HBO Struggles to Find a Broad Comedy Hit

HBO Comedy Hit - P 2014

HBO Comedy Hit - P 2014

With cancellations for "Family Tree" and "Hello Ladies" and a ratings disappointment with new series "Looking," even comparable hits "Girls" and "Veep" are miles away from the cable net's glory days of "Sex and the City" and "Entourage."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Quick, name three comedies on HBO. Girls … Veep … and …?

Years after ratings hits Sex and the City and Entourage, three of the premium cable network's four most recent comedic efforts -- the recently canceled Christopher Guest serial Family Tree and Stephen Merchant's Hello Ladies, as well as Getting On, which likely will win a renewal -- have been ratings and buzz disappointments. Its newest entry, the gay-themed Looking, debuted Jan. 19 to only 338,000 viewers in live-plus same day measurement, losing more than half of its Girls lead-in despite mostly strong reviews.

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The Looking numbers highlight a potential trouble spot for HBO: As its drama brand has benefited from such bold mainstream successes as Game of Thrones, True Blood and new hit True Detective (which scored the network's biggest premiere audience since Boardwalk Empire in 2010), comedy increasingly has become a niche (if still-prestigious) play.

Even those HBO comedies considered hits by the network are relatively small players. The second season of Lena Dunham's Girls averaged only 660,000 total viewers, down nearly 200,000 compared with its freshman run. Veep, starring Seinfeld alum Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is the network's top comedy performer, up slightly in season two to an average of 1.14 million viewers.

HBO isn't chasing ratings alone, of course, but rather that unquantifiable mix of audience engagement, cachet and watercooler buzz that causes its 29 million subscribers to shell out each month. To that end, Girls and Veep both generate awards and glowing media attention, and audience numbers grow when DVR and repeats are factored in. "We're not in the business of building comedies to get the biggest eyeballs," programming president Michael Lombardo tells THR. "Family Tree and Getting On both did exactly what I hoped they'd do. They're very cost-effective; the foreign sales on those shows make them very easy to cost-justify."

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Lombardo isn't alone. Cable networks in general have failed to wrest comedy superiority from broadcast series the same way they have dominated in drama. Fox's rookie cop sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine recently upset 2013 winner Girls for the comedy series Golden Globe, and ABC's Modern Family won its fourth consecutive SAG Award in the ensemble category.

But HBO might have broader shows in the pipeline. In the spring, it will launch Silicon Valley, an Entourage-for-tech comedy from Office Space's Mike Judge. The Duplass brothers' relationship entry Togetherness and Dwayne Johnson's retired-athletes comedy pilot Ballers also could play broadly. "It's got to feel differentiated, like there's a voice," says Lombardo. "We're in a brand play, and if something feels smart and differentiated, we're going to be attracted to it."