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TCA Diary: What does HBO’s new ownership mean for niche shows about minorities?

The current moment of premium TV about black oddballs is just getting started

LOS ANGELES — What happens to weird little black shows in the increasingly competitive chase for eyeballs?

The next months are about to show us.

There’s a lot of upheaval going on in the TV industry right now, and most of it is related to mergers. Disney is proceeding with plans to acquire large chunks of 21st Century Fox. AT&T has successfully swallowed Time Warner, which means it now owns HBO.

The new reality at HBO is already sparking concern, thanks to comments that AT&T chief executive and WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey made earlier this summer at a closed-door meeting at HBO. Stankey basically sounded like he wants HBO to turn into Netflix 2.0.

“We need hours a day,” Stankey said, according to The New York Times, in reference to the time that consumers spend watching HBO. “It’s not hours a week, and it’s not hours a month. We need hours a day. You are competing with devices that sit in people’s hands that capture their attention every 15 minutes.”

It’s unclear what this will mean for quality shows that draw niche audiences, especially because the era of premium television about black oddballs still feels nascent. Atlanta just concluded its second season, and Pose recently concluded its first. Director Terence Nance’s Random Acts of Flyness hasn’t even aired yet; it debuts Aug. 3.

There’s some hope in the pipeline at HBO. On Wednesday at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, Casey Bloys, HBO’s programming president, confirmed that the network is continuing to develop Underground co-creator Misha Green’s new project with Jordan Peele, Lovecraft Country. The second season of Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas already has been greenlighted. And the network is leaning on the talents of Mahershala Ali and Carmen Ejogo to resurrect True Detective after a disastrous second season.

If Netflix is the model to chase, it’s entirely possible that these shows will still get made but they’ll simply be more difficult to find, lost in a sea of excess. Netflix has some terrific shows, including On My Block, Dear White People (season two) and Orange Is the New Black (season six notwithstanding). The Get Down was a lovely, sweet mess, but it was also expensive and got canceled after one season. Still, none of those add up to the lightning in a bottle that is Atlanta.

At least publicly, Bloys didn’t say that an expectation of greater output will lead to sweeping changes at the network. One of the things that benefits so many shows at HBO is their long development time. There’s no rush to get something to air before it’s ready. In the case of Insecure, for instance, that ended up paying huge dividends. So will HBO simply go on a hiring spree and continue business as usual? Or will it have to speed up its production and development timelines?

“I don’t want to change anything about the process,” Bloys said. “We’re careful in our development and careful in shows we select, and I don’t want to change that. But, obviously, if we’re doing more, we may need more staff. But I don’t want to change our culture in any way. I don’t want it to feel like a factory.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.