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HBO's 'Vinyl' had all the ingredients for success. Why did it fail?

In an era of television that has set the bar high with binge-watching shows, HBO announced its decision to cancel the second season of 'Vinyl' on Wednesday.

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    Bobby Cannavale, from left, P.J. Byrne, and J.C. MacKenzie appear in a scene from HBO's 'Vinyl.' The network has canceled the show after just one season.
    Patrick Harbron/HBO/AP
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HBO pulled back its commitment to renew "Vinyl" for a second season shortly after the cable network welcomed its new programming chief, Casey Bloys.

The show is about a struggling New York record label executive in the 1970s and was produced by Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger. Scripts for Season 2 had not yet been delivered to HBO.

The series had been renewed in February after just one episode, a two-hour premiere that Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, called "compelling."

"After careful consideration, we have decided not to proceed with a second season of Vinyl," HBO said in a statement on Wednesday. "Obviously, this was not an easy decision. We have enormous respect for the creative team and cast for their hard work and passion on this project."

Considering the success of historical American TV dramas such as "Mad Men," "Vinyl" had some of the ingredients of a showstopper, but instead, ratings floundered.

Michael Lombardo, HBO's former programming chief, had nurtured the show for five years before its release. 

The show "made a nice companion piece [to] 'Mad Men,'" Professor Thompson says in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "Mad Men," a show about advertising, concluded its story in the late 1960s and the narrative of "Vinyl" began in the early 1970s and was set in another glamorous industry – that of music. "But I think in many ways, they were different," Thompson says.

"You know when you're binge-viewing and you think, 'I've got to got to work tomorrow, but I've got to get this next episode in?' Vinyl was a show that was easier to walk away from."

"'Vinyl' didn’t launch in the way we were hoping it would; it's disappointing, but it happens," Lombardo said in an interview with Deadline. Internal factors such as the showrunner, Terence Winter, leaving in April as the first season was winding down, and high costs – $100 million for the first season – could have influenced HBO's decision to bring the show to a quick end.

"It shows that not every one of these high-pedigree fancy HBO shows is a home run," Thompson says. "'Vinyl' looked like yet another one of these ‘Golden Age’ programs. It had the names attached to it. It had all of the original period music. It was carefully done to look like the time." But it did not measure up to other HBO showstoppers.

A comparison of the "Vinyl" antihero, Richie Finestra – the record executive who relapses into a cocaine addiction in the pilot – with other HBO protagonists such as Walter White on "Breaking Bad" and Tony Soprano on "The Sopranos" reveals that Finestra's bad behavior, unlike White and Soprano, is not captivating to watch, Thompson said.

HBO does not depend on ratings the way advertisement-supported television does, but the show did not have the enthusiastic backing of critics, Thompson says. People were not raving about it, and that affects subscriptions. Sometimes the ingredients don't mix well.

In the end, the network had a decision to make: add a new showrunner, Scott Z. Burns – who was co-screenwriter for "The Bourne Ultimatum," but lacks TV credentials – to a show that had a weak first season or not bother, says Thompson. When push came to shove, they took the latter option. 

 
 
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