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!

Ms. Dunham, who wrote, directed and stars in her show, has become an indie darling due to the critical success of her irresistible debut film, Tiny Furniture. Still, it remains to be seen whether her propensity for emotional unguardedness and ribald humor will play among mainstream audiences. In one episode, a character brings cupcakes to an abortion clinic for an impromptu party; another character is portrayed as a dolt for being obsessed with Sex and the City (she calls herself a Carrie). Asked about the double-edged homage, Ms. Dunham said, “It was our way of going, ‘We get it, these are our predecessors.’” But Sex and the City was television for the masses; Girls is a boutique entertainment for what is likely to be a tight-knit cadre of devoted fans.

Not that such numbers necessarily trouble the boss. “Our passion for shows is not about proving ratings success,” Ms. Naegle said. “Really it’s about how we’re feeling about something creatively and how we feel about something fitting into our brand.”

HBO hasn’t had a zeitgeist-hit comedy since Entourage—and longtime favorite Curb Your Enthusiasm is prone to long hiatuses. We asked Ms. Naegle why more recent efforts—like the just-canceled trio Hung, Bored to Death, and How to Make It in America, the various Ricky Gervais series, and Enlightened—had had a hard time connecting with audiences.

“What’s your definition of HBO comedy success?” she asked.

We cited Carrie, Larry, and Vinnie.

“You would say something that feels like it’s generating something culturally,” she said. “Cable comedy has had a broader definition of success. With Girls and Veep, I’m not putting extraordinary pressure on the shows to perform in a way shows in the past have.” She added, however, “Eastbound and Down gets great numbers.”

Where HBO has enjoyed some branding success is in the area of original movies. Brian Lowry, Variety’s chief TV critic, noted that the one-off films, while not broadly popular, are central to HBO’s image as a high-class outfit: “That’s the only reason the movies exist, strictly so they can show they have movie stars. Game Change was a good rating for HBO, two million viewers. But the bigger payoff was that it was on every goddamn cable network. Someone said to me once, pay cable is like a really nice coffee table book. You don’t always have to be flipping through it to be glad you have it.”

The original movies also tend to fare well during awards season, where HBO’s series have lately been passed over. AMC and Showtime both leapfrogged the network in terms of total nominations for series programming in 2010, and Mad Men has taken the Best Drama statue four times running—most recently defeating Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones.

It’s one more way in which HBO’s brand identity is slowing eroding, which might be the network’s biggest problem of all—especially as the ascendancy of à la carte viewing platforms like DVRs, Netflix, Hulu, and AppleTV separate programming from its source. “Brands are and will become increasingly more important as technology continues to disconnect networks from our individual attributes,” Mr. Albrecht explained. “What we would like to be is not commoditized as the pieces but commoditized as the brand.”

In the early days, Mr. Albrecht recalled, “the brand at HBO was ‘It’s not TV.’ A lot of people have copied that mantra even if they’re not stating it. In a sense, as HBO has dropped it, everything is trying to not be TV.”

The network that redefined television recently rolled out a new slogan: “It’s HBO.” The ardent hope among TV fans is that that’s still enough.