Life after Tony Soprano
America's HBO cable TV channel prides itself on 'quality' series that are unfettered by commercial constraints. An interview with top execs Richard Plepler and Michael Lombardo.
PASADENA, California - HBO co-president Richard Plepler and programming president Michael Lombardo entered their posts as part of a new team after CEO Chris Albrecht quit in 2007. Albrecht left after Las Vegas police arrested him for beating his girlfriend. Not only did Lombardo and Plepler assume their roles as a storm raged behind the scenes, it was shortly before the network aired the final episode of its flagship series, "The Sopranos."
The two men discussed their work in a joint interview - their first with an Israeli newspaper - during the recent convention of the Television Critics Association at the Langham Huntington Hotel here.
HBO, Home Box Office, is America's biggest premium cable channel, meaning it operates strictly on a subscription basis, and is thus not subject to advertisers or the dictates of ratings. The channel has been around since the 1970s, but until 1997 it was known primarily for broadcasting live boxing matches and motion pictures. That year HBO aired the prison series "Oz," and two years later it introduced "The Sopranos."
Now, after other such successful shows as "The Wire," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Band of Brothers," "Sex and the City," "Entourage," "Six Feet Under," "True Blood" and now also "Boardwalk Empire," HBO is considered the standard bearer of quality television. It does, however, have some competition from other cable channels that air shows geared toward adults, including dramas characterized by "natural" speech, profanity and sex, and programs with artistic content. (HBO and its ilk have also been portrayed as channels that make violent shows, but it seems that network television, with its lust for cop shows and murder stories, is actually more guilty of that. )
Lombardo rose through the ranks at HBO, where he has been since the 1980s. Now he oversees HBO Films, HBO Sports, HBO Documentaries & Family, and HBO Entertainment, as well as heading the business side of the network's West Coast operations. Plepler is responsible for original programming and for the media relations department; he was formerly senior vice president for corporate communications, among other things. Before he joined HBO in 1992, he founded RLP, a consultancy firm specializing in communication and production; before that he served as an aide to U.S. Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut.
The pair, dressed in expensive dark blue suits with pale shirts open at the collar, without ties, look like opposites. Lombardo is thin and bespectacled; Plepler is tall, broad and very tan. Just like the channel they head, the two men challenge stereotypes: With his complexion and flowing hair, Plepler radiates Hollywood glamour and has a voice reminiscent of Alec Baldwin's on "30 Rock," but he's actually from New York and still lives there with his family; Lombardo, who has a distinct East Coast demeanor, was born and bred in Los Angeles.
HBO was famous for its slogan "It's not TV, it's HBO." What differentiates HBO from other channels?
Plepler: "The better people to answer that question are the producers and the writers who come to us. I think that what they would say to you is 'I can paint on a canvas there that is very unusual, they're going to give time for my work to resonate.' Scorsese was asked why he chooses us and he said, 'Well, I'm a storyteller and there are very few places where I can tell stories like HBO.' I think that if you sat with David Simon [creator of 'The Wire,' 'Generation Kill' and 'Treme'] and you sat with David Benioff ['Game of Thrones'] and you would ask them why HBO, they would say because it's a canvas [where] I can do my art and tell my stories and I'm going to be judged by excellence and story and not by ratings necessarily, and I'll be taken very good care of there.
"And that's the essence of what our creative home is about - are there other places people can go and do their work? Of course. And that's the heat we have to keep on the process, because we're as good as the people who come to us. And that's not to say that there aren't very good places to work."
Lombardo: "The quality of dramas has absolutely stepped up in the last 10 years, not just on cable. In television in general, networks too. That's a great thing."
How is your channel different from AMC, for example?
Lombardo: "A big differentiator is the variety. AMC has been doing just dramas, one-hours. We do movies, miniseries, documentaries, the range of the shows that we do is very different than what everybody else is doing."
Could "Breaking Bad" be an HBO show?
