QUALITY CABLE DEATH MATCH: The failure of John From Cincinnati in the post-Sopranos lull at HBO has got TV critics and rival network executives snickering and using the phrase “HB-Over” to nail the once-revered cable giant to its own hubris. A piece by New York Times TV critic Bill Carter from last week read like Mark Antony’s funeral oration over Caesar’s body – Carter couldn’t help but praise HBO, but burying was obviously more on his agenda.
Carter quotes executives from rival cable networks like Showtime, AMC and TNT that makes them sound more like circling vultures than men with executive assistants and five figure expense accounts. “I wouldn’t call them vulnerable,” said John Landgraf, president of FX. “What they were was unassailable. And they aren’t that anymore.”
The “HB-Over” taunt is apparently very popular at Showtime, HBO’s closest rival, and the home of shows like Dexter, Weeds, Sleeper Cell, The L Word and The Tudors. “I’ve heard that term used for HBO both outside and inside our network,” said Showtime chairman Matthew C. Blank, with what we can only assume was a faintly smug smirk.
“This sort of thing is inevitable when you get to where they got to,” said Robert Greenblatt, the president for entertainment at Showtime, “where you’re saying, ‘It’s not TV, it’s HBO,’ and that you’re superior to everyone else, and then you hit a fallow period.”
HBO’s big hits right now are shows like Entourage, Big Love and Flight Of The Conchords, but newer shows like Conchords aren’t quite the slam-dunk hits of the networks Sopranos heyday, though Curtis notes that HBO has come up with a new, more complex calculus by which it judges its hits.
“In terms of raw numbers,” he writes, “Conchords, with only about a million viewers on average for its initial run on Sunday nights, is not in the same league as previous HBO hits like Entourage, which has drawn as many as 3.8 million viewers. But increasingly HBO is measuring its success both by how many viewers a show accumulates over multiple plays and especially by how well it drives the on-demand business, where viewers can order specific episodes of shows.”
On her L.A. Weekly blog, Nikki Finke speculates that the only thing preventing Showtime from being the next HBO is a deficient public profile: “The only problem is that Showtime, unlike HBO, can’t market worth a damn. Or else the riveting Dexter and its upcoming 2nd seasonwould be the pay channelseries everyone is talking about. Instead, the silence is deafening. HBO now has crap but promotes it well, and Showtime has good stuff and can’t get it arrested. I say HBO and Showtime should swap marketing departments.”
With nothing on the horizon except Tell Me You Love Me, a new fall series about couples therapy, HBO doesn’t look like it’s doing much to reverse the decline, and this fall could make quality cable the free-for-all it hasn’t been in years.