For the past eight years, HBO has been near the epicenter of the ever-malleable pop culture zeitgeist thanks to audiences' rabid hunger for Game of Thrones. The fantasy epic wrapped up its myriad storylines recently with its polarizing series finale, and there are now quite a few people wondering if the premium cabler still has what it takes to compete with streaming giants in the race for original content supremacy.
Perhaps supremacy is a lofty word in this respect, considering HBO is in a distant second place behind Netflix in new research that surveyed customers about what the "best original programming" is when looking at both pay-TV services and over-the-top subscription platforms. Of the 3,000+ people polled by Morgan Stanley in March (via Variety), ahead of Game of Thrones' Season 8 premiere, 40% of respondents cited that Netflix has the best original series, while only 11% of the replies listed HBO as having the top-tier shows.
With that report coming out so soon after Game of Thrones concluded its eight-season run, it makes sense that some entertainment consumers out there are questioning if HBO can even sustain its current position without George R.R. Martin's most famous characters populating the cable network's schedule. Let's take a look at how well that might work.
What Are HBO's Biggest Current Projects?
As far as its current slate of high-minded content goes, HBO is likely riding hard on the word-of-mouth power of Westworld to make its upcoming third season one for the ages. The addition of Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul to the ensemble was an inspired choice, and the recent Season 3 trailer has us dying to see more. Even if it's not actually happening until 2020.
As far as more grounded fare goes, HBO is also rocking a line of critically acclaimed dramas whose follow-up seasons will air before the year is through. That list includes the porn-centric drama The Deuce Season 3, the satirical family empire drama Succession Season 2, and the heightened suburban murder drama Big Little Lies Season 2. The latter added the legendary Meryl Streep to the already stunning ensemble, so expect it to shine come awards season .
Let's also not forget Bill Hader's superb Barry, which wrapped up its second-season following Game of Thrones' ender. Barry has been riding a ratings high thanks to Thrones, so it'll be interesting to see how Barry will do for Season 3 without it. Though not quite as comedic, the ongoing miniseries Chernobyl and Gentleman Jack are just as quality-driven, with both offering expertly crafted approaches to historical TV projects.
Though I brought up all of the above projects – I could have also mentioned Curb Your Enthusiasm, Silicon Valley, True Detective and more – I can't necessarily convince myself that any of these shows will become HBO's next breakout smash. I'd have thought Westworld could pull that off, but Season 2 took a small dip in the ratings, which doesn't exactly indicate that Season 3 will blow other HBO shows out of the water. Maybe if John Oliver rants about it.
What Are HBO's Biggest New Projects On The Way?
As Netflix continues borrowing billions of dollars in the name of creating new TV shows, HBO has stepped up its own original programming game with some large financial influxes. The network has around two dozen new projects on the way, and nearly 20 just in development, with some being a lot more potentially gamebreaking than others.
For my money, HBO's upcoming slate is riding on Damon Lindelof's Watchmen, a reinterpretation for Alan Moore and Dave GIbbons' seminal comic book series. It's a rare example of HBO getting invested in comic books and superheroes, and Lindelof's Lost connections might bring more viewers to Watchmen than the viewers who turned up for the absolutely stellar The Leftovers.
HBO also has some major novel adaptations coming on the drama side. One of those will be His Dark Materials, based on Philip Pullman's novels of the same name. This will be the first TV jaunt for this story, which was first brought to the big screen as 2007's The Golden Compass. Doctor Who vet Steven Moffat will be tackling a version of The Time Traveler's Wife for HBO, too, and let's not forget the Jordan Peele-produced adaptation of the Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country.
Beyond those, we've got Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes' new historical drama The Gilded Age, which HBO picked up from NBC after it had been developed. Fred Armisen's new horror-tinged comedy Los Espookys looks like a good time, and Danny McBride will return to his TV home for the new comedy The righteous Gemstones, which also co-stars The Conners' John Goodman and Workahoolics' Adam Devine.
Again, these all sound like great shows, if not quite the kinds of programs that are known for bringing in mass audiences. So it remains to be seen if any here can become breakout projects.
What's The Future Of HBO's Game Of Thrones-Related Projects?
HBO is technically Game of Thrones-free at the moment, with Season 8 having wrapped up everyone's stories (for the most part). But that doesn't mean the network is wiping its hands of the franchise altogether. Even the Night King would laugh at such absurdity.
Instead, HBO has cast a wide net with its approach to tackling prequelized tales set within George R.R. Martin's expansive Thrones-ian universe. There were initially five different creative teams working on different projects focused on past events and different locations, though two were shuttered recently, and only one of them has filled its cast and is actually set to film at some point this year. Not that there's much information for to go on beyond the vaguest of ideas.
The other two prequel projects are likely still in the script stages, so it might be quite a while before HBO makes a clear decision about what'll happen with them. Or it might be the day after you read this.
One thing is for sure, though, at least at this point in the process at HBO: Game of Thrones won't be getting any sequel TV shows showing off the futures of the characters that TV fans know and love. Despite the fact that many viewers would go ga-ga for a spinoff following Maisie Williams' Arya as she treks west, HBO chief Casey Bloys shot those hopes down, saying they were not only looking to break new creative ground, but also to honor Game of Thrones as a singular entity.
So while more GRRM-esque projects are almost definitely on the way, it's not clear when. And it's not clear what. Or most other questions.
To offer up a quick counter-argument more in favor of HBO, Netflix's constant turnaround on content makes it harder for the platform to build steam for its own shows to takeover the public's consciousness. Shows like Stranger Things and Daredevil transcended limitations to become true pop culture icons in their own right, but considering how many new TV releases Netflix puts out each week, the average number of mega-hits should be much higher.
Plus, in the survey from Morgan Stanley, the actual #2 slot between Netflix's 40% and HBO's 11% was the reply "Don't Know," signifying the responders who couldn't make a pure judgment about which of the services listed had the best originals. (Hulu had 6% of the vote, Amazon had 5%, and Showtime and Starz both had 2%.) Depending on what those people would have chosen if forced to, HBO could have been a lot closer to Netflix's total.
Naturally, the battle for TV supremacy isn't just happening between Netflix and HBO, since network TV stills wears the crown, but these times are a-changing. Just ask David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.