Peter Bart: Fresh From AT&T Media Maelstrom, HBO Bets Big On Media-Centric Programming

Amy Adams in 'Sharp Objects'

Going back to the Sopranos, HBO has demonstrated a gift for grandly celebrating its new product, with its premieres serving as lavish exercises in self-congratulation. Still there was a palpable tension at Tuesday night’s party for Sharp Objects at the Dome – a sense that the fate of this new series carried more than usual importance.

Consider the following: HBO, now under new AT&T ownership, has experienced mixed reaction to widely hyped new shows like Succession (already renewed) and Here and Now (cancelled), and would like to deflect media obsession from high-spending rivals like Netflix. Sharp Objects is a dark and gritty show about women, created by women (its star, Amy Adams, intends to launch an ambitious producing slate based on its presumed success).

Moreover, Sharp Objects also is a high profile example of the unfolding saga of movies-versus-TV. The novel by Gillian Flynn (who wrote Gone Girl) was originally optioned by Jason Blum as the basis for a movie, but, in opting for an HBO series, Blum brashly let it be known that the show would be the basis for his own major invasion of the TV medium.


To be sure, Blum’s taste in TV material seems as idiosyncratic as in film (Get Out). Like HBO itself, Blum seems to be drawn to big media stories. He is developing a TV series about former Fox news chief Roger Ailes (the Showtime series stars Russell Crowe) as well as about politico Steve Bannon. (A rival movie on Ailes is being prepped by Jay Roach and Charlize Theron at Annapurna). In the same vein, HBO’s show, Succession, focusses on a fiercely self-destructive media family akin to Rupert Murdoch’s (though its characters arguably lack the charisma of the Murdochs).

In Sharp Objects, Amy Adams is cast as a deeply troubled reporter who is assigned by her editor to return to her childhood home in the South to cover a murder, thus encountering a landscape of dark characters. It is hard to believe why any editor (I long served as one) would dispatch a dysfunctional reporter to handle a story of such complexity. Though an attractive actress, Adams’ character has none of the focus and dedication of previous female media heroines – think Cate Blanchett in Truth or Veronica Guerin. Or Meryl Streep in The Post. Or even Maggie Haberman, the real life reporter who plays herself in The Fourth Estate, the new documentary about The New York Times (Haberman tries to interview Trump on the phone while simultaneously placating a young daughter). In carrying her show, Adams’ prime need is to conquer her own self-destructiveness (she is given to self-maiming) rather than unraveling tangled stories.

Clearly, media stories are big news today on several levels: Media giants like Disney and Fox are consolidating and re-calculating their futures. The epochal war between the media and The White House continues to unfold in surreal ways. And a company such as HBO itself must re-shape its programming to meet changing audience demands as well as economic realities.

Newly acquired HBO itself is big media news: Reports remind us remind that Netflix spends $8 billion a year on content and Amazon $4 billion while HBO’s spend reportedly is at the Hulu level of $2.5 billion (all unofficial figures). HBO’s holds a big edge on Emmy nominations, but that’s being challenged each year by its rivals.

The company’s mission: To create new hits. And celebrate them even more grandly.

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