After the Iron Throne: How HBO Will Move Forward Without ‘Game of Thrones’

As HBO says goodbye to the Seven Kingdoms, a look at the network’s future

HBO has been the envy of the TV world for the better part of two decades, with a seemingly unbroken chain of critical and ratings hits featuring A-list talent that has nabbed the network a ton of Emmys, and healthy profits.

And by far, HBO’s biggest-ever success has been “Game of Thrones,” a show that over eight seasons has been an unmatched pop culture juggernaut that continues to set ratings records. But as the curtain finally closes on the Seven Kingdoms with Sunday’s series finale, HBO is at a fork in the road. The show ends one week after the series finale of another major success, “Veep,” and there’s no clear successor in the wings.

That’s why it’s understandable that earlier this year, in his first few weeks as WarnerMedia entertainment chairman, Bob Greenblatt had to field the same question over and over: “What happens to HBO after ‘Game of Thrones?'”

“[HBO is] thrilled to have had something like ‘Game of Thrones,” Greenblatt told TheWrap just before the show’s eighth season premiere last month. “But, there’s a lot of things on the horizon that I think are going to make this network very compelling for the next couple of years.”

Casey Bloys, HBO’s programming president, is quick to point out that this is not the first time HBO has had to move on after a hugely successful show ends without a clear successor. A 15-year veteran of the network, Bloys remembers when HBO was facing the same questions after “Six Feet Under” and “The Sopranos” went off the air in 2005 and 2007, respectively.

“Great shows go away, other great shows come. You never know where they’re going to come from,” Bloys told TheWrap in April. “If you stay in business with people you believe in, you see what happens.”

But there is one major difference this time around: HBO will have to reinvent itself without its long-time steward Richard Plepler, who was instrumental in getting several landmark HBO hit shows on the air — including “Veep” and “Game of Thrones.” He stepped down as HBO’s president and CEO in February, shortly after WarnerMedia began talking with Greenblatt about coming aboard as part of a company-wide shakeup under new owner AT&T. Greenblatt would officially join the company a few days later.

After AT&T took over HBO last year, WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey turned heads when he suggested HBO needs to be more like Netflix, even telling Plepler during an employee town hall meeting that while HBO made money, it was “just not enough.”

After substantial pushback from critics and analysts, Stankey and Bloys walked back the tough talk a bit, saying just weeks later, “We want to invest more in original content while still retaining the high quality and unique brand positioning of HBO.”

Whatever happens down the line, the network won’t feel Plepler’s loss immediately. Greenblatt has inherited a roster of shows that includes the upcoming second seasons of “Big Little Lies” and “Succession,” and new entrants “Euphoria,” “The Righteous Gemstones” and Damon Lindelof’s adaption of Alan Moore’s “Watchmen.”

There’s also an adaptation of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” fantasy novel series that stars James McAvoy and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Helen Mirren’s biopic about Russian empress Catherine the Great. 

In 2020, HBO will have the returns of “Westworld,” “The Young Pope” — dubbed “The New Pope” for Season 2 — and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” David Simon’s next HBO project, a miniseries based on Philip Roth’s alternate history novel “The Plot Against America,” is also scheduled for a 2020 debut.

Also on the horizon are Joss Whedon’s “The Nevers,” Robert Downey Jr.-produced “Perry Mason,” Jordan Peele’s “Lovecraft Country” and “Avenue 5,” the next comedy from “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci. One of Greenblatt’s first moves was to bring “The Gilded Age,” Julian Fellowes’ follow-up to “Downton Abbey,” over from NBC; he had initially developed it when he was the entertainment chairman for the broadcast network.

And HBO may not even be done with Westeros just yet.

Ordered to pilot last year, a new project from “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin and “Kingsman” screenwriter Jane Goldman is set thousands of years before the events of the current series, in the era known as the “Age of Heroes.” Like “Game of Thrones,” the untitled prequel has an expansive cast filled with unknowns, led by one marquee name in Naomi Watts.

Although the project looks to be a sure thing to get ordered to series — it won’t start production until the summer — Greenblatt warned that nothing is set in stone. “We don’t even know if there’s a prequel series to be had yet,” he said, adding they have to ensure the project “will be on the level” of the original series. “I applaud these guys for walking before they run.”

HBO would know. The original pilot for “Game of Thrones” is the stuff of legend… for apparently how awful it was.

“There is such an inclination these days to just order everything right to series and go to full production,” Greenblatt said. “I don’t know if [“Game of Thrones”] would’ve become the phenomenal show that it did if it had gone straight to series.”

One thing is certain: HBO’s next hit is just as likely to come from out of nowhere as it is to be the one they thought would be the big success.

“One never knows when the next mega-hit is going to come along,” Greenblatt said. “Because they usually are the ones you last expect.”

Tim Baysinger

Tim Baysinger

TV Reporter • tim.baysinger@thewrap.com • Twitter: @tim_bays

Tony Maglio

Tony Maglio

TV Editor • tony.maglio@thewrap.com • Twitter: @tonymaglio



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