HBO will offer the premiere episodes of its new comedies "Girls" and "Veep" for free after the shows make their debut on the pay cable channel.
The episodes will be made available for a month, not only on HBO's own website HBO.com, but also on YouTube, DailyMotion and other online platforms.
"Girls," which is about four college graduates struggling to get by in New York City, has its HBO debut Sunday and then will go online for free Monday through May 14. "Veep," a political satire starring Julia Louis Dreyfus, launches on HBO on Sunday, April 22, and then will be online from April 23 through May 21.
HBO's decision to offer free episodes of "Girls" and "Veep" demonstrates how competitive the television landscape has become. Once seen as the premier source of cutting-edge programming, HBO is facing greater competition from pay-TV rivals Showtime and Starz and, increasingly, basic cable channels such as AMC and FX.
Some uprooted their families to relocate to Los Angeles. Others recently bought houses or signed long-term leases and were banking on at least 10 months of steady work to pay down their debts. Many had turned down higher paying jobs to work for two of the top creative forces in the business -- Michael Mann and David Milch, executive producers of the HBO TV series "Luck."
Two weeks after HBO announced its sudden decision to shut down production of "Luck" in the wake of three horse fatalities, those who worked behind the scenes on the weekly TV series were grappling with the harsh realities of suddenly being out of work in a tough job market. "Luck" employed about 180 crew members, 23 actors with regular and recurring roles, 20 weekly or day player actors, in addition to dozens of extras.
Many local prop houses and vendors that had supplied services and equipment to the HBO series also lamented the demise of one of the higher-profile shows filming in Los Angeles at a time when fewer dramas are shooting locally because of competition from New York and other states.
Although TV shows are often canceled, it’s rare for one to be scrapped in the middle of production, especially after it has been ordered for a full season, as was the case with "Luck." When HBO halted production, it was filming just the second episode of the second season for “Luck,” the low-rated racetrack drama starring Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte.
“This is the only time in our history that we've done this and we don't take this decision lightly,'' said Michael Lombardo, president of programming at HBO. "It has some real costs in terms of dollars and in terms of the emotional costs. The fact that people made life decisions based on their expectation of employment for a 10-month period was not insignificant to us.”
Lombardo declined to say how big a financial toll this took on the network, cast and crew. To help cushion the blow, the Time Warner Inc.-owned cable network is setting up a fund to assist affected crew members, Lombardo said. “We have asked producers to put together a list of people on the crew who are in a challenging life circumstance because of this decision so we can figure out a way to make the landing a little bit more comfortable.”
Mann said he feels responsible for many of the crew members, several of whom had worked with him on other films and TV shows.
“We've got folks who relocated from New York to L.A. and committed themselves to one-year leases and now don't have a job,’’ Mann said. “You're talking about hard working men and women who are carpenters, assistant camera operators, sound editors, location managers, in a community where there is not a lot of production."
The shutdown was especially difficult because of the strong bonds formed on the set, Mann said.
“There was a unified spirit," said the director of such movies as “The Last of the Mohicans” and “Public Enemies.” “Every time you walked on the set you couldn't help feeling that everyone wanted to be there. A lot of folks had given up higher paying jobs to work for 'Luck.'”
The timing couldn’t be worse for Peter Clarke, prop master on “Luck,” whose wife is about to give birth any day.
“I’m concerned about how I’m going to make rent in four weeks,’’ said Clarke, a veteran prop master. “The job market is pretty lean right now. I can’t pick up and move to Louisiana because we’re about to have a baby.”
Production designer Tim Grimes moved from New York to Los Angeles last year to work on “Luck.” Grimes, who rents an apartment in Hollywood, was making good money -- about $3,600 a week -- on the show, but most of that was going to pay off debts. After the first season ended, he had to collect unemployment benefits because work in L.A. was so sporadic.
“We were thinking we would be paid until December and having the carpet pulled from underneath us was the biggest blow,’’ he said.
James Kent, set decorator on "Luck," moved from western Massachusetts to Los Angeles last year to join "Luck." He said the shock of the show’s cancellation was compounded by anger over how crew members have been depicted. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals "wanted to make us look like villains,’’ he said. “We were all very proud of the show and protective of the animals.”
