HBO Execs Talk Netflix's Business, 'Newsroom's' Future, Gandolfini's Loss, More

Richard Plepler Michael Lombardo Summer TCA - H 2013
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Richard Plepler Michael Lombardo Summer TCA - H 2013

Hot off of their 108 Emmy nominations, HBO CEO Richard Plepler and programming president Michael Lombardo took the stage at Thursday’s Television Critics Association summer press tour to face a barrage of questions.

Among the afternoon’s hot topics: Game of Thrones' shelf-life (“We’re taking it as far as there stories are to tell,” Lombardo told reporters of the genre hit), The Newroom’s future (“The odds are excellent [that it will be renewed],” he added of a show for which his team is “enormously happy”) and next steps for limited series Criminal Justice in the wake of star James Gandolfini's tragic passing. 

But no issue got more airtime during the half-hour TCA panel than the rise of rival Netflix, for which the two execs suggested they had no real concerns. “We live very comfortably amidst competition,” said Plepler, who also noted: “We have been engaged in competition for the whole history of our network. First, it was the broadcast networks, then it was premium, then basic and now it’s digital.”

Pushed again later in the session about the digital upstart's decision not only to stay mum on its series’ ratings but also to declare shows such as House of Cards and Arrested Development “hits,” Lombardo said it was curious. “We never considered having that response to you. It’s curious. But I guess the press is fine with the answer,” he added, a subtle jab at the heaps of praise the media showers on the Netflix's series push despite a lack of metrics.

It is worth noting that the Netflix comparisons to HBO are often overstated. Take the two companies' financials. HBO earned $1.5 billion in profit last year, according to financial firm SNL Kagan, compared with the $17 million Netflix posted in net profit. And in addition to a far larger international footprint, HBO owns the vast majority of its programming, which includes docs, films, specials and sports as well as original series, while Netflix has remained strictly a licensor of content.

Here’s a look at some of the issues that the duo addressed in their time before the press:

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News on Newsroom

The odds are “excellent” that Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom will continue, said Lombardo, who noted that HBO is “enormously happy” with the show and its second season growth. The latter opened 4 percent higher than its first season bow at this time last year. The holdup on a season three renewal, according to the HBO exec, is Sorkin’s schedule, which includes a Steve Jobs biopic and a recently revived Chicago 7 film. Still, Lombardo said he’d be “shocked” if a pickup wasn’t announced in the coming weeks. The desire is to have the series back on HBO's schedule next year.

A Post-Gandolfini Criminal Justice?

In the wake of Gandolfini’s tragic passing, HBO has been forced to address what will come next for one of his outstanding projects, a seven-episode limited series called Criminal Justice. Lombardo acknowledged that he and his team currently are having conversations about how to proceed. “We would never air the pilot with James in it … That was just the beginning of a journey, and there's no reason to air it. We're having conversations about reshooting the portion that Jim had already performed in and recasting going forward," he added, noting that while Gandolfini's passing "took the wind out of our sails quite a bit at HBO," Richard Price and Steven Zaillian are still writing away.

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Enlightened’s Demise

While Lombardo is proud of both the critically adored series and the recent Emmy attention star Laura Dern has received, he and his team decided it made sense creatively to end Enlightened after its second season. “The story of Amy Jellicoe had come to a natural resting place, and we thought it was best to end it where we did,” he noted. Factoring in to a lesser extent was the fact that the ratings were not as strong as HBO had hoped for -- and, worse, the already small viewership grew smaller in the show’s second season.

Family Tree’s Future

HBO has yet to make a decision about the future of the Christopher Guest comedy, a co-production with the BBC. While the show "didn’t find as a robust audience as [the network] had hoped,” said Lombardo, he was enormously proud of it and believed that the BBC was interested in doing another season. He added that those conversations with the BBC were just beginning now.

More From David Milch

Following the short-lived run of his HBO drama Luck, the network is readying another drama, Money, from creator David Milch. The network is near a pilot order and is exploring casting on a new drama from Milch and exec producers Art and John Linson, described as a look at a dynastic New York media family. "It's a look at power," said Plepler, "the complexity of power and modern and urban life in a classic Milchian voice."

Additional reporting by Lesley Goldberg.