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HBO Has 'True Blood' Buzz, So Why Is It Bleeding Subscribers?

by Gary Susman, posted Sep 13th 2010 5:00PM
Alexander Skarsgård in 'True Blood'Not even Sookie Stackhouse's mysterious fairy abilities or Eric Northman's vampire strength are powerful enough to keep HBO's subscriber base from seeping away.

As a feature in today's Hollywood Reporter notes, the cable network is just coming off a hit season of 'True Blood' (which wrapped with a third-season finale last night) and its usual domination of the Emmys, led by its prize-winning marquee mini-series 'The Pacific.' And yet its subscriber base has slipped to 28.6 million, its lowest total in four years, suffering two quarterly periods of back-to-back slippage for the first time in six years.

The Reporter speculates on several possible reasons for the decline, from the economy to increased competition from other premium cable channels to the morphing business model of the cable industry. But the article downplays what is perhaps the simplest explanation: maybe HBO's programming just isn't as compelling as it was in the days of 'The Sopranos' and 'Sex and the City.'

It's certainly reasonable that recent upheavals in both the economy and the cable business would lead some HBO viewers to drop their subscriptions. Many viewers have been hard hit by the current economic crisis, making premium cable a luxury they're no longer willing to pay for.

There's also been increased competition from such premium channels as Showtime and Starz, both of which have rolled out original programming that rivals HBO shows in dramatic intensity, quality writing, and luridness. (Both channels have seen steady subscriber increases over the last six years, though they're still both below 20 million, well below HBO's numbers.)

Thomas Jane and Jane Adams in 'Hung' on HBOAs for changes in the nature of the cable business, the Reporter suggests that HBO may be a victim of its own success in finding alternate revenue streams. DVD sales of HBO series comprise as much as 15 percent of the channel's revenue -- including a reported $100 million to date for 'True Blood' discs. But now that fans know they can catch a full season of that show, or 'Hung,' or 'Entourage,' within a few months of its air date on DVD or iTunes, there's less incentive to subscribe.

And HBO may also be falling victim to the carriage-fee wars between programmers and service providers. In recent months, several basic-cable channels and their parent companies (including such powerhouses as Disney and News Corp.) have tried to make up diminished ad revenue by squeezing cable and satellite providers for increased carriage fees by threatening -- and, in some cases, making good on threats -- to yank their signals from millions of homes.

According to the Reporter, the service providers have now figured out a way to fight back, at least against premium subscription channels: by withholding promotional support. If, while you're watching the guide scroll, you're not seeing promos for HBO's shows, you may be less likely to maintain your subscription. Both DirecTV and Comcast have been squeezing HBO with this tactic, according to the Reporter, which lays most of the blame for HBO's woes at the feet of the satellite provider.

Of course, the cable business as a whole remains so volatile that a 5 percent drop in subscribers is par for the course for any premium channel at any time. According to the study by media research firm SNL Kagan that the Reporter cites, the whole industry lost subscribers in the second quarter of 2010, marking the first quarterly loss ever for the entire cable and satellite subscriber base.

It's not because of outside competition from video content on the Internet, the firm says; rather, it's the slow economy and the expiration of promotional deals that lured new customers to cable and dish providers last summer when the digital broadcast signal conversion took place.

'Entourage'Still, there's the simplest but most glaring possible explanation is that the shows are just not as compelling any more. 'True Blood' is a frequently great show, but critics like TV Squad's Maureen Ryan have complained that the third season, with its all-over-the-place plotting, seemed to have lost the focus and emotional impact of seasons 1 and 2.

Coach-turned-gigolo comedy 'Hung' has a clever premise and offers often incisive observations on class and gender amid the current economic malaise, but not much happens on the show, which has been frustratingly hit-or-miss during its second season (which also concluded last night).

And 'Entourage' (which marked yet another of last night's HBO season finales) has been on the downswing for a long time, and news that the next season will be just six episodes long suggests that it's only hanging on long enough to tie up the plot's loose ends.