"Luck’s" closure was felt far and wide in Los Angeles because the series filmed and spent heavily throughout the region, mainly at Santa Anita Park, but also at such locations as the Beverly Hilton, Hustler Casino in Gardena, Rod’s Grill in Arcadia and Marina del Rey.
HBO executives would not disclose the budget for “Luck,” but people who worked on the show said it was among the more expensive local TV dramas, spending about $140,000 per episode on prop rentals and purchases and set construction alone.
Among the beneficiaries was GMT Studios in Culver City, which rented three soundstages for “Luck.”
“The entire production community is hurting because filming is going out of state and this was one big show that was pretty substantial,’’ said Frank DiPasquale, president of GMT Studios. “They had a contract to be here till the end of October. It was definitely a setback for us.”
"Luck" was also a boon to the Santa Anita racetrack, which generated $10,000 to $20,000 a day in site fees from the series. About 75 people who work at the track earned extra income working as riders, gate guards and extras.
“It’s a big blow to us and something I don’t think we’ll be able to replace any time soon,’’ said Peter Siberell, director of special projects for Santa Anita Park.
Photo: Workers rebuild part of a stage at GMT Studios in Culver City as the set of the HBO show "Luck" is dismantled. Credit: Katie Falkenberg / For The Times
Where the cameras roll
Sample of neighborhoods with permitted TV, film and commercial shoots scheduled this week. Permits are subject to last-minute changes. Sources: FilmL.A. Inc., cities of Beverly Hills, Santa Clarita and Pasadena. Thomas Suh Lauder / Los Angeles Times
In a significant milestone for a device once known only for blasting "Halo" opponents, Microsoft's Xbox 360 video game console is now used more for watching movies and TV shows and listening to music online than playing video games online.
Microsoft has long attempted to use the Xbox 360 and its predescessor, the original Xbox, as a "trojan horse" that would use video games as a way to become the digital entertainment hub for families in the living room.
"The original vision for the Xbox was for it to be the heart of connected digital entertainment and it has been amazing to watch the arc," said Otto Berkes, a senior vice president of consumer technology at HBO who helped to launch the Xbox at Microsoft.
Yusuf Mehdi, who heads up marketing and strategy for Microsoft's Xbox business, said households now spend an average of 84 hours a month on the Xbox Live online service playing games, watching videos and listening to music. That's up 30% from a year ago. Just over half that time is spent on videos and music.
By comparison, the average household spend about 150 hours a month watching television.
"What we're seeing is that people are turning on the Xbox to play games and then keeping it on afterwards to get other types of entertainment," Mehdi said.
Over the past few years, Microsoft has added number of entertainment applications to the 360, including Netflix, ESPN, Hulu, Vudu, and YouTube.
On Tuesday, it is adding new video applications from HBO Go, Major League Baseball and Comcast Corp,'s Xfinity on demand video service.
The additions bring the total number of music, television and movie services available on Xbox Live to 36.
The new applications require that users be paying subscribers to Comcast's cable service, the HBO premium network, or MLB.tv. Those who pay will be able to watch more than 2,400 baseball games or more than 1,000 of HBO programming, including every episode of its original series like "Game of Thrones," "Boardwalk Empire" and "The Wire." Comcast subscribers will have access to thousands of movies and television shows from a variety of channels via Xfinity.
The launch of HBO Go on the Xbox is a big step towards the premium cable network's digital on-demand service becoming a direct alternative to its linear channels. While HBO Go is available on computers and a variety of digital devices like iPads, Xbox 360 owners will be able to watch it on televisions. Previously, the only way to get HBO Go on a TV was via the Roku box, which is far less popular than the Xbox 360.
"The Xbox has an extremely broad user base that can deliver a rich visual experience, which is a pretty big differentiator," said Berkes.
More than 20 million people are paying Xbox Live subscribers who can access the console's entertainment services. A total of 66 million Xbox 360s have been sold worldwide.
Microsoft previously said it would launch HBO Go and Comcast's Xfinity on its console before the end of 2011.
HBO's decision this week to halt production on "Luck" in the wake of three horse deaths has renewed debate about how animals are used in filmed entertainment.
