Why Big Little Lies Was Such a Big Win for HBO

By
Alexander Skarsgård in Big Little Lies. Photo: HBO

HBO’s Big Little Lies ended its run Sunday as both a commercial hit and, based on wave of critical raves for the finale, a creative triumph. And yet, it could have just as easily been Netflix soaking up the accolades right now. The project landed at HBO in May 2015 only after an intense financial bidding war with its streaming rival, per a report at the time. Such twists of fate happen all the time in Hollywood, and Netflix didn’t “mess up” at all by losing out on one series. Still, winning the war for BLL will end up being a particularly sweet victory for HBO — and not just because it gave the network two months of strong ratings and great buzz. Here’s how the success of Big Little Lies will end up boosting HBO in ways well beyond ratings:

It underlines the value of HBO’s linear-centric model.
Given Netflix’s track record for giving talent plenty of creative freedom, as well as for nurturing positive publicity for its best shows, there’s little doubt BLL would’ve emerged a “success” had it ended up on streaming. But what’s less clear is whether or not BLL would have delivered the same emotional and cultural wallop had all the episodes dropped at once, sandwiched between some new Marvel show and another season of Grace and Frankie. There’s a case to be made that having this story play out over the course of two months allowed viewers the time to savor and appreciate each installment, even as positive word-of-mouth among early adopters helped the show’s overall audience expand.

Nielsen numbers certainly suggest BLL built momentum during its run. The show’s February 19 premiere brought in a solid 1.1 million same-day viewers; Sunday’s finale scored just under 2 million. This doesn’t mean the series doubled its overall audience from start to finish, but the fact that its linear audience grew almost every week it aired indicates buzz about BLL broke through and helped recruit new fans. This happens with Netflix shows, to a degree: Stranger Things stans on social media wouldn’t shut up about the show last summer, a fact with no doubt contributed to the impression (not corroborated by data, since Netflix releases none) that the show was a “smash.” But a linear run on an old-school network such as HBO amplifies and concentrates that buzz in a way the Netflix model doesn’t allow.

Entertainment-centric websites such as Vulture spent the week leading up to Sunday’s finale speculating about how the show would end and testifying to its virtues. Social media similarly lit up during and immediately after the finale, publicizing the now-complete limited series to millions of potential new viewers (and possible new HBO subscribers). Top Netflix and Amazon shows also get plenty of publicity and hype, but the attention comes in shorter bursts and fades more quickly. By sticking to a linear model, HBO maximizes the attention it gets for its best series. Plus, thanks to the companion digital platforms such as HBO Go and HBO Now, the network can still satisfy the Netflix generation by letting subscribers who want to the opportunity to binge all seven episodes. Bottom line: The network’s model gives it the best of both worlds. You can bet the next time a talent agency is shopping a star-studded project to various outlets, HBO will cite BLL as a reason why said project should end up on cable and not streaming.

It promises to be an Emmy magnet, and that matters to HBO.
Fun fact: Years ago, at least one key HBO programmer had a contract that paid him more if HBO won more Emmys. That’s how important TV Academy love is to a premium outlet such as HBO. Awards add to the aura that a network such as HBO is worth paying up to $15 per month for a subscription. With the stellar array of movie star talent attached to it, BLL was always an Emmy play for HBO. But the fact that the series ended up drawing mostly critical raves and strong viewership? While the limited series Emmy categories will be ridiculously competitive (think Fargo, Feud, American Horror Story, American Crime Story, and HBO’s The Night Of), BLL now has massive momentum headed into TV awards season. One Emmy juggernaut won’t make or break an established network such as HBO, but the attention it will get between now and September can only help bolster the network’s already strong reputation among consumers.

