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TELEVISION

A Major Reboot For Hbo

In a race to regain relevance, the cable powerhouse kicks development into high gear. New execs ponder 'noireurotic' comedy, Washingtoniennes, violent gangs of housewives. . . .

November 09, 2008|Matea Gold | Gold is a Times staff writer.

NEW YORK — When Alan Taylor is directing your HBO television pilot, it's usually a sign the program is a lock to get on the air. The Emmy-award winning director has put his imprint on nearly every one of the network's major series, including "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City," "Six Feet Under," "Big Love" and "Deadwood."

But Taylor's latest HBO project, "Bored to Death," is up against stiffer competition than usual. Penned by novelist Jonathan Ames, the quirky comedy about a frustrated young New York writer who moonlights as a hard-boiled detective is just one of nine pilots HBO currently has in the works. Dozens of other shows from the likes of actor Jim Carrey, author Tom Wolfe and "The Squid and the Whale" screenwriter Noah Baumbach are in various stages of development.

"It will be a survival of what they consider the fittest," Taylor said on a recent cold fall night, as he prepared to shoot a scene in a brightly lit TriBeCa art gallery. "You'd rather be their only one, but fair enough, if you have to sort of win your place."

The intensive production marks a departure for the premium cable channel, which in recent years hadn't even used its full development budget. But confronted with an urgent need for new series, HBO has hurtled into its most significant creative reboot since it began making original programs in the 1980s. In doing so, it's testing shows that represent a sharp departure from the sweeping family sagas that have most recently defined the network.

"I think we're more pregnant with talent and with ideas and with development than we've ever been in our history," said Richard Plepler, HBO's co-president. "It's not an exaggeration to say that we're as excited about the future of this place as we've been in a long time."

Part of that is due to the performance of "True Blood," the first new series that has performed strongly for HBO in quite a while. Since its premiere in September, the first five episodes of the Southern vampire drama have averaged about 6.5 million viewers across a week, putting it on track to be HBO's third-most-watched series, after "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City."

Network executives are now hoping that among the raft of new projects they're considering, they'll find the kind of unorthodox and compelling series that long made HBO the undisputed king of zeitgeist television.

Of course, others are vying for that crown. As FX and AMC bask in critical praise for programs like "Damages" and "Mad Men," HBO has spent the last few years trying to fend off the perception that it had lost its mojo.

Esoteric surfer series "John From Cincinnati," the first big launch after "The Sopranos" concluded its run, quickly flopped. Relationship drama "Tell Me You Love Me" was canceled after one low-rated season, and the Lily Tomlin comedy "12 Miles of Bad Road" was scuttled before it made it on the air after executives were disappointed by the early episodes. (The fallow period has not appeared to affect subscriptions. Through June, the network had almost 29 million subscribers, up slightly from the same period last year, according to media research firm SNL Kagan Research.)

"Replacing a slate that was arguably at the time the best in television is very difficult to do," said Charlie Collier, AMC's general manager. "I think they're doing what all of us are trying to do, which is find the next big thing."

The unfamiliar string of misses came as HBO was undergoing an internal transition following the abrupt departure in May 2007 of its chief executive, Chris Albrecht. This year, two HBO veterans announced they were leaving as well: Entertainment President Carolyn Strauss and Film President Colin Callender.

Thinking outside the box

The changes ushered in a period of introspection at the famously insular network. Plepler and Michael Lombardo, president of the programming group, said one of the first things they realized when they took the helm last year was how few new series HBO had in the works.

"Part of the great thing about HBO is we don't have pilot seasons, so really things can percolate until they're ready," Lombardo said. "The flip side of that is things can percolate for a very long time. What we found when we stepped into our positions was that there was a lot that was percolating, but not really ready."

So the two executives have been aggressively courting the industry, soliciting pitches -- a dramatic reversal from the way HBO conducted business in the past.

"I do think we had become, by virtue of our success, a little passive in the development process," Lombardo said. "There was an expectation that if someone had a good project, they would bring it to us. That's not necessarily the best way of developing. And so we just became more proactive. We started knocking on doors."

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