TBI Weekly: ‘Chernobyl’ is astonishing, but what’s next for HBO? (Column)

As HBO rolls out hit dramas such as Chernobyl that carry the signature marks of outgoing drama execs like Kary Antholis, TBI asks whether the WarnerMedia-owned cable channel can keep such high standards up for its SVOD-focused future. 

To whomever leapt upon the Internet Movie Database’s (IMDb) obscure TV ratings system to make a point for the greater good: you were right. Chernobyl is utterly brilliant.

Heroically researched by writer Craig Mazin – who began writing in 2015 and drew on first-person accounts in Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices From Chernobyl and other texts – it is an elegant, eery and deftly-told series that illuminates a recent event most people thought they knew: the best kind of historical drama.

And while it takes its share of creative liberties – the Emily Watson character Ulana Khomyuk, for example, is a composite of several scientists – it does so to drive a wider point, and never in vain. No time is wasted, no corners cut.

The five-part drama, which aired from 6 May to 3 June, is the first co-production out of the gate from HBO and Sky’s multi-year deal for high-end drama, struck in 2017, and was simulcast across Mondays and Tuesdays in the US and UK, respectively.

But what’s particularly interesting is the HBO exec on the show: Kary Antholis, whose credits include HBO/BBC co-production Tsunami: The Aftermath as well as award-winning multi-parters Angels In AmericaMildred Pierce and the forthcoming Catherine The Great, also with Sky.

The same Antholis who – as Mazin details in a five-hour-long accompanying podcast on the making of the show – so thoughtfully reined the production team back from showing too much of the radiation burn victims, particularly firefighter Vasily Ignatenko, so as not to be gratuitous in its portrayal of the human cost of Chernobyl.

“In our initial cut, we lingered quite a bit longer on Vasily [but] Kary Antholis said, ‘You know, maybe not so much, because it’s starting to feel a little abusive’ and he’s right,” says Mazin, making one of the only references in the entire podcast to senior execs at either HBO or Sky.

“We went back and thought, ‘Actually this is crossing the line.’ We never wanted it to be gratuitous or sensationalist in any way. We just wanted to show what was real.”

This is also the same Antholis who departed the WarnerMedia-owned channel earlier this year as part of a wave of exits that included HBO boss Richard Plepler and co-head of drama David Levine.

To be fair, these execs don’t work alone. HBO’s drama team, as Annapurna Television’s chief content officer Sue Naegle told me recently, are “so good” and know how to maintain the quality on the programming.

But will we see anything of the ilk of Chernobyl anytime soon? The old guard is well and truly gone. Yes, WarnerMedia wants to expand the HBO offering across more than just the prestige Sunday night slot, which means more opportunities for premium content. But to do as much without thinning out or cheapening the offering will be the ultimate challenge. After all, it’s exactly those notes – to tread carefully with such disturbing scenes, to do more with less –  that are the hallmarks of HBO. A subtlety of touch I’ve yet to see coming through any SVOD.

This, perhaps, is where Sky and its relationships with top-tier European producers comes in. Looking back, AT&T announced its offer to buy Time Warner for $108.7bn in October 2016. Six months later, HBO and Sky agreed its $250m co-production deal. Perhaps HBO execs such as Plepler saw the writing on the wall when it comes to the demands of having AT&T as a parent company.

Looking ahead, I understand that Warner Bros. International TV Distribution is selling Chernobyl overseas, and that it is likely to be a key part of the studio’s SVOD given HBO is effectively the crown jewel. Makes sense. It should be.

But what comes after Chernobyl?

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