HBO's award-winning mini-series and original movie programming may be stronger, judging by the Emmy cleanups for 'The Pacific,' 'Temple Grandin,' and 'You Don't Know Jack.' Still, 'The Pacific' didn't have anything like the cultural impact of its predecessor, 'Band of Brothers,' a decade ago, and it's likely most people heard about 'Temple Grandin' and 'You Don't Know Jack' for the first time at the Emmys.

The Reporter is dismissive of the notion that show quality has a direct correlation with subscriptions, noting that HBO viewership actually rose a little bit for each of the four quarters following the departure of the 'Sopranos,' reaching a peak of 29.1 million in early 2009. "Maybe the 'Sopranos' magic just took a long time to wear off," the article says.

Well, actually, yes. The hype around the 'Sopranos' finale in 2007 was so pervasive that it probably drew new subscribers who just wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Also, during those four quarters, viewers could see such shows as 'Big Love,' 'Curb Your Enthusiasm,' and the not-yet-peaked 'Entourage,' as well as more cultish but acclaimed shows like 'The Wire' and 'Flight of the Conchords.'

Even today, 'The Sopranos' and 'Sex and the City' (which left the air in 2004) remain so central to HBO's brand identity that you can still watch old episodes of both on HBO's on-demand service. Think viewers will still be queuing up episodes of 'Hung' or 'Entourage' in six years?

It's worth noting that HBO's co-president Eric Kessler professes not to be worried by the two consecutive quarters of declining subscribers. "This kind of fluctuation is common throughout the year," Kessler said in a statement. "The most important measurement of success is financial and HBO will enjoy another record year in revenue and profit."

It's also worth noting that HBO has had no decline in the ambition of its programmers, as evidenced by such lavish upcoming shows as crime drama 'Boardwalk Empire' (which debuts next week) and 2011's fantasy series 'Game of Thrones.' The TV press has already been talking about 'Boardwalk Empire' like it's the next 'Sopranos' (to which it has some family ties: writer/producer Terence Winter, star Steve Buscemi, and a New Jersey setting).

And maybe it is, but such talk proves HBO still does one thing well: stir up buzz among TV critics who, like the network's executives, hope the next show will be the one that returns HBO to its glory days.

•Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.

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I haven't dropped it yet but... The Soprano's, Sex and The City, Big Love, Rome. They had great programming. The only one left is Big Love and they cut the length of the season.

September 14 2010 at 3:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Kevin Gavioli

True Blood hasn't matured. Season three is just weak. It seems the writers are catering to the 14 year olds who sneak in and watch the show and not adults. It's not just that the dumb characters have gotten dumber all the characters have gotten dumber.

I had to see it through to the end but I won't bother tuning in next year.

September 14 2010 at 1:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Aslinn Dhan

Yeah, it's the economy and it is the suck programming. I loved Deadwood and Carnivale, but they were deemed either plot finished or they were too expensive. True Blood is the only thing that keeps me hanging onto HBO. Otherwise, I would drop it...And really, Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm and Hung are boring and so not worth the production costs.......

September 13 2010 at 10:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As James Carville would say, "It's the economy stupid".

Subscribing to ANY premium channel is really a luxury at this point in time. When people are lucky to be feeding their families and putting gas in their vehicles (to go to a job they may or may not have), the last thing they're thinking about is HBO.

September 13 2010 at 7:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

or it could be that during times of economic hardship, people drop back to basic cable.

September 13 2010 at 7:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's the economy. People are reducing their premium packages or getting rid of cable altogether.

We just did that in our home to reduce costs.

The total monthly communications/information bill is just too high between cable, Internet, cell phone, regular phone and subscription services like Audible or Netflix.

Once you start time shifting why not wait six months to see everything that you like on HBO.

I would rather have the option to subscribe to cable from an ala-cart menu. I could give up a lot of channels to get HBO. Another option would be for HBO to release episodes to iTunes a couple of weeks after they run.

September 13 2010 at 7:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Why the drop in viewership? I can tell you why. The show is good, but having to wait an entire year between "series," of which consists of only 10 or so weeks, has a tendency to kill interest. Just when you begin to enjoy the series, it's over!

September 13 2010 at 6:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I dropped hbo when they canceled Deadwood and then didn't produce the 3 promised finales

September 13 2010 at 5:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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