Why are HBO shows so good?

18 September 2018

Why are HBO shows so good?

With smash-hit classics like The Wire and The Sopranos as well as brand-new fan favourites including Ballers and Insecure, HBO is the undisputed home of many of TV’s most celebrated series. What’s their secret? What sets the studio apart in a landscape of over 500 scripted shows that viewers can choose between at any given time?

Here are a few factors that contribute to the greatness of HBO and how it got its reputation. As Rolling Stones writes, one of the things that HBO has going for it is the sense of “I don’t know about this new show, but HBO has vetted it, so I’ll give it a try.”

1. Curation, not volume

On a panel titled “The Best of HBO” at a conference in Israel in March this year, HBO programming boss Casey Bloys said of rival Netflix, “They’re in the volume business, we’re in the curation business”. And that really gets to the heart of the difference between HBO series and the slews of new 0riginals that Netflix and Amazon are producing. Netflix has plans to release 700 original series and films in 2018, whereas HBO usually has around 15 new series on the go at once (of course, part of this is because HBO doesn’t have the luxury of Netflix’s unrivalled spending on new shows).

It’s only natural that focusing on a smaller number of shows will have brilliant results. At the same conference, Bloys said that the reason Game of Thrones became the phenomenon it is, is because its curators only had one series to focus on, instead of trying to juggle multiple projects at once. Francesca Orsi, head of drama series at HBO, went on to suggest that the sheer number of new shows coming from streaming services is “diluting” the quality of TV. Though, of course, that’s not how everyone feels about the streaming service’s “more is more” attitude – as Rolling Stones says, having so many new shows in the TV landscape has led to more and more new, fresh voices we’d never hear from otherwise.

But Orsi also said that some of the new creators they’re working with refused to go to an Amazon or a Netflix because they wanted the focused attention that HBO could give them.

2. Unique, not familiar

Does it feel to you like you’ve seen a few Netflix originals before? Ben Travers, writing for IndieWire, says that’s because you have. Not in exactly the same form, of course, but part of the streaming service’s success, says Travers, is because they create originals by algorithm, relying on a formula that they know will appeal to their subscribers, because they know exactly what they’re watching and what they love.

“Netflix is building series off algorithms; it knows what viewers are watching and it’s catering to those pre-established tendencies,” he says.

HBO, on the other hand, is spending time and money creating shows that are different, not as easily digestible or as predictable. He uses the supernatural family drama Here and Now as an example. “It’s not going to put you to sleep,” writes Travers, and it’s series like this that remind viewers to step out of their comfort zone every now and then.

3. It was the original

We’re not talking about “original series”, here – we’re talking about HBO as the first studio that looked at creating original TV shows instead of putting all their eggs in the movies basket.

Former HBO employee James Altucher writes that, right from the very beginning, HBO invested in good relationships, rather than throwing money at the “problem” of creating new TV series.

“HBO was a breeding ground of the most successful executives in the industry and basically created quality original programming across all of cable. HBO did this by not just focusing on good shows but bringing in and training and mentoring great talent. Note the many actors that appear on multiple HBO shows (Steve Buscemi is a great example),” he writes.

And because, unlike other networks, they did not have to cater to advertisers (HBO has always run on subscriptions, even before the era of internet TV), they could take chances with riskier series that might not have attracted a lot of ad revenue, but which were helmed by big names and were seen as edgier and less predictable than other, “safer” shows.

A good example of this was HBO’s Vinyl, executive produced by Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese. The cast included Bobby Cannavale, James Jagger, Ray Romano and Olivia Wilde. It was a big-budget period drama that Jagger and Scorsese had been trying to get off the ground for 20 years. And it tanked. “Vinyl didn’t launch in the way we were hoping it would; it’s disappointing, but it happens,” HBO’s outgoing head of programming Michael Lombardo told Deadline when the network announced that the second season was cancelled. And that’s one of the things that sets HBO apart – it’s a network willing to take a risk.

But, more often than not, HBO shows become smash hits, huge cultural moments for TV viewers around the world – like these:

HBO shows you won’t find anywhere else


The Deuce

Room 104



HBO boxsets to binge on Showmax

Game of Thrones

Winner of the Best Drama Primetime Emmy Award for the third time this year, this really is the show to beat. All eight seasons are on Showmax.

The Sopranos


Sex and the City

Boardwalk Empire

The Wire

True Blood


HBO shows to watch again on Showmax

Insecure, S1-3

Insecure S2 is on Showmax in June

Image: HBO

Ballers, S1-4

Big Little Lies S1 (S2 lands in weekly episodes from 10 June 2019)

The Night Of

Westworld, S1-2


Here and Now

Strike Back, S1-6

Veep, S1-6

High Maintenance

Silicon Valley, S1-4

Start watching now »

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