In the movie business, January is busy with awards season campaigning. For those working in television, it’s the time when the networks trot out shows for the winter meeting of the Television Critics Association.
Later this week, HBO will take the stage and at this year’s presentation they’ll be talking about a new movie about Anita Hill and the new series "Vinyl," produced by Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter and Mick Jagger about the 1970’s rock and roll business.
The man responsible for everything you see on HBO is the channel's President of Programming Michael Lombardo. As part of our ongoing series with television network chiefs, The Frame visited his corner office over looking West L.A. for an intimate conversation about HBO's past present and future.
Lombardo opens up about what he learned from "True Detective" season two and how "The Jinx" and "Serial" revealed the possibility to compelling non-fiction storytelling. He — like all of the executives in this series is a "white guy" and reflects on the challenge of fostering greater racial and gender diversity in the executive suites and on screen.
Finally, he offers his reasoning as to why there's not more male nudity on TV.
When a show doesn’t work, how do you figure out what went wrong? I’m going to talk about a specific show, “True Detective.” The first season was extraordinary television. The second season — and you may disagree with me — but a lot of people think it was an inferior version of the first season. What are the lessons you take away?
I’ll tell you something. Our biggest failures — and I don’t know if I would consider “True Detective 2” — but when we tell somebody to hit an air date as opposed to allowing the writing to find its own natural resting place, when it’s ready, when it’s baked — we’ve failed. And I think in this particular case, the first season of “True Detective” was something that Nic Pizzolatto had been thinking about, gestating, for a long period of time. He’s a soulful writer. I think what we did was go, “Great.” And I take the blame. I became too much of a network executive at that point. We had huge success. “Gee, I’d love to repeat that next year.”
Well, you know what? I set him up. To deliver, in a very short time frame, something that became very challenging to deliver. That’s not what that show is. He had to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. Find his muse. And so I think that’s what I learned from it. Don’t do that anymore.
And I’d love to have the enviable certainty of knowing what my next year looks like. I could pencil things in. But I’m not going to start betting on them until the scripts are done.
What role do you think nonfiction and documentary filmmaking plays at HBO? What is mission, and what is economics?
That’s a complicated question. I think historically, we’ve been in the documentary game for a long time, because it was inexpensive. And it’s the right thing to do. There was a kind of public service aspect to it. I think that’s changed. It changed in the last couple of years. I think we’ve played with documentaries as a different way of telling stories.
And with “The Jinx” — I think it was both “The Jinx” and “Serial” on public radio. You can do something in what I’ll call fact-based programming that can move you.
Throughout The Frame interviews with television network chiefs (those include Showtime's David Nevins, FX's John Landgraf and Starz CEO Chris Albrecht) we've discussed the subject of racial, ethnic and gender diversity on screen, among show creators and in the executive suites. For Lombardo, we asked if they’ve gotten to where they need to be when it comes to representation of women and people of color both in front of and behind the camera at HBO.
We’ve certainly not gotten to where we need to be. It’s something we’ve wrestled with a lot, internally — why there wasn’t more diversity on the air. And by “diversity” I’m not just talking about casting. I’m talking about diversity of experience. Why am I not producing shows that are telling diverse points of view? Obviously shows reflect the vision of their creators, and they tend to be white, sometimes male, sometimes female — I think we’ve been pretty good in terms of having female lead-centric shows. But I think we haven’t had shows that really explore the diversity of experience in terms of color of skin, socioeconomic backgrounds. So, we’ve wrestled with that.
We’ve gone to writers’ programs. We’ve polled at universities. The truth is, they’re not coming in the doors with agents and pitching shows that we’re rejecting. So there’s a systemic problem. But that’s not an answer. The answer is we need to dig deep. We started production on a series created by a black woman, directed by a black woman — but that was a conscious decision. I’ve stopped waiting for the next show to walk in through the door.
What is the series?
Issa Rae is doing a show for us. The name is “Insecure” right now. We’re not sure that’s exactly the name. She did a web series. “Awkward Black Girl.” Caught our eye. Did a pilot, it’s fantastic. They’re off writing the series now. But I mean that’s — I’m not doing a victory lap.
I’ll tell you where it’s been more challenging for us: internally.
