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Thursday, July 30, 2009

'True Blood' helps hit-starved network get back on track.


For a one-time hit-maker short on hits, HBO has a fascination with fangs to thank for its renewed success.

After a couple of years with little to brag about--much less bring in more paying subscribers--the attention and viewership True Blood has delivered marks something of a turnaround for a premium cable network that had fallen on hard times. With a weekly cumulative audience of 11.2 million viewers this season, the vampire series has quietly become the network's most watched series since The Sopranos.

Until very recently, HBO has displayed little of the record-setting ratings and water-cooler domination it was once well known for. Must-see series like Six Feet Under, Sex and the City and The Sopranos ended their runs. Newer fare like Lucky Louie and John from Cincinnati seemed to repel viewers and former HBO chief Chris Albrecht was forced to resign two years ago after he was charged with domestic abuse. Meanwhile, the arena HBO once ruled grew increasingly crowded as Showtime, News Corp. ( NWS - news - people )-owned FX and Mad Men-home AMC ratcheted up their original series output and generated critical praise in the process.

To hear HBO's since-appointed Co-Presidents Richard Plepler and Michael Lombardo tell it, that dry spell is over.

Tapping into a vampire hysteria that's made the Twilight books and movie a massive hit, True Blood is at the forefront of the network's renaissance. The ratings of the Alan Ball show, based on Charlaine Harris' series of Sookie Stackhouse novels, have jumped 30% in its sophomore season. Eager to capitalize on its success, HBO's licensing division struck a deal with Omni Consumer Products to sell a mock version of the synthetic blood drink consumed by vampires on the show.

The network strategically programmed True Blood as the lead-in for newcomer Hung and veteran Entourage--an approach that's paid off in the Neilsens. Thus far this season, Hung has garnered 10.2 million cumulative viewers, while Entourage is up 26% from last season, with an audience of 7.4 million tuning in from week to week.

"The size of these shows has really broken through in the popular culture in a way we haven't seen in awhile," says Plepler at the Television Critics Association semi-annual TV confab in Pasadena, Calif. "Obviously we're delighted."

Also working in the network's favor of late: the ailing economy. "What the research shows to be true is that people are cocooning," explains Plepler. "All of our viewership is up across all categories, which obviously means people are staying home and watching television."

To be sure, despite the ebbs and flows in viewership for HBO's original series, subscribership has remained remarkably steady at about 30 million in recent years. (Other draws include an impressive movie slate and sporting events like boxing.) By comparison, Showtime has about 16 million.

Research firm SNL Kagan estimates that revenue at HBO, which includes all HBO channels and Cinemax, will climb to $3.8 billion this year, up 8% from five years ago, when the megawatt trio (Sopranos, Sex and Six Feet) was still on the air.

Up next, the network will look to satisfy its viewers with Bored to Death, a comedy starring Jason Schwartzman and Hangover funnyman Zach Galifianakis about an alcoholic writer who pretends to be a private eye. Also in the pipeline: Treme, a post-Katrina New Orleans drama from The Wire creator David Simon; and Boardwalk Empire, a drama from The Sopranos' Terry Winter and Martin Scorsese set in 1920s Atlantic City.

By Lacey Rose | Forbes | Link to article


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