It was a home run with female viewers.
While HBO has plenty of female viewers, and plenty of shows that appeal equally to men and women, big dramas such as Game of Thrones and Westworld tend, unsurprisingly, to skew a bit more male. Not so with Big Little Lies. A network source tells Vulture the audience to date for BLL was 59 percent female, making it the network’s most female-centric hour since Big Love (2006–2011). HBO isn’t in the business of selling advertising, so this supersized concentration of women won’t result in the network raking in extra money thanks to companies looking to target female consumers. But subscription-based services such as HBO or Netflix thrive on serving diverse audiences: The more kinds of viewers it can keep happy, the more likely it can maintain (and grow) its overall subscriber base. That’s why Girls ran for six seasons, despite modest tune-in, or why HBO kept The Wire on the air even when viewers (and brain-dead Emmy voters) ignored it during its initial run. BLL overperforming with female subscribers is a good sign the show strongly connected with an (obviously) very important segment of the network’s audience.

It put the final nail in the coffin of the “HBO is struggling” narrative.
One year ago this month, HBO was getting hammered in the business and entertainment press for having lost its way a bit, particularly when it came to dramas. Word had leaked out the network was replacing Terence Winter as showrunner on its troubled series Vinyl, at that point renewed for a second season. Weeks later came the news that longtime programming chief Michael Lombardo was moving on (read: replaced), followed by the June bombshell that Vinyl wouldn’t be back after all. Throw in the disaster that was True Detective season two, plus the modest ratings (and initial critical ambivalence toward) The Leftovers, and HBO’s sterling reputation seemed a bit dulled — particularly in the age of Netflix.

There’s a case to be made that HBO was never in any serious trouble, and was merely the victim of a few bad breaks. But however you assess its past performance, post–Big Little Lies, the network seems as strong as it’s been in years, at least in terms of drama programming. Starting with the summer surprise that was the limited series The Night Of, HBO has been on something of tear. Westworld was a ratings hit that prompted solid reviews and a million think pieces. The Young Pope, which the network picked up for a bargain basement price, wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea and didn’t set any ratings records. But it drew a respectable audience and had more than its share of passionate supporters. The Leftovers will end later this month having turned around many of the critics not sold on the show initially and with its own loyal corps of fans. And there was even word last week that True Detective, which many assumed dead after season two, may yet be revived with the help of the legendary David Milch. HBO isn’t suddenly infallible; it surely will have its share of drama duds in the months and years to come. (Also: Winter — i.e., the end of Game of Thrones— is coming.) For now, however, the overall HBO brand is arguably as strong as it’s been since the days of The Sopranos and Sex and the City.

It establishes a strong relationship with some very serious star power (but don’t count on a sequel).
Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman weren’t just the stars of BLL; they were also producers who helped make the whole thing happen. Given the reaction the show has gotten, it’s a good bet they’re both quite happy with HBO’s handling of their creative endeavor; they’ll likely be even happier after the network’s no doubt massive push for Emmys. This doesn’t mean Kidman and Witherspoon are about to ditch movies for a Ryan Murphy–like career producing and/or appearing in limited series for HBO. But both actors have made it clear they enjoyed every aspect of BLL and are open to doing more TV projects, making HBO the early front-runner to host such endeavors.

Whether one of those efforts would be a second season or “sequel” to BLL is much less clear. Yes, in various interviews, Kidman and Witherspoon have mentioned how, if all the planets aligned, they could see returning to Monterey. But they’ve also made it clear that would probably mean Liane Moriarty, author of the book on which the show was passed, would have to dream up and write such a project. And they’d need to convince director Jean-Marc Vallée to agree to revisit these characters, something he told our Maria Elena Fernandez was very much not on his to-do list. “There is no way; there’s no reason to make a season two,” he said. “That was meant to be a one-time deal, and it’s finishing in a way where it’s for the audience to imagine what can happen. If we do a season two, we’ll break that beautiful thing and spoil it.” HBO insiders we’ve spoken to seem similarly opposed to a season two, as thrilled as they were with the seven episodes which aired. What seems more likely, at least in the near-term (say, 2019 or 2020) is a reunion of the cast and creative forces behind the show on a new project. As the aforementioned Murphy has proven at FX, bringing great actors together to tell completely new stories can work both financially and as a formula for creative success. If HBO does attempt to conjure up more magic with the BLL team, the Murphy model seems its best bet.

Why Big Little Lies Was Such a Big Win for HBO