In terms of getting executives…
Yeah, and again I’m not saying that with any sense of… I think what happens is a hit opens up, and people say, “I want the most experienced person.” And the minute you say that, you’re cutting out, by and large, women, people of color, and you’re left with white dudes. And, nothing wrong with white dudes — I’m one of them — but there has to be a decision made that the experience on a résumé is not the sine qua non for success as an executive.
And everyone’s on the same page that it’s the right thing. I think unfortunately everyone wants somebody else to take a gamble on someone whose résumé doesn’t reflect the kind of experience they need. But it’s changing. And we’re determined to change it and I think we are.
There've changes in how television is created and consumed in recent years.. Does the change in television distribution model create concerns for you?
Last year we chose to go to market with a stand-alone streaming service, HBO Now. So from a programming vantage point, I’ve been limited by the grid. If something doesn’t fit in on a primetime, I go, how do I launch a show? So a digital platform opens up a different opportunity.
At the same time, this model allowed to take risks on things, like “The Wire” — a show that’s a slow burn. Part of why a show like that works is word of mouth. I think there’s an excitement when people experience moments of cinema -- I use the term loosely-- and television at the same time. And I worry about losing that when you’re fully digital.
We’ve been lucky. Early on we opted for a subscription basis. So we’re slightly immune to the ad market. We have our own challenges with respect to how we’re bundled.
That’s my next question. You’re talking about the advent of cord-cutting...
To the extent that there is such a phenomena, I think it’s as much about being able to watch shows when they want, how they want, as looking at a cable interface in which there are just big bundles. I think we’re lucky early on that we leaned into a brand ID.
Going forward, I think everyone’s nervous about being about in a world where you’re not on a dial. How do I get people to come to my shows?
Well, part of the answer to that is having a blockbuster show. And that’s what you have with “Game of Thrones.”
That’s true. But what you can’t get into is what happened with the movie business, which is thinking that what you do is replicate the version of what worked before.
That’s true. But when people get HBO to watch “Game of Thrones,” how do you make sure you get the blockbuster show that makes HBO the unavoidable purchase?
I’m gonna say this and I think it’s borne out by our research. We get enormous viewing on “Game of Thrones.” I’m not sure our subscriber levels have increased because of “Game of Thrones.”
Does viewership go up? I think the notion is, we need to have a show in our midst that satisfies a large number of people. And so, whether it’s another “Sopranos” or “Game of Thrones” — and we didn’t program “Game of Thrones” thinking it was a blockbuster. I think the answer is, you just keep doing quality.
“True Blood!” It got enormous numbers for us. Trust me, the bet was on Alan Ball, not on vampires. So I just have to trust that if you continue to bet on quality, you’ll find what I’ll call “hits.”
Actresses I know have this expression, “It’s not nudity, it’s HBO.”
[Laughter.] You know it’s funny you say that because I’m often told that relative to other premium services, we don’t have enough nudity. But here’s the truth. I’m a gay guy. I don’t particularly care about female nudity. We have never given a note to say, “More nudity.” I think the truth is, when you’re in certain worlds — we’re very creative-friendly. If you’re going to sign on for certain shows, that’s part of the journey.
I think you can look at our primetime lineup. I can think of one show that has dabbled in naked bodies. It doesn’t happen all the time. Certainly relative to broadcast network, absolutely — I think we’re really pretty careful, conscientious, and honest about our use of nudity.
Look, we live in a puritanical society. I think the real issue is why actresses are saying that and not actors. And that is, by the way, a valid question, and I’ll tell you why that is. Because white men produce the shows. And there is some kind of… I was screening recently a show we did. And the actress is running across the screen completely naked. And then the actor runs across the screen completely naked. And yet somehow it’s pixelated, his genitalia. And I’m like, wait a second. Why is a man’s genitalia so much more “verboten?” And if you ask guys, they’re gonna go, “Well, you know, guys are sensitive about size and blah blah.” And that’s bulls**t. So hopefully, that’s an argument you just made for diversity. Put a female showrunner on, trust me. It’s gonna be equal opportunity.
HBO's Michael Lombardo shares his excitement for Jon Stewart's HBO Now deal and what kind of content the comedian could create during the 2016 presidential election.