HBO said it couldn't guarantee more accidents would not occur on the low-rated drama starring Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, but it also took pains to isolate the "Luck" case as unique given the dangers of horse racing — a point backed up by some experts.
The incident has put a fresh spotlight on the American Humane Assn., the nonprofit group that monitors more than 2,000 productions that use animal performers and is partly funded by the Screen Actors Guild. The AHA, criticized in the past for having overly close ties with the industry it's charged with monitoring, has vigorously defended its handling of the horses on "Luck."
Take two volatile creative geniuses with differing visions, add a slow-moving plot about an arcane sport with incoherent characters who speak in obscure lingo, throw in the dangers of working with animals, and you have a trifecta, but not the good kind.
The death of a third horse during production made it easy for HBO to pull the plug on its horse-racing drama "Luck." Already renewed for a second season despite very low ratings, "Luck" was quickly becoming the type of vanity project that HBO may no longer have the luxury to indulge.
HBO brass often makes the case that because it is a pay cable channel that carries no advertising, it doesn't have to worry about ratings. That is true to an extent. HBO's billion dollars in profits comes from subscriber fees as well as sales of its content both here and abroad.
However, ratings do indicate whether a show is catching on with HBO's audience. HBO has close to 30 million subscribers. It is a number that has not been growing in recent years (while its competitors Showtime and Starz have added subscribers) and, in a tough economy, all pay cable channels have to be worried that frugal consumers may decide to save a few bucks.
That doesn't mean every HBO show has to be a home run. Indeed, a massive hit on HBO is considered a flop on a broadcast or basic cable channel that is available in more than 100 million homes. HBO knows it has a diverse subscriber base. It kept "The Wire," its critically acclaimed drama about the drug war in Baltimore, on for five seasons because it appealed to those who liked intellectual political drama as well as viewers who enjoyed a gritty crime show.
But "Luck" was not even a hit by HBO standards, drawing less than 500,000 viewers in its Sunday night time slot. While additional runs during the week and people watching episodes they had recorded earlier likely boosted those numbers, the show's limited appeal made "Luck" a bad long-term bet.
That HBO renewed "Luck" after only one episode aired was seen as a case of jumping the gun since the premiere had only drawn 1.1 million viewers. Given that the star-studded cast of "Luck" includes Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, and that it is produced by David Milch ("Deadwood," "NYPD Blue") and Michael Mann ("Miami Vice," "Heat"), a second season was all but guaranteed before the show's debut. (The network is also bringing back its dark comedy "Enlightened," starring Laura Dern even though its ratings were also very low with one episode drawing less than 100,000 viewers.)
One reason such creative talent comes to HBO is that the pay cable channel is known for being very patient with its shows. Often, though, the network brings back a show with very limited appeal for a second season and then kills it -- as was the case with the series "How to Make It in America," "Rome" and "Carnivale." In that way HBO has avoided the stigma of having a first-season flop.
The behind-the-scenes drama early on in production with "Luck" should have been a red flag to HBO. Milch and Mann, both perfectionists, often clashed. "There was a day that David was going to kill Michael," Nolte recently recalled in an interview with The Times. The tension behind the scenes, coupled with a lack of action on the screen, led to mixed reviews from critics, many of whom thought "Luck" was a scratch.
"This nine-episode series is maddeningly and needlessly opaque, and so deferential to the rites and rituals of the track that the storytelling is labored and even joyless," wrote Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times in her review of "Luck."
If "Luck" had been a big hit, HBO might have been willing to weather the storm from the death of the horses. But given that "Luck" was unlikely to win, place or show with critics and viewers, putting the series down was the network's only real choice.
Netflix is discussing a partnership with former HBO Films president Colin Callender to produce original content, including mini-series and movies, for the online video service, according to three people with knowledge of the talks who are not authorized to speak about them publicly.
Should a deal be reached, it would accelerate Netflix's growing resemblance to pay cable network HBO, where Callender worked for two decades and played a pivotal role in its award-winning programming success. He left amid a management shake-up at the Time Warner Inc.-owned cable network in 2008.
