Television’s greatest brand is getting tarnished by short-sighted business decisions.
Every episode of Mike White’s satire “White Lotus” has dominated social media and sparked endless debates about whether [SPOILER] to [SPOILER], all while Twitter basked in the glorious return of Michael Imperioli.
For the past few months, HBO has been basking in the success of “House of Dragon,” which became a ratings monster and the network’s biggest hit since, well, “Game of Thrones.” And while critics were a bit on the fence about the series, audiences seem to mostly love it, even if everyone felt that maybe, just maybe, there was more incest than strictly necessary.
Then to top it off, nominees for the 2023 Golden Globes were announced, and HBO tied with Netflix for the most nominations, including nods for “Hacks,” “House of the Dragon,” “The White Lotus,” and Bill Hader’s performance in “Barry,” for starters.
So what should be the story is that, once again, HBO is the destination for the sort of adult, cutting-edge dramas and comedies that people can’t stop talking about.
But that’s not the story now, is it?
HBO is in the News For All The Wrong Reasons
At the moment, the entertainment industry, social media, and TV fans are shocked and aghast that not only did HBO suddenly, and surprisingly, cancel the sci-fi series “Westworld,” but now the entire series will no longer be available on the streaming service.
HBO Max has been on a cancelation spree of late. Not only did “Westworld” get the axe, but so did the cult horror-comedy “Los Espookys.” Additionally the raunchy reality competition “FBOY Island,” was canceled, as was the romantic comedy series “Love Life.”
Then, shockingly, news broke that the critically acclaimed “Minx,” a 70s comedy about the creation of the first female-oriented erotic magazine, was canceled and being removed from the series … just days after star Jake Johnson posted on Twitter about the season finale being filmed.
These cuts, along with several others, are all part of CEO David Zaslav’s attempts to find savings wherever he can. Following this year’s merger between HBO’s parent companies Warner Bros. and Discovery (WBD) – Get Free Report, the newly installed CEO set out to find $3.5 billion in cost-saving synergies.
At first, a number of cartoons were quietly canceled, as were the well-liked but not especially popular series “Made For Love,” the bonkers cult hit “Raised by Wolves,” and the family comedy “Gordita Chronicles.”
But Zaslav truly made his presence felt with the shocking decision to cancel “Batgirl,” a DC superhero film that was set to debut on HBO Max that was nearly finished.
These changes come as “the HBO Max slate has been undergoing end-of-year financial review by WBD, leading to a slew of cuts,” as noted by Deadline.
Is HBO Dying by a Thousand Cuts?
By canceling so many shows and removing them from the HBO Max service, Warner Bros.-Discovery “is able to save money in residuals paid to cast and crews of productions, on top of the money saved by not continuing with the shows at all,” according to Variety.
Now, that might be great news for shareholders, but these cuts are going to hurt the HBO brand in the long term, and are strong indications that Zaslav is a poor fit for this job.
First, working-class actors, as well as crew members and other behind-the-scenes people, rely on the residuals from streamed episodes to make a living. Cutting off this source of income just looks callous.
It’s also a very bad look that, in the year 2022, HBO Max canceled “Gordita Chronicles,” just a month after it debuted, as well as “Los Espookys,” both of which were created by and starred people of Latin descent, and canceled “Batgirl,’ which starred African-Latin actress Leslie Grace, and was directed by the Muslim filmmaking team of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah.
The previous executive administration of HBO has been working to correct the frequent criticism that HBO is a service by and solely for affluent white people, and it will take years of investment to show underserved communities that there is a place for them at HBO. These cuts undo all that work and alienate potential future audiences.
Before taking his current position, Zaslav was the CEO of Discovery, and it’s becoming clear that a deep experience in the world of unscripted television does not transfer to scripted TV. Simply put, Zaslav’s actions are destroying two of the most important assets HBO has: the trust of audiences and the trust of creators.
Unless a show is an outright stinker upon arrival, audiences have come to expect HBO to give shows time to find their audience and to let creators end things on their own terms. That’s not just a feel-good thing to say — it actually produces tangible results.
In 2011 the actor, writer, and director Mike White created the HBO comedy “Enlightened,’ a satire of corporate America and the wellness movement. It was both a touching and biting show, one that earned star Laura Dern a Golden Globe. It wasn’t a huge hit, but HBO gave White another season to wrap it up. This cemented a bond of trust between HBO and White, a well-respected creative.
Then when White felt that, after years as an indie darling, he was ready to try something a bit more broad-skewing, he pitched HBO “The White Lotus,” a pandemic-friendly show that could be made in isolation. It proved to be a gigantic hit as well as proof that building trust with your customers and your talent is the most important thing a network can invest in.
But it’s unclear if Zaslav understands the importance of trust or anything that can’t be enumerated on a spreadsheet. While he’s found the cost savings he was looking for, his ruthless slashing is starting to cut away at HBO’s reputation as the most prestigious name in television, which is too valuable to measure and too precious to lose to short-sighted decisions.
If Zaslav and HBO continue down this path, their days of dominating award shows and fan discussions could very quickly enter the rearview mirror.