Lombardo: "[Judging by the] subject matter, the writing, the acting - absolutely. Maybe a little different, when you know you're selling advertising ... when you know you'll have a little censorship, so I'm imagining it would be a little different ... but certainly that show could live on HBO."Losing sleep
What was the hardest decision you've had to make in your current positions at HBO over the past four years?
Lombardo: "Honestly, the decision to pick up 'True Blood' as our first series. The pilot was interesting, not perfect. And it was a genre show. You know 'True Blood' is not 'Sopranos' and doesn't aspire to be ... you know, we knew we'd have people going on and saying 'What's going on in HBO?' In retrospect I'm glad we made those decisions, but we lost some sleep."
Plepler: "I would agree, and just want to add that 'True Blood' - we didn't know that it would fit the vampire craze. We did know that we had Alan Ball as our partner, and what we really were betting on was his artistry, his talent and his vision and that was the right bet."
Are you looking for the next "Sopranos"?
Lombardo: "No. Shows come in and you have to respond to them as they come. If you swing every time to make a home run - honestly, in my estimation, that's why the networks sometime fail to produce the best shows. 'Sopranos' was a great show that worked on all levels, critically acclaimed and a great audience."
Plepler: "I think, with the greatest respect to the show, because it was a great show, that 'True Blood' with its numbers and the cultural phenomenon is every bit as huge for us. 'Boardwalk Empire,' which was not only critically heralded but the numbers - 10.5 million viewers for the first season is probably the same amount of numbers 'The Sopranos' had at the same time. I think 'Boardwalk' in its first season was an absolute phenomenon. And I think 'Game of Thrones' will also generate the same [interest]."
"Game of Thrones" is a medieval fantasy series scheduled to air on HBO later this year, and already has been purchased for broadcast in Israel on Yes.
Do you think "Boardwalk Empire" can continue for many seasons?
Plepler: "We certainly can, and so can Terry [the show's creator, Terence Winter ]."
How can a television channel with a limited budget produce a series like "Boardwalk Empire," which is like producing about 10 movies?
Lombardo: "We obviously derive revenue from the ... foreign market and from the home videos, but we're not selling commercial time. When a show like that comes in, one of the reasons you make it is to deliver on the production value. But then again we do a show like that and then we do 'In Treatment' [originally an Israeli show] - very cost effective. When we develop our decisions, we mix it up. But since we don't sell advertising, our system involves balances: You're not going to make an Atlantic City 1920 gangster piece as an inferior project. Our viewers expect the series to exist comfortably in a state where they've just seen a $300-million movie."
"Boardwalk Empire" is riveting, but watching it is not an incredible revelation like "The Sopranos" or "The Wire" was. In the past your channel tended to cast anonymous actors such as James Gandolfini. This time, with Terence Winter, Martin Scorsese and Steve Buscemi, aren't you playing it safe?
Lombardo: "'Sopranos was at a moment of time. We weren't on the map in that way, telelvision wasn't on the map in that way. It was revolutionary for television at that moment. But I think 'Sopranos' is a very different show, it's an intimate show, a family one, ultimately. 'Boardwalk' isn't like that. 'Sopranos' started with a guy having a midlife crisis, with period pieces - and the same happened with 'Rome' - you start with the macro and you reach the intimate stories only later on, that's what will happen in the second season of 'Boardwalk.' 'Sopranos' had an unknown cast, whereas Scorsese chose to work with Buscemi, who for an American audience is not a very traditional choice for that kind of role. I think most people shy away from period pieces in the network ad-supported world - AMC, Fox, NBC. They tend to be more expensive, and people tend to have a hard time ... [But] I don't think that's true for HBO or Showtime."
Did the recession hit HBO?
Lombardo: "Look, every quarter we take a breath. The way HBO is packaged in the States, it's an expensive proposition for a family here. That people have retained HBO in the midst of this recession has been gratifying and surprising. And usage goes up, people are staying home more and using the service. We're heading into a tough time, so we'll see. And I think that any company who hasn't been providing essential services would be crazy not to cross their fingers and say a prayer."
