‘Game of Thrones': HBO Tries to Keep Its Crown

Four years after “The Sopranos” ended, the premium channel is spending big to get its mojo back in a programming realm that's more competitive than ever

Four years after "The Sopranos" ended, HBO 2.0 has arrived. 

With rivals such as Starz and Showtime nipping at its heels, HBO's new strategy to restore its luster is to bank on big-budget historical dramas and fantasies, with a dollop of star-driven adaptations of political best sellers for good measure. 

Under the programming guidance of programming president Michael Lombardo and co-president Richard Plepler since 2007, HBO is betting that Sunday’s premiere of “Game of Thrones” will kick off a new era for the premium channel, one that restores its reputation as the destination for water-cooler television.

It’s $60 million gamble on the fantasy epic on top of the equally pricey “Boardwalk Empire” better pay off, because HBO is struggling to retain its crown in a hyper competitive landscape.

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HBO and Cinemax collectively lost 1.6 million subscribers in 2010 and, worse yet, AMC has supplanted HBO as the home of critically adored Sunday night shows such as “Mad Men" "Breaking Bad,” and more recently, "The Walking Dead."

Put simply, four years after “The Sopranos” went off the air, the House that Tony built — or, in reality, former programming architect Chris Albrecht, who departed the network under scandel in 2007 — is still searching for its second act.

“You have to be fair. Who is ever going to come up with a culture-affecting show like ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘The Sopranos’ again? That’s really difficult to do,” Bill Carter, television reporter for the New York Times, told TheWrap. “There are many, many more networks doing HBO-like material; it’s become harder for them to break through.”

After a few whiffs, however, analysts say HBO is once again positioned to play long ball. The Time Warner-owned network's upcoming shows, such as David Milch’s horse racing drama “Luck,” and movie versions of bestsellers “Too Big to Fail” and “Game Change,” represent its most exciting slate in years.

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“I think they got their mojo back,” Neal Justin, a television and media critic for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, told TheWrap. 

Returning to the golden age of "Sex and the City" and "The Sopranos" may be a pipe dream, but the channel is steadily building momentum. Ratings wise, “Boardwalk” was a hit averaging 10.5 million views across live, on-demand and recorded audiences, the strongest first season for an HBO show since "Six Feet Under."

Though, “Mildred Pierce” was a ratings disappointment with 1.3 million tuning in for the first episode, the critical raves it received make it a leading Emmy contender, and “True Blood” continues to generate buzz and grow its fan base.

It’s too early to know if audiences will embrace “Game of Thrones,” but with its special effects and action, analysts told TheWrap that it may play better to the international audience HBO has been courting than complex modern characters dramas like “The Sopranos.”

But those successes may not be enough to stop HBO’s subscription slide.

Cable analysts say that the problems are twofold. The economic downturn has left many television viewers looking to cut home costs by sacrificing premium channels. At the same time, the rise of streaming services such as Netflix have made it easier and cheaper to access the type of high quality shows and movies that used to be HBO’s stock in trade.

“What you’re seeing is more cord shaving than it is consumers going elsewhere,” Christopher Marangi, an entertainment analyst at GAMCO Investors, told TheWrap.

“Increasingly, they can get things on Netflix, and there are a number of premium series syndicated on basic cable. There is a feeling on the part of consumers that it is not necessary to watch shows live.”

Netflix only stands to become a more fearsome adversary now that its re-entering the original programming game. It’s early effort to finance films, Red Envelope Entertainment, floundered, but analysts say that its decision to pick up Kevin Spacey’s upcoming series “House of Cards” could connect with viewers.

“Netflix is getting to a scale where they can throw a lot of money around and have a critical mass of audience, so this time may be different,” Marangi said.

Most worrisome for HBO is that while viewers may indeed be seeking more cost-efficient alternatives, its competitors are growing, while its own viewership is in decline. Over the past six years, Showtime has grown by 6 million subcribers to 18.2 million crafting edgy programs such as "Weeds," "Dexter" and “Nurse Jackie,” and historical epics like "The Tutors" and “The Borgias.”

Headed by HBO’s old programming guru Albrecht, Starz now has 17.3 million subscribers on the strength of programs such as “Camelot” and “Spartacus.”

That pales in comparison to HBO’s more than 28 million subscribers, but the channel that put premium cable on the map clearly sees threats to its kingdom.

“Ultimately, there’s a certain amount of churn that always happens, but it’s important to bring on new people or maintain subscription levels,” Bill Carroll, television analyst at Katz Media Group, told TheWrap. “That’s the ultimate benchmark. Harkening back to Sally Field, it’s ‘they buy me, they really really buy me.’ ”

Keeping customers will be expensive. “Empire”s’ $65 million price tag and the millions shelled out for “Thrones” represent a full-on assault on its premium channel competitors and basic cable upstarts such as FX and AMC.

With production values and budgets that rival those of major films, the network seems to recognize that it doesn't just need good shows. They have to produce eye popping extravaganzas.

“It’s not enough to have a smart, well written drama, everybody has that. There’s got to be spectacle,” Justin told TheWrap. “You do get the feeling that if someone came up with ‘Six Feet Under’ today, that wouldn’t be on HBO.”

Sometimes that hesitancy to return to edgier fare has been costly. In particular, passing on AMC’s “Mad Men” was a decision that had longtime consequences for HBO.

“Somewhere deep in their bones, HBO must regret turning down ‘Mad Men.’ That one show made huge difference, and if they had it they wouldn’t be watching other people winning all the awards, getting all the attention, and AMC would not exist as the place for water cooler television.”

On Sunday, the premiere of “Game of Thrones" could see the balance shift back in HBO's favor.