After amassing more than 20 million subscribers with a large selection of older movies and television reruns, Netflix has recently moved into original programming. The company launched its first series, "Lilyhammer," this month, and has at least five other shows in the works, including a political drama starring Kevin Spacey and a revival of Fox's sitcom "Arrested Development."
If he strikes an arrangement with Netflix, Callender would produce the first original mini-series and/or movies for its popular online streaming service.
Netflix is using original programming to help draw and retain subscribers as it faces increasing competition among on-demand online providers of films and TV reruns.
Similarly, HBO started off airing movies following their theatrical runs and then moved into original programs, building its brand with popular series such as "The Larry Sanders Show," "Sex and the City" and "The Sopranos."
The pay cable channel also regularly airs original movies and mini-series such as last year's "Mildred Pierce," for which star Kate Winslet won Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards.
During his tenure at HBO Films, Callender oversaw such acclaimed mini-series and original movies as "John Adams," "The Pacific," "Empire Falls" starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and "Recount" with Spacey.
Under his oversight, HBO Films not only produced TV movies and mini-series, but theatrical releases that included "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," "Maria Full of Grace" and "American Splendor."
In 2010, Callender formed his own Beverly Hills-based film, television and theater production company Playground Entertainment
Netflix has been aggressively pursuing new content deals as some of its most prominent arrangements for exclusive rights to movies are coming to an end.
A deal with pay cable channel Starz that gave Netflix access to films from Sony Pictures and Walt Disney Pictures expires at the end of this month, and one with Epix that gives Netflix users movies from Lionsgate and Paramount Pictures will become non-exclusive in September.
Original movies or mini-series produced by Callender could help to fill that hole.
Reached by email, Callender declined to comment, as did a spokesman for Netflix.
Time Warner Cable subscribers will now be able to watch HBO on their iPads and computers.
After several months of negotiations, the cable giant -- which has 12 million subscribers, including 2 million in Southern California -- has finally reached a deal with HBO to carry its new HBO Go, a service that allows the pay channel's subscribers access to its content on multiple platforms both inside and outside the home.
While HBO Go does not offer a live streaming version of HBO, the network's new and old programs will be available on the service at the same time they are on TV.
HBO already has signed deals with most other multichannel video program distributors, or MVPD, including Comcast Corp., but Time Warner Cable's agreement with HBO Go took much longer to complete. Among Time Warner Cable's various concerns was that HBO Go could ultimately end up being offered to consumers directly without their having to subscribe to an MVPD.
In a joint press release, the companies said Time Warner Cable subscribers who pay for HBO "will have free, unlimited access to the corresponding online services at any time, on any computer in the U.S. with a high-speed Internet connection, as well as a host of other devices, including the iPad."
The only remaining major hold-out for HBO Go is Cablevision Systems, the New York-based cable operator with more than 3 million subscribers.
Time Warner Inc. said Wednesday it had third-quarter profits of $822 million, a 57% increase compared with the same period a year ago, and revenues of $7.07 billion, a jump of 11%.
Much of the gains were driven by the strong box-office performance of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2." The last chapter of the long-running Warner Bros. franchise took in $1.3 billion around the world. For the quarter, Time Warner's filmed entertainment unit, which also includes television production, had revenues of $3.3 billion, up 17% from the third quarter of 2010. Operating income went from $209 million to $528 million.
But Time Warner Chief Executive Jeff Bewkes was quick to tell analysts that Warner Bros. was more than a one-man show.
"It wasn’t all about Harry at Warner Bros.," Bewkes told analysts during a conference call Wednesday morning. "Contagion" and "Horrible Bosses" were also strong performers for the studio, as was revenue from reruns of its hit sitcom "The Big Bang Theory."
Even though the current television season is not even two months old, Bewkes expressed confidence that Warner Bros.-produced new shows, including the sitcoms "Two Broke Girls" and "Suburgatory" and the drama "Persons of Interest," would be long-term moneymakers for the studio.
"Our syndication pipeline is built," Bewkes said, adding that a hit comedy is still the "holy grail" of the television business, with the potential to become "multibillion-dollar annuities."
