Who's afraid of Netflix? Not HBO, says its programming chief

HBO’s Westworld, starring James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood, is nominated for Best Drama at this year’s Emmys.
HBO’s Westworld, starring James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood, is nominated for Best Drama at this year’s Emmys. PHOTO: HBO
Casey Bloys.
Casey Bloys.PHOTO: HBO

Programming chief Casey Bloys says HBO is still the first choice for many talents developing new content, even if it is spending less than its rivals

With the eye-watering sums content-streaming giants Netflix and Amazon are spending to acquire new shows and films, traditional television networks and film studios have increasingly found themselves outbid.

But HBO programming chief Casey Bloys is not losing sleep over this just yet - largely because of his network's enviable reputation, which he says makes it the first stop for many talented people developing new projects.

While HBO spent US$2 billion (S$2.7 billion) on programming last year, Netflix and Amazon have set aside US$6 billion and US$4.5 billion respectively for video-streaming content this year.

Mr Bloys says: "There's a lot put on how various outlets have lots of money to spend and I guess I would worry about that more if I had to say 'no' to something that we really wanted."

The boyish-looking 45-year-old is one of the youngest executives in The Hollywood Reporter's recent list of the 100 most powerful people in entertainment (he is at No. 23).

He sat down with The Straits Times and a handful of press in Los Angeles last week as various American networks announced new shows.

When it comes to new content, he believes HBO still has the pick of the litter. "I'd like to think we're the first port of call - maybe not all the time, but 90 per cent of the time. Part of that is because we have a long history of working with talent.

"In the same way that there's word-of-mouth with fans, with talent, if you treat them and their shows well, they talk about that. People see how we launch shows, how we take a very handmade approach to it, so I feel we're still the first choice a good amount of the time.

"If people didn't want to come here, if we weren't their first choice most times and if we were not doing well financially, I would be more concerned."

Indeed, with stellar first-quarter earnings and record-breaking ratings for many of its shows - including the current seventh season of fantasy mega-hit Game Of Thrones - HBO does seem to be sitting pretty.

Awards season continues to be a happy time at the network, which is up for 111 awards at the Emmys on Sept 17 - the 17th year running it has received the most nominations.

Yet Netflix has been steadily closing that gap over the years: It has 91 Emmy nods, the second-highest tally, and House Of Cards, Stranger Things and The Crown bagged it three of the seven nominations for Best Drama, compared with just one for HBO's Westworld.

This suggests that the streamer's spending spree on original content may be paying dividends, especially in the "prestige TV" space, which HBO launched with groundbreaking series such as the crime dramas The Sopranos (1999 to 2007) and The Wire (2002 to 2008), heralding the so-called "golden age of television".

So is HBO losing ground? Last week, a gathering of American TV critics quizzed Mr Bloys about the fact that Netflix appears to be "throwing money at" comedians who had worked with HBO, unveiling a bumper crop of stand-up specials on its streaming service this year (it paid comics such as Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock a whopping US$20 million each an episode).

It is not that HBO cannot afford to do the same, says Mr Bloys - it simply does not view this as a sensible splurge.

HBO initially got into comedy specials because they are low- cost from a production standpoint and therefore a "relatively low-cost way to be in the cultural conversation", he explains. But on HBO's streaming platforms, HBO Go and HBO Now, "stand-up specials represent less than 1 per cent of usage", so "it's hard for me to justify paying exorbitant prices".

"We'll get back in when the prices make sense," he says, further noting that these programmes do not do well internationally.

Still, there is a sense that HBO could use another big hit - and soon, given the ignominious cancellation of Vinyl (2016), Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger's expensive rock drama, not to mention the ticking clock on Game Of Thrones, the eighth and final season of which will bow out next year or in 2019.

Industry-watchers speculated that the science-fiction series Westworld (2016 to present) was being positioned to fill Game Of Thrones' dragon-shaped void, but Mr Bloys is wary of trying to reverse-engineer another breakout success.

"There is no next Game Of Thrones and I don't think you can necessarily programme that way, to look for the next this or the next that. Because generally it doesn't lead to good decisions."

There are similarities between Westworld and Game Of Thrones, he allows - "a big world, great actors, big concepts".

But "you have to be cautious about engineering something like that. It's really more about what the writers have to say and what they're thinking about the world than us imposing, like, 'Game Of Thrones did this, so you should do that.' It doesn't work like that".

He is similarly cautious about the giddiness over Netflix's novel data- analytics approach to programming, which factors in algorithmic predictions based on previous viewing patterns.

"Algorithmic programming is interesting in terms of making suggestions - in other words, if you watch movies with this star, you might like this.

"I don't think that's the same as 'We're gonna start from scratch and build a show to match that.' I would be surprised if creators are thinking about algorithmic equations.

"We always have age and demographics about who's watching what, but... you've got to take the creators' lead and have faith that they have something to say that they think people will respond to."

Nor is HBO about to start encouraging binge-watching, another trend that Netflix popularised.

"It's to our advantage to introduce a show on a weekly basis because it keeps you in the cultural conversation and word-of-mouth," he says.

"There's this great industry with multiple sites reviewing shows and to not take advantage of that is crazy," he says, noting that, nevertheless, HBO does put entire seasons that have already aired on its streaming platforms "so you can binge if you want".

"But as a way to introduce a show, I'm a big believer in the weekly rollout."


Upcoming HBO shows

THE DEUCE

This is a seedy, sexy drama about the legalisation and birth of the porn industry in New York in the 1970s and 1980s.

Big names are attached to it: David Simon of The Wire fame, who co-created the show with novelist George Pelecanos, as well as James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who star and co-produce. Its premiere in Singapore has not been confirmed.

CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (SEASON 9)

The cult comedy starring Seinfeld creator Larry David as a comically neurotic and socially awkward version of himself returns with a long-awaited ninth season on Oct 2.

GAME OF THRONES

Fans should enjoy the current seventh season while they can because, once it is over, they will have to wait till next year or 2019 for the eighth and final one.

HBO is considering four ideas for a spin-off series, none of which involve any current characters, it confirmed last week.

But any spin-off will not air till at least a year after the Game Of Thrones finale.

CONFEDERATE

No scene has been shot yet, but the next project for Game Of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss is already attracting controversy.

Confederate, written by Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman, imagines an alternate timeline in which the South seceded from the rest of America and slavery remains legal.

Critics say portraying modern-day slavery could further inflame race relations in the United States. HBO programming boss Casey Bloys acknowledged it was a risky topic with a "high degree of difficulty", but promised a nuanced portrayal, not "whips and plantations".

TRUE DETECTIVE (SEASON 3)

A third season of the anthology crime series is in the works and will star Oscar-winning Moonlight actor Mahershala Ali.

JON STEWART SPECIALS

HBO will air two stand-up comedy specials by the beloved former host of satirical news programme The Daily Show - his first in more than 20 years.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 02, 2017, with the headline 'Who's afraid of Netflix? Not HBO'. Print Edition | Subscribe