Spring 2015

It's Not TV...

HBO president of programming Michael Lombardo reflects on the industry's changing business model and how directors have contributed to the new wave of quality television.

1. It's been said that we're living in a second Golden Age of television. How did this move to quality TV come about?

I think two things happened. There were more networks leaning in to the idea of quality being enough to attract viewers, as opposed to trying to predict what viewers would want and programming to a focus group. For HBO, The Larry Sanders Show was absolutely a tipping point and the beginning of point-of-view television. Garry Shandling didn't do it for ratings; he didn't do it for a demo. It came out of his soul, out of his mind. Secondly, I think the dynamics shifted in the feature film world. The economics of making movies in the international marketplace has changed what studios have to do. They make fewer films and they make bigger films. They're no longer really making movies for me. Most non-tentpole entertainment [is on TV]. The adult U.S. moviegoer, who 20 years ago went to the movies every Saturday and Sunday, is now watching quality television.

2. How has this affected directors?

When you have someone like Marty Scorsese spearheading a show like Boardwalk Empire, directing and executive producing, it gets people's attention. It signaled that this was a medium that directors could look to as a place to explore their art. It used to be if you went to an agent and wanted a [feature] director to direct a pilot, he'd get insulted, like, ‘what do you think, his career's going down?' Now we get calls, and I'm sure we're not the only one, from directors looking for pilots. And they work freely between movies and television. I think there are some directors who are interested in a certain kind of storytelling that is happening in television and not really happening in the studios right now.

3. Is there a place for director-driven projects at HBO?

Well, it's driving in collaboration. Because at the end of the day, it is a collaboration. Directors are critical to the vision. And in some cases are driving it, and in some cases driving with somebody else. Some directors have been getting much more involved at a much earlier juncture, to have a series be more than just something they come in and out of. We have long-term deals with directors like Scorsese, David Fincher, Michael Mann, and Steven Soderbergh. Directors who used to identify themselves [only] as film directors have said, 'OK, there's something interesting in television. How do I participate in that in a way that's as meaningful as my participation in a feature film?' They're much more instrumental in forging the creative vision and direction of the show.

4. What role do director-producers play in HBO series?

That really varies show to show. What you care about is that whatever aesthetic you establish in the pilot is consistent. A series is not a one-shot business. You can't dupe a consumer to go from a big pilot to a second episode that feels tonally thinner. So you need a consistent vision, even though you have different directors coming on, and you have a cast that maybe comes on for a couple episodes and then goes off. There are [some] writers or showrunners who stay in the writers' room and come to the set infrequently. So for them, it's critical to have a dynamic with a director-producer who they trust and they have a shorthand with. It's a partnership, where the vision of the show, where the aesthetic of the show, the intention of the show is executed. You absolutely need that.

5. What qualities do you look for in hiring directors?

When we're looking for directors there's always the obvious concern about budget and schedule. But really we're looking for people who have a very strong point of view, who work well with actors and are willing to be slightly fearless. What we aspire to, at least in our drama series, is that each hour has the feel and the texture we associated with motion pictures, 20, 30 years ago. Depth of character, a vision. And actors thrive on new points of view, directors coming in and giving them an insight into how to experience a role in a way that's helpful to them. You get that from directors who are questioning everything in a way that's collegial and not dictatorial. That's incredibly important if you want to continue the quality of your shows.

6. What efforts has HBO made to increase diversity behind the camera?

It's very easy to say, we want diversity. There's not an executive you will find who doesn't know that that's just the right thing to do. But it's also good for business in the sense that diversity leads to a product that speaks differently to an audience. So we've instituted formal programs here. We have a program with the DGA and we just changed it a bit because we didn't know if it was producing as much as we hoped it would. Last year we had four directors. Unfortunately, women are grossly underrepresented in the directing pool, and it needs to change.

7. How has the concept of series television changed both for HBO and the industry as a whole?

It used to be everyone followed the broadcast paradigm, which was you signed up actors for six years; SAG rules are built that way. The longer a show went, the better it was financially for everybody. And that was certainly the model we looked at when HBO started tiptoeing into series. It used to be if it was a successful network show, you did 22 episodes. Now you're seeing people play with the format. I honestly don't even ask that question anymore if I can get eight great hours of television in a show like True Detective. People ask me why don't you do more than 10 episodes a year of Game of Thrones? The only way we could do more than 10 is if we cut the number of days we're shooting, rushed the writing process, cut back on edit time—none of which we want to do. You really need to listen to what the ambition of the story is and not try to turn it into something it's not. Because I think quality will suffer. The truth is there are no rules anymore.

8. How has the business model for television changed?

The networks that are more dependent on advertising are looking at how to maximize revenue in a disaggregated world. How do we sell advertising—and for advertisers, how do we buy advertising—on niche shows? The truth of the matter—and even the networks see it—is that appointment viewing at a scheduled time is no longer driving the business model. HBO certainly gets a significant portion of its viewership on a Sunday night, but increasingly large portions of it are built by what they're viewing on demand—DVR, HBO GO. People are watching shows when they want to watch it, and increasingly, on the device they want to watch it on. And that presents a challenge when you're counting eyeballs and trying to monetize.

9. HBO recently announced plans to launch a subscription video-on-demand service initially distributed by Apple. Do you think that's the wave of the future?

It's a good question. I don't know the answer. I think what that requires is a strong brand, a brand that stands for something to a consumer so they're willing to make a monthly commitment to it. The amount of money spent to do that now becomes an issue for a lot of content providers. Do they have a brand? Traditionally, it was less about network loyalty than show loyalty. But I think that's all changing now, and everyone's looking at different revenue models. I don't know where people are going to end up, but look, there's still an enormous amount of revenue being made from the advertiser-supported model. So I don't think anybody in their right mind would be abandoning that. They're just trying to figure out ways to meet the demand of consumers for flexibility in how they view, and still have it be a profitable business.

10. Where do you see television going from here?

That's such an interesting term now—television. I recently had one of the most exciting [viewing] experiences since I've been at HBO. We partnered with Imax and had the last two episodes of last season's Game of Thrones shown at 150 Imax theaters throughout the country. So I feel like the distinctions between television versus what I'll call filmed entertainment writ large [are disappearing]. When I look into the future, I do really feel walls are breaking down; the unwritten rules of programming are being questioned. People are scratching their head and willing to look at things differently. And that's good for all of us who are interested in making content. Directors are artists, that's why they're in this world. So to be able to explore—not only within the framework of an hour or a half-hour show, or a two-hour movie—but to have those walls go down and think about different ways of telling a story, about communicating emotions to consumers, that's exciting for everybody.

10 Questions

Question and answer sessions with prominent figures outside the Guild about current creative and business issues.

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