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HBO Hedges Its $65M ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Bet: Ratings Aren’t Everything

Faced with diminishing subscriptions and eroding Emmy clout, HBO is turning to its new $65 million man — Steve Buscemi — to turn the tide

Some fuss will be made about the ratings results for "Boardwalk Empire," the $65 million Atlantic City period drama making its series debut Sunday on HBO.

Just not by the folks at HBO.

"Not every show of ours has to be a ratings home run," programming president Michael Lombardo told TheWrap in an interview. "And that’s a great position to be in."

Nonetheless, the stakes are high for "Boardwalk." 

HBO is faced with reports of dwindling subscriptions, diminishing Emmy clout and — with the possible exception of "True Blood" — the lack of a landmark watercooler show along the lines of "The Sopranos" or "Sex and the City."

But HBO is betting that the lavish Prohibition-era crime drama can recapture the original-series crown it wore in the early 2000s, when those hit series fueled rapid subscription growth, major media attention and a long streak of Emmy wins. 

In the wake of HBO's streak, rival cable channels followed its blueprint to launch original series of their own — in many cases with the help of former HBO staff.

That competition has impacted HBO's longtime award show dominance: This year, for the first time, cable competitors AMC and Showtime earned more original series Emmy nominations than HBO. 

Meanwhile, HBO had 28.6 million subscribers in the second quarter of 2010, according to figures that appeared earlier this week in the Hollywood Reporter — its lowest in four years.

That was the first instance of back-to-back quarterly declines in six years. The other big premium cable networks — Showtime and Starz — both grew over that same period. HBO contends that the drop is insignificant, and that the pay channel's profits of $1.2 billion are three times that of their competitors.

Nonetheless, "Boardwalk Empire" is HBO's attempt to change the dynamic.

The show reportedly came with a $65 million price tag that paid for cinematic production values and an A-list team including executive producer Martin Scorsese (who also directed the pilot), "Sopranos" alum Terence Winter and series star Steve Buscemi, who plays lead character Nucky Johnson.

Though it's clearly an all-in bet, Lombardo insists that there's no one benchmark that HBO is looking to hit in order to call its "Boardwalk" gamble a win.

“It’s a relatively fluid definition,” Lombardo said. “With a show like ‘The Wire,’ here’s a show that never got recognized by the Emmy awards – but for the people that watched it, it was one of the best experiences they’ve ever had watching movies or television. And with a cost-effective show like that one was, in some cases, that’s enough.”

Lombardo seems confident that the reaction to "Boardwalk" will be better than enough.

“What people want from HBO are big, muscular shows that are complicated dramatically, that have a little bit of action and some darkness. We knew when we looked at (‘Boardwalk Empire’) three and a half years ago that this was something that was missing from our menu,” Lombardo said. “We thought ‘Boardwalk’ was a success when we saw the cuts. I knew in my gut, and we knew in our gut, that this show deserved a second season.”

Lombardo was careful to qualify that a second season has yet to be ordered – but that at this point, it’s all but a foregone conclusion.

“We haven’t formally picked it up, because we don’t need to yet … It’s an expensive show that requires a conversation. But we knew that with the reviews that started coming in early, the buzz that started coming in, that if we support that show, people will find it. If it’s 20 million people or 2 million, it doesn’t matter. As long as the people are passionate about that show.”