LOS ANGELES — The Roman "soldiers" standing guard at the outdoor launch party for HBO's pricey new series, "Rome," are stone-faced. Perhaps this isn't surprising, given the fact that they are marooned outside the torchlit festivities - where guests are giddily trying on togas, talking with fortune-tellers, and devouring grape leaves and chocolates from the buffet.
On the other hand, a serious face may be appropriate, given the stakes for HBO. Unfettered by the networks' restrictions on violence, language, and sexuality, this onetime purveyor of movie reruns and cheap pulp entertainment ("Tales from the Crypt" was one of its early series in the 1980s) has become an industry leader, offering edgy original series.
Now, like the ancient Italian city, HBO is facing questions about its own decline in importance.
Its two top shows ("The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under") are in their final seasons, and "Sex and the City" now lives only on DVD and in syndication. But most damaging, the channel that built its reputation by having the hottest shows on TV does not currently have a breakout show that people talk about around the water cooler the next day.
HBO may have set new creative standards for the rest of TV, but its competitors have caught up and surpassed it, says Ed Robertson, a television historian and author. Recently, competing shows on other channels received multiple Emmy-award nominations, such as "Huf" on Showtime, "The Shield" and "Nip/Tuck" on FX, and "Monk" on USA, demonstrating that the kind of high quality, adventurous dramas and comedies HBO pioneered are turning up with increasing regularity elsewhere on basic cable and premium cable.
"The challenge HBO faces at the moment is coming up with another sort of cachet show like 'The Sopranos,' that can be part of the HBO mantle - or brand - that is used to attract new subscribers," says Mr. Robertson.
HBO's second act is taking place against a much more competitive background, one in which Hollywood's favorite pastime - imitation - has raised the bar for cable and network shows alike.
"People are used to the 'Sopranos,' " says the executive producer known simply as McG, who is working on "Supernatural," a fall drama for WB. The show's quality has been widely copied. As a result, he says, "people are used to shows that have a lot of cinematic weight."
And audiences now expect much more, says Jon Harmon Feldman, executive producer for "Reunion," a new drama this fall on Fox. "HBO set the mark pretty high. They reminded us how great ... scripted TV can be. They reminded us of the kinds of ambitions we could still have for TV."
The hardest HBO ingredient to copy is that ephemeral thing called "buzz." "Buzz is almost more important than Emmys or ratings or anything else," says Mr. Feldman. "Even though it might not keep [a show] on the air, it tells you you're relevant and that's pretty important."
Many industry believers say that HBO is short of new buzzworthy shows, a claim that Chairman Chris Albrecht disputes. "There are a lot of water coolers in a lot of different places," he says. "People at the water cooler in Pittsburgh might not be talking about the same thing as the people at the water cooler in Beverly Hills." He is also quick to point out that premium cable relies on subscriptions, not ratings, to float its schedule.
Currently, HBO's subscription base is still growing, with some 28 million paying customers, the largest of any premium channel. In the television business, however, there's more than one way to lead the pack, says Mr. Albrecht. With that in mind, HBO is positioning itself to be out front in the way people consume entertainment programming.
"We are sitting on the next wave of technological innovation,"Albrecht says. "Television and technology is going to be going in the direction that Tivo was taking people, which is the viewer in control of their own network. HBO is committed to making sure that we are part of that," he says, pointing to the emphasis on its HBO On Demand business.
Combined with the channel's connections through parent company Time-Warner, and what Albrecht calls its unique brand name awareness, he says that HBO is better positioned than any network to take advantage of that change.
Finding a new creative direction isn't always the most important skill for a mature media company, says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
"HBO's best bet is not to try to reinvent itself creatively, but to continue to deliver the same high quality shows it's been doing," he says. "That has almost become a genre in itself, and the good thing is ... they've taught the whole industry an aesthetic model that's all to our benefit."
Actor James Purefoy stands beneath the flickering torch lights at the launch party for HBO's "Rome," politely declining a duo of clothiers eager to drape him in a toga for the evening. But he is not averse to the costume altogether. The British star, who portrays Marc Antony in the new series, has a six-year contract for the role. "I have great hopes for the series," he says.
Clearly, so does HBO, which is investing a reported $100 million in the most expensive series in its history. Shot entirely in Italy on the largest standing set in the world, "Rome," boasts a film crew similar in size to that of a major feature film. "It is a series that charts entirely new ground in terms of scope and ambition," says Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment.
The series went into development seven years ago and the current writer, Bruno Heller, has worked on it since 2000. Yet, as it comes out at the end of August, it is only one of a number of TV treatments of the ancient Romans. ABC's recent "Empire," also filmed in Rome at the same time as the HBO series, covered roughly the same historical period. The History Channel debuts "Rome: Engineering an Empire," and the National Geographic Channel has announced its own series, "Hannibal v. Rome."
While Hollywood is often full of copycat ideas, the subject of empire is a hot topic for obvious reasons, says HBO's historical consultant, Jonathan Stamp. "There's something particularly resonant about that particular point in Roman history, maybe particularly in the United States," says Mr. Stamp. "[Rome] is wrestling with all the problems of whether or not it should expand, have an empire. If it does have an empire, how it should run that empire...?"
HBO won't know whether the fall of the Roman Republic lifts its fortunes till the end of this month, but at least one trend is evident. While many of the current HBO shows are set in and around the entertainment industry ("Comeback," "Entourage," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and the imminent comedy series titled "Extras"), "Rome" plays out against a vast canvas, one we could all benefit from understanding more clearly, says Mr. Heller.
"It was a moment that was pivotal in Western history," says Heller. "If things hadn't turned out the way they did at this particular point, the world that we live in now would be very different."