HBO's sultry vampire drama "True Blood" has become a surprise hit for the pay cable network and has almost single-handedly taken the network back to the top of the cultural zeitgeist.
The show, whose second season premiered Sunday to numbers the network hasn't seen since the last days of its mob drama "The Sopranos," is also on track to become HBO's next cash cow.
For Time Warner Inc.'s HBO, it couldn't come at a more opportune time. Over the last few years there has been a perception that the network has been in a creative funk since "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City" ended their runs. Although "Entourage" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" have loyal audiences, neither has broken through the way "True Blood" appears poised to do.
At the same time, HBO rival Showtime has seen its fortunes rise over the last few years with risk-taking shows such as "Weeds," "Californication," "Dexter" and, most recently, "Nurse Jackie." Basic cable networks, including FX with "Rescue Me," AMC with "Mad Men" and TNT with "The Closer," have also invaded HBO's turf with stronger programming.
Although HBO has always been a huge financial success -- people close to the channel say it generates roughly $1.4 billion in profit annually -- it also relishes its role as a critical darling. The emergence of "True Blood" as a hit and the strong buzz for the network's upcoming new comedy "Hung," about a teacher who decides to become a male escort, may get HBO its cool crown back.
"True Blood," which is in its second season, is already showing signs of being a big moneymaker for HBO. DVD sales for the first season, which only went on sale a few weeks ago, have already generated north of $30 million, according to industry research firm TV by the Numbers. "True Blood" has also become one of the top iTune downloads.
Since HBO produces and owns "True Blood," most of that money will flow back to the cable network. At a time when the rerun market is drying up for broadcast shows, HBO has also become successful at selling its shows there, although the racy content of "True Blood" might require severe editing even for basic cable.
"True Blood" isn't cheap to make. Although a typical drama on broadcast television may cost north of $2 million an episode, HBO's dramas cost as much as $4 million an episode.
When it premiered last year, "True Blood" drew only 1.4 million viewers and looked like it would join "John From Cincinnati" and "Tell Me You Love Me" as another quirky flop for HBO. As the season wore on, however, its popularity grew.
Sunday's second-season premiere drew 3.7 million viewers, the highest number for an HBO show since the finale of "The Sopranos." HBO reran the episode later that night, drawing a total viewership of more than 5 million. Those numbers are even more impressive when one considers that "True Blood" did not have a powerful show leading into its telecast and went up against ABC's coverage of Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the L.A. Lakers and Orlando Magic in some parts of the nation.
Having more hits will help HBO's next big venture, HBO Go, an online site where it will stream more of its vast library. The catch is that you have to pay for HBO to get access to the site. HBO does not stream its shows on its website or on other sites such as Hulu.com.