Casey Bloys has a lot to do.
As expected, HBO on Monday tapped Bloys as its top programming boss, replacing Michael Lombardo, who was edged out last week after a 33-year career at the premium cable network.
Bloys has spent years working on the comedy side, helping to develop critically acclaimed shows like “Girls,” “Veep” and “Silicon Valley.”
But his new mandate will be a lot tougher than finding some funny shows. Bloys now has to oversee all of the programming at HBO and Cinemax, including series, made-for-TV movies, specials and documentaries.
More importantly, Bloys has to contend with the seemingly unstoppable force that is Netflix.
Stretching back more than 30 years, HBO created a new template for a TV network. The New York-based company accepted no on-air advertising, making its money entirely off subscriptions.
With the no advertiser clientele or federal regulators to worry about, programmers were free to show content with nudity, profanity and violence — to the dismay of their broadcast rivals, who took cold comfort in bromides about how self-censorship supposedly enhances creativity.
At the same time, HBO could throw the dice on documentaries that might have only the most limited niche appeal: No one was going to cancel a month-long subscription because one show wasn’t of interest. The whole experience was what mattered to subscribers.
Now Netflix has taken that HBO model and run even further. The streaming company charges a subscription fee, too. But for as little as $7.99 per month (compared with about $15 for HBO), Netflix offers viewers an ocean of options.
In addition to more movies than any one person could reasonably watch (although perhaps relatively few recent box-office hits), the service has pushed aggressively into original series. One result is critically acclaimed series such as “Orange Is the New Black” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”
But perhaps the most ominous sign for HBO was Netflix’s astonishing success with last winter’s “Making a Murderer,” a long documentary series about an obscure Wisconsin murder trial that exploded into a cultural phenomenon with virtually no marketing. Somehow Netflix outshone HBO with its own smash true-crime series, “The Jinx.” Netflix now has 81 million subscribers around the world, although that’s still far behind HBO’s worldwide figure of 138 million.
Meanwhile, Bloys is facing the end of recent HBO staples like “Game of Thrones,” whose creators have said they envision only another season or two past the current sixth season.
So what are the priorities for Bloys in his new role? Here are the Top 3:
- Find a New Signature Hit. Duh, you might say. But TV is still a hit-driven business. And it always will be. With “GoT” likely going away in the not-too-distant future, Bloys needs to find a new series that can keep subscribers happy and help persuade non-subscribers to sign up. That’s going to be a one-hour series.
Critically beloved as it is, “Veep,” or any comedy like it, isn’t going to bear the standard for HBO going forward. Neither, it needs be said, is “Vinyl,” a rock-music drama that came with golden auspices (Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger) but that audiences and critics have rejected and that helped end the Lombardo era. To find the show that sum up the network’s entire approach requires a deep sense of what makes a TV franchise tick and also an intuitive notion of where the culture is headed. Bloys seems to possess the former; whether he also has the other will determine what happens to HBO in the next 5-10 years.
- Keep It Simple. People’s video watching, like so many other aspects of their lives, has shifted online. The competition there has intensified so much that it’s critical for networks to organize their offerings under a single entity. Netflix and Amazon perform that task reasonably well: When you use Roku or a similar set-top box, both those services are easy to find. Both make it relatively easy to pick out and call up content too (although neither does a perfect job).
HBO, strangely, has two different offerings, HBO Now and HBO Go, and the differences between the two are confusing enough that the company has seen fit to produce this explainer. That this document exists at all suggests a company struggling to find its footing in a new world of streaming. While this problem isn’t directly Bloys’ responsibility, he should use his new authority to fix it.
- Reinvent TV again. When we look back on today from the perspective of 30 years from now, we will realize that in 2016 we were at the dawn of the streaming age. Many of the programming genres and conventions we retain today hail from when commercial television was invented in the late 1940s. That includes half-hour sitcom blocks and one-hour dramas.
Those conventions made perfect sense when families gathered around one TV set in the living room 50 years ago, but they may make no sense at all when viewing has become much less communal and more individualized, seen on a phone in the palm of one’s hand. Netflix has exploited streaming very well, but there’s no reason why it should have a monopoly on it. HBO reinvented TV in the 1990s, and it’s up to Bloys to do it again.