Although Warner Bros. is on a roll, Time Warner's Turner Broadcasting is still going through some growing pains. Overall, Time Warner's networks group, which includes HBO, had revenues of $1.09 billion, an increase of about 6%. However, operating income fell 4% to $1.09 billion.
Although the new TNT original series "Falling Skies" was solid and "The Big Bang Theory" repeats are delivering for TBS, much of the other programming on the two networks is struggling.
"TBS and TNT ratings were softer than anticipated," said Time Warner Chief Financial Officer John Martin.
Bewkes also hinted that Turner Broadcasting would be willing to kick the tires of the NFL, which has talked about introducing a new eight-game package. However, he stressed that he would only buy NFL rights if the company could make money on it, saying he wasn't interested in a loss-leader.
Bewkes also took a little shot at Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable operator, which was spun off from Time Warner a little over two years ago. During its recent earnings call, Time Warner Cable suggested that growth prospects for the premium channel sector, which includes HBO, was slowing.
That, Bewkes said, was "kind of a backward-looking statement they made."
Bewkes has been frustrated with Time Warner Cable for not launching a new HBO service that allows subscribers to watch the channel on their iPads. Cablevision, another large cable operator, is also yet to sign a deal for the service, which is called HBO Go.
Although Bewkes did not call out either cable operator by name, he said he was "hopeful for their sake" that HBO Go would be available to their subscribers in the next few months.
HBO has raided its chief rival Showtime for its new head of sports.
Ken Hershman, executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports, has been named president of HBO Sports, filling the void created when Ross Greenburg abruptly resigned almost three months ago.
Hershman, who spent almost 20 years at Showtime and helped build up its boxing coverage, has strong boxing relationships, particularly with Manny Pacquiao. One of the reasons for Greenburg's departure was that Showtime had made strong inroads on HBO in boxing coverage, people close to HBO said.
Hershman, who will officially join the pay cable channel in January, will report to HBO programming chief Michael Lombardo.
News that DreamWorks Animation is cutting short its output deal with HBO in order to work with Netflix sent the "Shrek" producer's stock to its highest point in more than a month.
DreamWorks Animation's current agreement with pay-TV channel HBO was to run until 2014. Under the terms of the deal, DreamWorks Animation movies go exclusively to HBO during the "pay cable window," which typically starts about six months after theatrical debut.
However, DreamWorks Animation has gone to HBO and obtained an exit from the contract so it can instead make its movies available on Netflix's Internet streaming service during that window, a person familiar with the matter confirmed.
The deal with Netflix would only be for DreamWorks Animation movies released in 2013 and 2014. Older movies from the studio would remain available exclusively to HBO for the next several years.
DreamWorks, led by Jeffrey Katzenberg, will be the third independent studio to agree to use Netflix as its pay-cable partner, along with Relativity Media and FilmDistrict.
Investors were apparently pleased with the news, first reported Sunday by Bloomberg, and sent DreamWorks Animation stock up 4% in midday trading Monday. The Dow Jones industrial average and Nasdaq composite, meanwhile, were both down for the day.
The multiyear Netflix deal is expected to be announced as early as this week. This is the first good news for DreamWorks Animation since its future with current distributor Paramount Pictures became hazy earlier this month, when the studio announced the formation of a new animation division.
Paramount's decision to form its own animation unit was seen as a signal that the studio was not on the same page as Katzenberg regarding future revenue splits once their current pact expires in 2012. Abandoning the HBO deal appears to make it less likely that DreamWorks Animation could be acquired by Time Warner, HBO's parent company, or set a theatrical distribution deal with the conglomerate's studio, Warner Bros. Some in Hollywood have speculated that both were likely scenarios for DreamWorks Animation once the Paramount agreement expires.
In other words, DreamWorks Animation now knows who will have its movies after they debut on the big screen in 2012. It's just not sure who's going to release them on the big screen.
A spokeswoman for DreamWorks Animation declined to comment.
The loss of DreamWorks Animation movies is not seen as a big blow for HBO, as the studio only makes a couple of films a year. Also, 20th Century Fox, which has an output deal with HBO, is boosting its animation product. HBO also recently signed an output deal with Summit Entertainment, which makes about a dozen movies a year.