On the eve of yet another corporate reframing, HBO has received its own Magna Carta with the publication of James Andrew Miller’s Tinderbox today.
Coming from the keyboard that literally wrote the book on ESPN, Saturday Night Live and 2016’s Powerhouse: The Untold Story of CAA, the 975-page Tinderbox: HBO’s Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers peels off the corporate and creative layers in the legendary rise of the premium cabler from less than humble beginnings with Charles Dolan and code-name The Green Channel in 1972 to the Thrilla In Manila and all the way up to scripted glory with The Sopranos, The Wire, Game of Thrones, Veep, Watchmen, Lovecraft County and Succession to name a few.
Put another way, if this isn’t the comprehensive story, so far, then that’s because George R.R. Martin is still scribbling away with The Winds of Winter and Casey Bloys is waiting patiently to make that deal.
“I think that when you have big personalities like Michael Fuchs, like Chris Albrecht, Richard Plepler, I think it’s interesting to understand and see how that materializes in terms of the actual operation of the company,” Miller told Deadline of the impetus behind his book.
As the $43 billion WarnerMedia-Discovery merger aims to close by mid-2022 with David Zaslav poised to take over the big scale-up, Miller also spoke with me about the behind-the-scenes GoT at HBO detailed in Tinderbox, and the skinny from former Time Warner boss Jeff Bewkes on AT&T’s 2018 takeover. In a book filled with cameos and comments from the likes of Ari Emanuel, Sue Naegle, Tom Fontana and of course Shelia Nevins, the ex-USA Network EVP of Original Programming answered about his allegations of a “toxic and hostile” environment on Lovecraft Country, Plepler’s self-branding and what HBO’s future could hold.
DEADLINE: Saturday Night Live, ESPN and CAA and now HBO are on your bookshelf. What attracted you to the notion of doing a deep dive on the premium cabler as opposed to say Netflix?
MILLER: Well, for so much of its history HBO just did a great job of managing its image. One of the things that HBO did very well throughout its existence is it was kind of an iceberg, right? If there was controversy it was sometimes about something going on with some of their shows or maybe two actors not liking each other or there was an early cancellation or whatever. I’m not saying that people in the industry didn’t cover some of the discord that was going on inside the company, but I think they did a very good job and they’re proud of it of keeping a lot of that under water.
You know this probably better than I. They didn’t hang out their dirty laundry.
A lot of these battles that I’m documenting in the book now really weren’t covered. I mean, some of them were, of course, but my only point is that I want readers to understand that so at the end of the book they have a 360-degree understanding about all things HBO.
DEADLINE: So, getting into that dirty laundry, on either side of the camera, what surprised you in your clearly extensive research?
MILLER: I think it’s how surprising some of the programming decisions were, both good and bad. I think other times the impact that personality had over the company.
MILLER: Yeah. I think that when you have big personalities like Michael Fuchs, like Chris Albrecht, Richard Plepler, I think it’s interesting to understand and see how that materializes in terms of the actual operation of the company. And so, those things were surprising to me.
I mean, look, my job is to surprise the reader and to make sure that I am uncovering and reporting new material so, I’d better be surprised throughout the book or else I think I’ve failed
DEADLINE: So in that vein, one revelation in Tinderbox that has gotten a lot of attention is the real reason the acclaimed Lovecraft Country from EP Misha Green was suddenly axed in July after just one season — one Emmy-nominated season. I might add.
You wrote, “HBO determined after a lengthy analysis that there were too many organizational behavior issues present. Several writers on the show refused to work with Green, blaming her for a toxic and hostile environment.” That’s a big assertion tossed on one of the industry’s brightest lights, pitch aside the milk toast “not moving forward” official statement with no attribution. All you have in fact is a Zadie Smith quote from Misha, who clearly is already looking at what went down in the rearview having now moved to Apple from HBO.
Still, that leaves more questions than answers for the reader. So why did you take that approach?
MILLER: Well, look. I think that in fairness, the people who shared that information with me, and there were numerous, no one wanted to go on the record about it which I understand.
In an oral history I think, I have to be careful not to all of a sudden put too much emphasis on material that I’m getting on background, especially about something so serious.
I mean, Misha Green is enormously talented. That show was exquisite. It was just beautiful and I loved talking to her about it. I think that again, writing the book of record, when my reporting leads me to the conclusion based on again, numerous sources that the explanation for the show’s cancellation was not what was reported, I think I have a duty to go there and to make sure that I have it right and to do it. But I don’t think that I have the agency in the book to go on and on about it given the fact that no one was going to go on record.
And I also believe that it’s an important enough issue that needs to be dealt with almost on its own and for Misha to have as much of an opportunity to talk about it from her vantage point as well.
