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HBO shouldn’t change just to find success again

What better time than now to ask HBO how it went from the leader of the pack to a network trying to keep up with the competition?
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Let's consider HBO our patient in this "In Treatment" session of network therapy.

The network has been going through tough times recently, having seen its dominance slowly erode. It was king when "The Sopranos" launched in 1999 — especially among male viewers — and that came only a year after "Sex and the City" found success with female viewers.

So with the addictive "In Treatment" about to conclude its first-season run, what better time than now to ask HBO how it went from the leader of the pack to a network trying to keep up with the competition?

HBO's problems came to a head in mid-March when Carolyn Strauss, a well-respected veteran of the network, was relieved of her post as head of programming. She took the fall for the woeful ratings HBO has seen lately.

But like any good therapist would say, what happens around you is often out of your control. All you can do is remain strong to your core beliefs and keep doing what you've done in the past to achieve success and maybe, that same good fortune will once again return.

Many are quick to jump ship, saying HBO's series aren't as good anymore, that it’s lost its mojo and doesn’t know what viewers are looking for anymore. But the network’s programs are actually as high-quality now as they've ever been, and to suddenly change the programming philosophy would be a major miscalculation.

Going against the grainHBO has always been about series that go against the grain. Sure, Mafia sagas had been done before, but there was never a show about one where the boss couldn't get a handle on his own family. Or a polygamist who can be both a mainstream business owner and husband to three wives (“Big Love”). Or an examination of an American urban city with a rampant drug trade, depleted police force, corrupt politicians and an emasculated newspaper (“The Wire”).

Those types of programs aren't exactly a breezy half-hour of "Seinfeld" or a cup of joe at Central Perk with your "Friends," but HBO has never had to answer to Madison Avenue. Shareholders, yes, advertisers, no, and it’s been brilliant at offering programs that make viewers think, which is rare on TV.

But it's important to understand the predicament the network is in. According to industry trade paper Variety, HBO is down 36 percent in total viewers in prime time from February 2007 to February 2008. And there's been a 40 percent drop in the coveted 18-49 demo.

That decline can be attributed to the public's rejection of "In Treatment," a show that concludes this week and feels eerily similar to NBC's "Friday Night Lights" in that viewership is minuscule, but those who tune in find it highly addictive.

"In Treatment," based on a successful Israeli series, takes the point of view of therapist Paul Weston (a compelling Gabriel Byrne) as he sees patients during the week, each on their own night.

Every Monday features Melissa George as an anesthesiologist who is in love with Paul; on Tuesday, Weston tries to unravel the psyche of narcissist Navy pilot Blair Underwood; a suicidal teenage girl is Wednesday's client; while on Thursday, a bickering couple tries to determine if their marriage is worth saving. Friday, Weston finds himself getting treatment from his former therapy supervisor.

Those few who watched were witnesses to Emmy-worthy performances by all the actors, especially Byrne, who brilliantly internalized his character's struggles and those of the patients until both reached a full boil.

Don’t blame the networkThat the ratings were terrible can be of no fault of HBO, or any network that delivers quality material that isn't watched by the masses.

Certainly, no show received higher acclaim than "The Wire," which recently finished its series-ending fifth season. Critics called it one of the best shows, if not the finest ever, in the history of television.

The numbers were horrible, though, and if "The Wire" were on a broadcast network with an itchy trigger finger, not only would viewers have never had the privilege of watching five seasons, they would've been lucky to get three or four episodes of one season.

Critics' championing of low-rated HBO shows have helped struggling series, including "The Wire" and "Flight of the Conchords," survive in the past. Now, the creators of "12 Miles of Bad Road" — the Lily Tomlin series that had six episodes in the can before the strike, but was canceled by the network before a single episode aired — have sent the series to critics hoping for another positive endorsement that will create fervor for the show from other networks. "12 Miles" is a pricey project and being cost-conscious is more important than ever to the network.

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Earlier in the year, HBO remained in therapy mode (just look at what Lorraine Bracco began on "The Sopranos") with "Tell Me You Love Me," in which three couples went to visit psychologist Jane Alexander. The relationship stories were compelling, such as the realistic turmoil and sexual dysfunction between longtime married couple David and Katie (Tim DeKay and Ally Walker).

Like "In Treatment," viewership was staggeringly low, but Strauss and company took a gamble on something out of the ordinary. Still, it's better to take chances with new ideas than to devise just another copycat show.

Clearly, HBO's competitors saw what the network was doing when it was going gangbusters in the good days and tried to emulate its success with edgier programming of their own.

FX should be given kudos for "The Shield," "Rescue Me," "Damages" and "Nip/Tuck," and Showtime is gaining momentum with "Weeds," "Dexter," "Californication" and "Brotherhood," shows that have taken the HBO playbook and ran with it, earning praise from critics and viewers.

Then there's upstart AMC with its sensational and Golden Globe-winning "Mad Men," and now "Breaking Bad." USA Network, Sci Fi Channel and even Lifetime have also made great strides in their original programming. Sure, those are basic cable networks, not premium channels, but the strategy is the same: think out of the box. Too many good shows on the air is a problem all of us should have to endure.

This isn't to say HBO is doing everything right. Sitcom "Lucky Louie" was just atrocious. And as much as creator David Milch is a genius, his surfing-noir series, "John From Cincinnati," was a creative wipeout.

Yet little can be gained without risk. No doubt, HBO lost a bit of its creative DNA when network CEO Chris Albrecht resigned following an ugly incident outside a Las Vegas hotel a few years back, and Strauss might have felt pressures following the shake-up that she didn't have to deal with before.

But to completely change how the network formulizes and contemplates new series, even amid dissipating viewers, would be wrong. There might not be another show that will ever have the cultural significance and buzzworthiness of "The Sopranos" or "Sex and the City," but to create shows with generic broad appeal as a device to try and get big ratings would be a huge mistake.

Stuart Levine is a managing editor at Variety. He can be reached at .