If young writers came up to me and asked, “Mr. Weinman, sir, oh, great Guru, I have several networks fighting over the right to produce my show, who should I go with?” (Note: No one asks me this) I would reply “Go to HBO, young man or woman as the case may be.” Why would I say this? Because under the current administration at HBO, if you get a show picked up to series, you can basically never get canceled. They just renewed Hung — a show that is not popular, not critically acclaimed, and hasn’t grown from its first season — for a third season. The only show they tried to cancel recently was The Life and Times of Tim, and they just un-canceled it; if a show goes away, it has to be because the creators decided (perhaps with some prodding from the executives) they wanted to end it. As it presently stands, HBO is not the network that canceled Deadwood and Lucky Louie and so on. They’re more like the network that kept on renewing Arli$$ and got roundly mocked for it.
My reading of this, and I could be wrong, is that HBO now sees its refusal to cancel anything as part of its all-important brand. Cancellation is an admission that popularity matters — that if a show is not popular with audiences, it gets pulled. And that’s a very “network” way of looking at things. By picking up everything, they can retain their “it’s not TV, it’s HBO” image. It does seem to be part of a high-prestige cable brand that it’s easier for a show to get picked up for more seasons than it is on a broadcast network or a low-prestige cable network: the renewal is not necessarily a statement that that particular show is great, but a way of avoiding that moment where the network gets a reputation like, say, Fox. (Fox is famous for ordering unusual or experimental shows, but the difference between Fox and a high-end cable network is that Fox has to cancel these shows when they do poorly. And so they have a reputation that focuses more on their cold-hearted business decisions than on their artistic risks.) And it’s sort of working: David Milch, after doing two HBO shows that got canceled prematurely, is coming back to them this year to do Luck. The premature cancelations are past history, what can attract creators now is HBO’s current reputation as a place where you’re set for life if you can get a show on the air.