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Can it remain tony?

With the dual exit of HBO's top series and key executive, the cable network tries to retain its 'insurgent voice.'

September 12, 2007|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- On Sunday, for one last night, HBO will bask in the presence of Tony Soprano.

This year's Emmy ceremonies appear poised to serve as a farewell bash for the iconic mobster and a triumphant coda to "The Sopranos," showered with 15 nominations for its final season.

But amid the expected celebration will loom a reminder of the mixed blessing the much-lauded drama bestowed on the premium cable network. Every award the program racks up will just further spotlight the question that has dogged HBO since creator David Chase announced he was bringing the series to a close: What is the network's next "Sopranos"?

In fact, HBO executives have largely relinquished the notion that they will deliver another show that has both such cultural distinction and mass appeal, according to people who work closely with the network.

"I feel a post-'Sopranos,' post-'Sex and the City' fever has passed," said writer David Simon, executive producer of "The Wire." "I lived through that. They were evaluating shows in terms of, can this be the next 'Sopranos'? There was a struggle within HBO to be as purely committed to projects because of the quality and unique aspects, rather than its possibility to be a hit."

Nowadays, the talk at the network is about staying true to its "insurgent voice," an approach executives hope will help them move past one of HBO's most fraught periods in recent history.

In May, the network weathered the abrupt departure of its chief executive, Chris Albrecht, after he was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend. Chief Operating Officer Bill Nelson was tapped as his replacement, backed by a trio of senior managers -- all HBO veterans who had worked closely with Albrecht, a powerful force credited with shaping the network's vanguard identity.

"It's been really hard," said Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment. "It was hard emotionally. There was a period where we didn't know what would happen. But I think it's all settled into a very good groove. As opposed to having that one singular, charismatic guy who was at the spear's tip, I think you have right now a very collaborative group of people working together."

One of the first challenges that faced the new team was the withering response to the much-anticipated new David Milch drama, "John From Cincinnati." After the esoteric surf noir series failed to connect with viewers and critics, many of whom described it as incomprehensible, disappointed executives pulled the plug on a second season.

The collapse of the series, which premiered right after the "Sopranos" finale, represented a high-profile flop for the long-golden network and triggered chatter among television rivals that HBO had lost its touch.

Network officials dismiss such talk, adding that their only regret is that they allowed expectations to mount that "John From Cincinnati" would be the successor to their popular mob drama.

"The only thing I would say we learned is that we shouldn't have put that much of a spotlight on it at the moment we did," said Michael Lombardo, president of the HBO Programming Group. "Would we have done it again? Absolutely."

"The same sensibility that brought 'The Sopranos' to HBO requires taking risks with creative talent who have a distinctive voice, a passion for their vision and an ability to execute," Lombardo added. " 'John From Cincinnati' and 'The Sopranos' both reflect that dynamic. While we won't always get it right every time, it is precisely a willingness to take chances that got us where we are today."

As HBO tries to move past its unsettling summer, its moves are being watched closely in an industry that has long regarded the cable network as a trailblazer. One measure of the task ahead can be seen in the 86 Emmy nominations it garnered this year, the most of any network for the seventh year in a row. But only a fraction of the nods are for returning shows.

There are early indications that HBO could have a mixed fall season: Last Sunday's premiere of the intimate relationship drama "Tell Me You Love Me" drew just 910,000 viewers. "Curb Your Enthusiasm" attracted 1.2 million viewers for its season premiere, on par with the comedy's Sunday audiences during its last season. (HBO executives stress that the first-run ratings are largely irrelevant, as half of a show's audience typically tunes into repeat airings throughout the week or views episodes on-demand.)

As HBO plans its 2008 slate -- the network's first lineup without Albrecht's imprint since his exit -- the emphasis is on finding projects with strong artistic visions that will appeal to different niches of the network's subscriber base.

"Going for that big, broad hit from our point of view is a mistake, because I think it leads to bad creative choices," Strauss said. "You start to try and second-guess what is going to please X or Y or Z, and you end up with some committee-made mush."

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