According to Lombardo, top HBO shows enjoy high viewer rates - "True Blood" has 13.5 million viewers, and "Boardwalk Empire" has 11 million viewers on average, out of 30 million subscribers.
At a time when the major movie studios began offering more "easily digestible" materials, it seems you opted to focus on more difficult or complex ones. Was that your strategy?
Lombardo: "We've consistently been doing what we do. The studios - and people in the States have been talking about this a lot - have, I won't say [they have] abandoned, but they've moved away from making movies for adults. They're looking for movies that will do very well among a young demographic. 3-D movies do very well. In a sense there is an audience that used to find its entertainment satisfaction both in the movies and in HBO, and I think they are counting more and more on HBO."
Do you feel you have a cultural "mandate"?
Lombardo: "Unfortunately, we don't have a budget that can let us play that role. But what we are finding is that many of those storytellers who used to go to studios are coming to us, bringing movie ideas and miniseries. There is no doubt that Kate Winslet with 'Mildred Pierce' five years ago would not [have] come to us."
Plepler: "And I don't think that Martin Scorsese would think of doing television five years ago."New on the small screen
"True Blood," Alan Ball's sexy vampire series - now being rerun on Yes Sci-Fi - is the first series Lombardo and Plepler took under their wing. Other big series they have signed are "Boardwalk Empire" from Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese, about the Prohibition era in America, and "Game of Thrones," a fantasy set in the Middle Ages and written by David Benioff and Dan Weiss, based on George R.R. Martin's novels. The latter is scheduled to debut in the U.S. in April.
Says Lombardo: "I didn't read the books, but we read the scripts. The writing was so incredible that we went for it."
Plepler: "It's about power, it's about winning the grand throne, greed, jealousy, avarice, sex, universal themes - about power, and very sexy. Shot in that way and decidedly so."
Why was it decided to make this the final season of "Entourage"?
Lombardo: "This is the eighth season for 'Entourage' which for us is ... I think 'Sopranos' was the only other show that went that long. When we talk to a creator of a show at the end of every year, we're not in the business of selling commercial space, so we do not insist that they do a season even if they've lost the passion for it. Doug [Elin ] felt that he was coming to the end of his natural storytelling for these characters, they're entering their thirties. The same [with regards to storytelling] is true of 'Big Love,'" which is also coming to an end. (Ruta Kupfer )'New York vibe'
When Richard Plepler and Michael Lombardo are asked whether the acquisition of "Betipul," an Israeli television series that HBO made into an show called "In Treatment," was a one-time event, they say, "We have several Israeli programs, such as 'Screens' ['Masachim'] and 'A Touch Away' ['Merhak Nigia']."
Do you plan to produce series from these rights?
Plepler: "No, but we're developing it, and 'A Touch Away,' I don't know that we're going to make it but we adapted it. We're developing a show with Clyde Phillips, who created 'Dexter,' based on the Israeli show 'The Naked Truth.' 'Screens' is a rather interesting project, if we could figure out a way it could work for us.
"We looked at some other Israeli shows. It's such a small country, and there's no aftermarket really, so the budgets for the shows are necessarily small. They have to lean on the writing, which is exactly what we do. Generally we're not in the format business - that's not the way we develop shows. We wait for writers to come in - but it's been a source of inspiration for a lot of American writers.
"We do apparently quite well in Israel in terms of usage and ratings. I always hear that from your colleagues and fellow Israelis - 'Sex and the City' for example."
After receiving confirmation of this, he turns to his partner and asks whether he has visited Tel Aviv. Lombardo says he has not. "I personally believe that Tel Aviv basically is New York," Plepler tells him. "And when you walk down Dizengoff Street, it's like you're in the show in spring or the summer. But the vibe is very akin to New York, I think, with obviously slightly different political pressure." (Ruta Kupfer )