HBO brass has been wondering that, too. They recently decided that Carolyn Strauss, the company's president of entertainment, should consider hiring a "lieutenant" to help her find it -- another way of saying "Please look to hire your eventual replacement." No dummy, Strauss then wanted HBO to review her entire situation at HBO.
And you know what that means.
So Strauss leaves her position (possibly getting another HBO spot), which means others are tasked with figuring out how to get back some of the ground-breaking glitz shows like "The Sopranos" and "Sex in The City" brought the network. Showtime has seemingly stolen some of that HBO patina recently with "Dexter," "Californication," "Weeds," "The L Word" and others.
Is HBO in a rut? Perhaps hits -- edgy pay-TV, foul-mouthing hits -- are harder to come by. Blame the rise of digital entertainment, or the writers' strike, or too many Starbucks yet too few overcaffeinated writers.
Recent HBO efforts like "In Treatment" and "Flight of the Conchords" have attracted ho-hum audiences. But to HBO's credit, both have gotten decent reviews. The same can't be said of the highly touted "John of Cincinnati," which debuted right after "The Sopranos" ended -- and got neither good audience numbers nor notices.
Everyone has said it: It'll be almost impossible for HBO to outdo itself against its incredible run of programming in recent years. Now it's left with nice-sized, crowd-pleasing but aging hits like "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Entourage."
Perhaps HBO has walked too close to the programming fringe for too long -- which isn't a bad thing. But that's more an Internet thing these days. Grabbing mass audiences is increasingly difficult.
Typically one show can define a network -- especially in cable, increasingly on broadcast. So ask yourselves this: What defines HBO right now?
If you took longer than five seconds to think about it, that's just the problem -- why HBO executives want some big splashy new programming that'll live up to its self-anointed marketing line: "It's not TV. It's HBO."
Right now HBO is just TV -- and that's the problem.