlandish horror of radiation poisoning, with chilling precision.
5. Succession (2018-2023)
Masterminded by Peep Show co-creator Jesse Armstrong, over four seasons this comedy-drama about the sibling rivalry to inherit a sprawling media empire made hay with the compulsive awfulness of the super-rich, whilst giving its characters just a scintilla of redeeming humanity. The rococo profanity of the dialogue would shame Malcolm Tucker.
By Alex Diggins