Somewhere between the iconic Tony Soprano and the forgettable John (), the once high-flying network had lost its way.The development cupboards had been left relatively bare, and there was a feeling around Hollywood that doing business with HBO was tough."If you are not averse to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic, the series might be worth the effort.If you are nearly anyone else, you will hunger for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary," critic Ginia Bellafante wrote when the series premiered in April 2011, asking at one point, "What is not only has become the biggest show in HBO's history, delivering a weekly audience of 19.1 million viewers, but also a calling card for the network, with the vast majority of critics lavishing it with praise.On June 21, HBO will add a pair of testosterone-fueled new editions — Dwayne Johnson's sports dramedy that the network is in talks for a major multipart deal with the biggest media personality in sports (more on that later)."This is the most exciting inflection point in the history of our company," says Plepler as we sit down for dinner at The Peninsula hotel during one of his frequent trips west in late May; across the street, at The Beverly Hilton, his latest batch of shows, led by , was dominating the Critics' Choice TV Awards.The top-secret project would be HBO's answer to younger, scrappier and fast-growing Netflix, giving HBO access to a whopping 10 million more subscribers — the "cord-cutters" and "cord-nevers"— who had remained beyond the reach of even the most successful pay cable channel until now.
"This is the single boldest decision that anybody in the existing cable-satellite ecosystem of programmers has ever made," says BTIG media analyst Rich Greenfield.With no clear heir apparent, the programming reins were handed to Plepler, who had spent the bulk of his lengthy HBO tenure as the in-house PR guy, and Lombardo, who had come up through the network's business affairs division and had even less creative experience.But it wasn't until the two settled into their new positions — the former as co-president, the latter his head of programming — that they fully appreciated the mess they'd inherited.(Awards remain elusive, a sore spot for HBO executives for whom Emmys still are key.) 's Gillian Flynn).The noisier, the better, suggests HBO's drama chief Michael Ellenberg, who says of the crowded landscape, "Your biggest fear is that you put something out there and no one gives a shit." But mounting that next batch of would-be blockbusters won't come easy.