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After 'Game of Thrones' ends its epic run, how will HBO fill the void?

After 'Game of Thrones' ends its epic run, how will HBO fill the void?
Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in "Game of Thrones." (HBO)

Three-eyed raven soothsayers beckoned guests in an alcove of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel while tankards of ale were being filled to the brim across the way. Upstairs, direwolves (faux, of course) took over the bowling alley and Dothraki henna tattoos were being applied.

This is how HBO rings in the sixth season of "Game of Thrones," which debuts Sunday. And it's no wonder.

To say the fantasy epic is the crown jewel for the premium cable network would be as understated as an entrance by one of Daenerys' dragons. Even President Obama can't get enough — securing early access to Season 6 episodes from the Time Warner Inc. premium pay-TV channel.

But now that the blockbuster series is winding down — show producers are negotiating terms for an eighth and final season — questions loom over how HBO will fill the big void left behind.

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"That is the challenge of all of our jobs, which is to always be looking for the next great show," HBO's programming president, Michael Lombardo, said in an interview. "I hope we find it. I trust we'll find it. At the same time, I would be lying if I told you I had any clue what it was going to be."

The stakes are high for the premium cable network, which has relied heavily on "Game of Thrones." The series, based on the bestselling books by George R.R. Martin, has become one of the most popular dramas on TV and has helped fuel HBO's growth.

Since "Game of Thrones" launched in 2011, HBO's annual operating income has grown by nearly $500 million. Last year, HBO produced $5.6 billion in revenue and $1.9 billion in operating income. Although HBO doesn't break out financial details for individual shows, company executives credit "Game of Thrones" for helping to drive the surge in profits.

Finding a successor show won't be easy for HBO. The network faces a much more competitive environment today than it did when "Game of Thrones" launched five years ago. Although HBO is still a top-tier destination for talent, it's no longer alone in that category. Competitors such as Netflix, Amazon, Showtime, AMC and FX have elbowed their way into the premium space for prestige projects, giving creators and actors more options for where to take their projects.

(Kyle Kim)

"HBO is still one of the main go-to places," said Jay Sures, managing director of United Talent Agency. "Clients like to do shows where they're given creative freedom to do the type of show they want to do. There's just so much TV out there right now and so many platforms."

HBO has long had a reputation as a destination for critically acclaimed programming with culturally influential shows such as "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City" and "Entourage." "Game of Thrones" continues the tradition.

"The strategic importance of ["Game of Thrones"] is enormous in competitive terms in an environment where there is a fierce battle for premium video subscribers," said Larry Gerbrandt, a longtime media analyst. "Not only does HBO have to fend off its traditional pay-TV rivals Showtime and Starz but it is under mounting pressure from free-spending Netflix and up-and-comers such as Amazon Prime and Hulu and others."

The network has had successes with shows including "Veep," "Silicon Valley" and "True Detective," but nothing has matched the broad-based hit level of "Game of Thrones," which was one of several shows last year that landed HBO 43 Primetime Emmy Awards.

HBO also has some promising upcoming projects in the works with ESPN alum Bill Simmons and Jon Stewart, as well as the new comedy "Divorce," starring "Sex in the City's" Sarah Jessica Parker.

"They clearly need to have a few shows that are high-profile to build the brand, and 'Game of Thrones' has been it for them for a while now," said Cowen & Co. media analyst Doug Creutz. "And it was a big it."

HBO's track record in developing new shows has been mixed.

HBO's ambitious rock drama "Vinyl" underwhelmed despite its marquee pedigree — Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger — and a reported $100-million budget. Other big-budget projects in development have faced troubles. The TV adaptation of Michael Crichton's futuristic "Westworld" halted production in December and still has an undetermined air date. Both projects it had in development with David Fincher are dead, as is a limited series from "12 Years a Slave" director Steve McQueen.

To be sure, HBO previously has weathered uncertain periods. The network faced similar questions when its groundbreaking crime drama "The Sopranos" ended in 2007. A crisis erupted two years later following the resignation of Chris Albrecht, the Hollywood executive who helped build HBO into a cable TV juggernaut. Albrecht stepped down after he was arrested and charged with assaulting a girlfriend. The executive, who now serves as chief executive of Starz, pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery in the Las Vegas incident, received a six-month suspended sentence and agreed to undergo domestic violence counseling.

And HBO has always managed to reinvent itself.

"With success comes scrutiny," Lombardo said. "I get it. You set a bar and people want to highlight when you don't hit it. There's always going to be things that don't work. As long as our decisions are based on the same criteria we use for shows that do work, and we're honest with ourselves about not trying to replicate success of the past, I think we'll be OK."

One thing more certain than whether beloved "Game of Thrones" character Jon Snow is dead or alive: The show will be a hard act to follow. The series, which was adapted for HBO by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, has made the scheming of warring nobility must-see TV. It's been heralded for bringing the cinematic scale of genre blockbusters to the small screen each week.

"Game of Thrones'" success was far from assured. It was a hugely expensive undertaking in a genre that many were skeptical would find a broad audience. With the show's rich history of battling kings and warring families, many thought it was too aligned with blood and gore to become a mainstream hit akin to a franchise like "The Lord of the Rings."

Then there was the cost. Episodes for the upcoming sixth season, for example, cost more than $6 million each to make, with its lavish production taking place in Croatia, Iceland, Canada, Northern Ireland and Spain.

"Everyone thought HBO was crazy for doing this show," Benioff recalled amid the frenzy of the show's premiere party. "It carried a lot of risks."

But the gamble paid off big time for HBO.

"Game of Thrones'" fifth season averaged 20.2 million viewers an episode on all platforms — including HBO On Demand and HBO Go/Now — in the U.S. It became HBO's most popular series in its fourth season, overtaking "The Sopranos" as the most-watched show in the premium cable network's history.

And its reach extends far beyond the U.S. In a rare scheduling move last season, HBO debuted each episode on the same night in 173 countries. The simultaneous rollout was an attempt to combat the drama's significant piracy issues. The series still managed to retain its title as the most pirated TV show in the world.

"People want this show as soon as it is available — and they'll do whatever it takes to get it," said Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. "It has gotten this reputation for 'breaking the Internet.'"

The series has enabled HBO to grow at a time when competitors are contracting. The cable network has experienced a 16% increase in domestic subscribers since 2011 for its HBO and Cinemax channels, with 2014 and 2015 marking the most explosive growth in HBO's 40-year history.

Beyond boosting subscribers, "Game of Thrones" also helped HBO launch a new business. The company timed the debut of its stand-alone streaming service HBO Now to coincide with the rollout of the fifth season for "Game of Thrones."

"There's a kind of passion frenzy that surrounds this show that I've never experienced before," Lombardo said.

And when "Game of Thrones" comes to an end?

"I dread it as a fan and I dread it as an executive," Lombardo added. "And I'm not sure which weighs on me more."

Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.

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