TCA: HBO Presents Films, 'Hello Ladies' (Analysis)

Mostly movies were on the docket, but there is a new upcoming comedy from Stephen Merchant; HBO executives offered up plenty about where the channel is now and moving forward.
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Richard Plepler and Michael Lombardo of HBO at TCA.

It wasn't the most jam-packed day of unmissable goodness that HBO normally doles out at the Television Critics Association press tour, but the pay channel still revealed enough on Thursday for an evaluation of where it stands at this moment.

Overview: HBO is still in a solid position. The channel recently received 108 Emmy nominations (a gain of 27 over last year) and easily topped rivals Showtime (31 nominations) and Netflix (14 nominations). In addition, ad-supported cable channels that churn out quality scripted fare are also in competition with HBO: FX (26 noms), AMC (26 noms) Sundance Channel (10 noms), Starz (3 noms) and BBC America (3 noms). 

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That said, we're in a scripted war across the spectrum (plus new platforms) and keeping series in the pipeline so there's no lag is absolutely essential, as is keeping existing shows creative and fresh. HBO's current series, outside of the extremely popular Game of Thrones and The Newsroom, plus the still rosy Girls and Veep, are in the best position to help the channel. Treme is heading into its final season as is Eastbound & Down (and Enlightened has already been canceled). Boardwalk Empire has dropped out of the Best Drama category and is in a strange place among critics, who mostly seem to love it but are not always eager to write about it with any passion on a weekly basis. True Blood still delivers the goods but isn't truly relevant to HBO's allure.

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TCA panels: HBO brought the films Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight; Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth; Clear History and the documentary Seduced and Abandoned. Those were all fine enough with headline-grabbing stars like Spike Lee, Mike Tyson, Larry David, Ryan Gosling and Alec Baldwin. This is the kind of work that allows HBO to dominate the movies and miniseries category at the Emmys yet the kind of strength that drives subscriptions (the model HBO is built on) are scripted series. And the only one -- but a good one, as panels go -- was the new Stephen Merchant comedy, Hello Ladies. We didn't receive the pilot or any other episodes, but Merchant was his usual charming and hilarious self onstage, and the clips were funny -- two benefits to creating buzz.

Worries: HBO is just at this point in its development cycle where things seem a bit thin on the shelf, so something other than Hello Ladies might have bolstered more interest. In addition, the brilliant but barely watched comedy Family Tree from Christopher Guest didn't actually get much of an endorsement about its renewal, because it's a co-production with the BBC and there are details to work out. If you want an educated guess, don't get your hopes up for a second season. Lastly, Boardwalk Empire will be an interesting series to monitor in the zeitgeist.

No Worries: Game of Thrones is such a major player that it can cover for any dip in the road, Girls is established (and a lightning rod -- never a bad thing for this business model) and Veep is now a real player for HBO.

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