Two high profile publications have asked the big question of HBO: What will it do on June 11 -- the day after "The Sopranos" will end its nine-year-old run?
The truth is: HBO has already had a test run over those years, as it had the series on hiatus a number of times when David Chase was coming up with new scripts. The real question is how HBO will market its new programs.
"The Sopranos" just wasn't an ordinary show, according to critics -- who matter a lot to HBO. Early on, when HBO's promotional and marketing machine was kicking the "Sopranos" into high gear, a review in the New York Times called it "the greatest work of American popular culture in the last 25 years."
"The Sopranos" was far and away not only the biggest hit on HBO -- but of cable TV overall. It reached a peak of 13.4 million viewers for the fourth season premiere -- easily the tops for any cable entertainment show. In its last season, it averaged around 9 million -- still a very high number.
"Sex and the City," "Six Feet Under," "Entourage," "Rome," "The Wire," "Deadwood," "Big Love," and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" couldn't get close to those numbers. Each attracted anywhere between two million to four million viewers.
HBO might tell you it's not really about ratings. HBO looks for that entertainment quality that revs its viewers -- and, more important, critics -- into a frenzy.
But the odds of finding another groundbreaking, broad-appeal show like "Sopranos" will be tough. So HBO is seemingly going into the other direction with a new slate of smaller, quirkier dramas and comedies. Surfer-drama "John From Cincinnati" from David Milch, is the best example -- a mystery, a family drama, and full of unusual characters. It'll take over "The Sopranos'" time slot this summer.
To understand the walls HBO needs to scale again, just look at the cover of the most recent Vanity Fair. Star James Gandolfini and creator David Chase are on the cover, with a come-hither cover line that tempts readers with: "How the greatest show in TV history got made, and how it all ends."
If you are an HBO publicity or marketing executive, how can you top this? You probably can't. Unlike other TV networks, HBO doesn't really talk marketing -- kind of the way old Hollywood used to talk movies.
"You'll never see me talk about the marketing of movie," one senior marketing executive at a major studio once told me, when I was covering theatrical marketing at a daily West Coast entertainment magazine. "We let the quality of the picture do our marketing, do our talking."
Really? Is entertainment marketing not a business to be discussed at some companies? I was thinking, if that's really the case, the executive should then fire himself -- since, as he says, the movie does the marketing by itself.
That won't happen at HBO. But to get the "Sopranos" level of buzz again, HBO will have to make a programming offer to its viewers that they can't refuse.