Is HBO’s Luck Starting to Run Out?

After the premature cancellation of its latest prestige drama, the 'Not TV' network looks to get back on track. Thank heaven for little Girls!

Showtime’s hyper-paranoid counterterrorism thriller picked up the Best Drama Golden Globe this year and has put a creative defibrillation paddle to that network’s collection of aging hits. Those series, greenlit by Showtime’s former president of entertainment, Robert Greenblatt, gave the network a clear identity, hinging on dramedies about women with secrets—Weeds, Nurse Jackie and The Big C among them—and blood-and-camp drama tentpoles like Dexter and The Tudors. (Mr. Greenblatt has since been called to the majors and is now running NBC.) Other competitors have also used programming to brand themselves. AMC does meditative and highly watchable dramas about men in difficult situations (The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, Mad Men), for instance, whereas FX has specialized in black comedy and heightened violence (Justified, Louie, and the departed Nip/Tuck and The Shield).

HBO is still an extremely valuable component of Time Warner, and its subscriber numbers remain the highest on premium cable. But rivals are gaining ground. In the final quarter of 2011, HBO added 190,000 subscriptions after two declining quarters (just in time for Game of Thrones), while Showtime and Starz added 700,000 and 595,000, respectively. (That said, Starz and Showtime are more flexible in setting promotional rates with cable providers.)

In part the problem appears to be one of marketing: Having seen its longstanding identity—as the home of quality entertainment for grown-ups—adopted by so many upstarts, the channel seems to have lost its bearings. When asked about HBO’s brand, Ms. Naegle replied, “I think about this a lot.” She cited the series Enlightened, a half-hour program starring Laura Dern, as one that is core to the network’s identity. “I don’t think that show could exist any other place,” she said, noting that within HBO, it was called “a half-hour hour,” presumably in light of its unusual mix of big themes and a stunted running time.

“For us, it’s a signature HBO show,” she added. “But I don’t think everything needs to have a signature feeling.”

The brainchild of director Mike White, Enlightened centers on a spiritually adrift woman in a competitive, ugly world. It’s a frequently brilliant show, but a quirky one—seeming at times custom-made to be unjustly ignored. It was recently renewed for a second season despite averaging fewer than 200,000 viewers per episode.

But the show exemplifies HBO’s longtime strategy of cultivating relationships with talented showrunners and letting them do more or less whatever they want. Mr. White, who was one of Ms. Naegle’s clients when she was an agent, said that he’d received precious few notes on the series. “They were just along for the ride,” he said.

Alan Ball of True Blood (who’d also been represented by Ms. Naegle), said that the only network notes he received for his show about sexed-up vampires and werewolves tended to ding him for not going far enough, an unusual critique from a network, and a welcome one. True Blood is HBO’s biggest hit, but Mr. Ball is more focused on art than commerce. “I don’t care about the number of people who watch the show,” he said. “I’d rather have a smallish audience than a gazillion people.”

The network’s taste for heavyweight talents hasn’t always worked out. For every True Blood, there’s been a Treme or two. Meanwhile, TV’s breakout series have lately come from writers’ room veterans stepping up to run their own shows, a group that is in short supply on HBO these days. “Where is the talented writer-producer who no one’s ever heard of who has industry experience?” asked Ms. Ryan, citing Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, as a case in point. An equally apt example might be Matthew Weiner, who was hired to write for The Sopranos on the basis of his spec script for Mad Men, a project HBO ultimately turned down.

One could write an alternate history of HBO beginning on June 10, 2007, in which Mad Men—or an equally groundbreaking series—made its debut immediately following The Sopranos‘ finale. Former chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht had resigned just a month before, following an arrest for domestic violence, and president Carolyn Strauss would soon be ousted. After The Sopranos cut to black, though, HBO introduced the world to John From Cincinnati, a faux-mystical surfer drama created by Deadwood auteur David Milch.

The post-Albrecht, post-Tony period was a time of reckoning for HBO, not least because Mad Men also premiered that summer. Ms. Naegle told The Observer that the first script she read for HBO—during a Mexican vacation she took just before starting the new gig—was Game of Thrones, which grew into a flagship hit. “These shows bring 10-part movies into your home every Sunday night. They are big shows,” she said, adding that both Game of Thrones and Luck were logistically difficult but worthy of the network’s efforts. “With Luck, we’re dealing with horses! They don’t behave like actors.”

She was right about that. Shortly after we spoke, a third horse died and the show was cancelled.

The lesson? Placing a big bet on a tested thoroughbred might seem like a prudent move, but anything can happen when the horses round the home stretch. Ms. Ryan defined Boardwalk Empire as an exemplar of the sort of big HBO bet—a visually complex and lavish melodrama, studded with marquee names—that has increasingly failed to pay off. “It’s a structural exercise that does not have a vibrant emotional core,” she said. “That’s emblematic of what’s wrong with HBO. I just don’t get a spark from it.”

Among those working to fill the void is Starz, under the leadership of none other than Mr. Albrecht. “Instead of being all over the place in our originals, we’re trying to concentrate on ones that are larger-than-life, theatrical, fun, and entertaining,” Mr. Albrecht told The Observer of shows like Boss and Spartacus. “Those are the words we’re using for our brand.”

The game has changed since Mr. Albrecht was running HBO. “At that time, we were just looking for great shows with great show-runners and trying to bring a different sensibility into the way shows were originated,” he said. And to some extent, that spirit remains. Girls creator Lena Dunham didn’t even have a pitch prepared when she first met with Sue Naegle. “I wasn’t pounding the pavement trying to get Girls out there,” said Ms. Dunham, whose show is also produced by comedy consigliere Judd Apatow. “What HBO does is champion a creator,” she added.