DEADLINE: And you go up to some serious heights with some of the true major players, who go very much on the record, like former HBO boss and Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes. He torches the AT&T leadership and now-company-kingpin John Stankey for how they took the citadel, so to speak, and displayed a unforeseen “level of malpractice,” to quote Bewkes from the book.
MILLER: Well, yes. That happens on the business side, you know, as Jeff Bewkes was talking about in some of his thoughts about AT&T which he had never mentioned before. I’m trying to add new dimensions to it and tell a full story.
DEADLINE: One of the people you didn’t speak to, though he pops up all over the place, and I don’t just mean in the sections on Succession, is Rupert Murdoch …
MILLER: Obviously, the 2014 takeover bid by Fox was a serious one, but at the same time I think that it gets kind of boring for people sometimes to really examine what the numbers were and what the strategy was and why something didn’t work.
DEADLINE: So the alternative is…?
MILLER: I wanted to understand that, and I also wanted to understand what the repercussions of it were. As I say in the book, once they had beaten back Rupert’s offer, the Time Warner board was ready to throw a celebration and Jeff Bewkes said, “Hold on a second — you know, we’re not out of the woods. This is going to happen again, we have to be prepared now.”
DEADLINE: Because they literally had a price on their head, even if Murdoch could pay it?
MILLER: Yes, and I think that was really the beginning of what would later become the AT&T purchase.
DEADLINE: Which brings us back to Bewkes and his scathing commentary to you in Tinderbox on AT&T, he really paints them as not just barbarians at the gates but bozos …
MILLER: (laughs) The one thing that, you know, you could say about Bewkes is this guy is a silent killer.
DEADLINE: How do you mean?
MILLER: He’s very affable and he’s not particularly egotistical and he’s got a very aw-shucks kind of manner about him. But this is the guy who basically survived and defeated Bob Pittman, Steve Case, navigated his way through a very complex world with Ted Turner and Dick Parsons and Jerry Levin. I think that part of what was on Jeff’s desk when he finally gets to run the thing in 2008 is that there’d been like a nearly $200 billion write-off because of the disastrous AOL/Time Warner merger.
Throughout most of his time at the company, Bewkes didn’t really do a lot of talking for himself other than like corporate speak and staying on point. I got him at a time when he was out, and I pushed him and I pushed him to talk about things that he hadn’t talked about before.
MILLER: And it turns out that he’s got a lot to say, and I think he was in some ways gratified to be able to say them because for so long he was either just taking the high road or he didn’t feel like he wanted to engage. I feel really lucky that I was able to get him to that point because I think in this book, people have said they’re startled to hear him talk like this.
DEADLINE: And now we are at another crossroads for HBO and Warner, with the Discovery deal that Stankey and David Zaslav cooked up over what seems like a couple of lockdown calls and emails to scale up for one and to clear the spreadsheet decks for Ma Bell. I was impressed how up-to-the-moment you were able to keep things, which is still rare in publishing, and I was amazed how much Zaslav sounded like he was channeling ex-HBO CEO Richard Plepler …
MILLER: Oh, that’s interesting. I think David is a great communicator. David has a lot of confidence in his ability to message to employees of an organization. I also think David correctly understands that in order to accomplish all the things that he wants to accomplish, he’s going to have to be very, very good at articulating his vision and explaining to not only the employees but to the outside community what his goals are, what’s his strategy – and that is something that Richard obviously did when he was at HBO.
DEADLINE: Speaking of which, Plepler’s renowned “iron fist in a velvet glove” manner gets a lot of ink in Tinderbox as he rises up the ranks to top dog at HBO in 2013. The turf wars with Michael Lombardo are a limited series unto themselves in the book, as is Plepler’s pink-slipping by his newly minted AT&T bosses in 2018. In Tinderbox, your selections from Plepler read to me like a man who wants to play a bit of Henry Kissinger, and rewrite some history, and someone who is pivoting to the future, with his Apple TV+ producing deal. Sound about right?
MILLER: I don’t know if he’s pivoting towards a future as opposed to Richard is just very, very careful about what he says, pays a lot of attention to how he says it. As I try and show in the book, he has his own brand that he pays attention to in a way that some people don’t. So his comments are very distinguishable in the book because he has a very deliberative way of talking and he is not going to get in the gutter and he’s not going to go toe-to-toe with people who may have had issues with him. Now, Richard obviously had the opportunity to talk about some of these situations in the book, and he’s going to take the high road. He’s not going to, as a CEO or former CEO, go to battle with individual statements from individuals. Michael Fuchs, on the other hand, will do it all day.
DEADLINE: I look at it in relation to the CAA book in some sense because it’s your most recent. It seemed like the amount of time consumed with corporate sharp elbows, egos and infighting almost took over more programming time than actual programming time. The behind-the-scenes stuff was like the real Game of Thrones, if you know what I mean.
MILLER: The two are inextricably linked because when you’re in a company like HBO, it is a political environment.
There are incredible nuances that have to be considered and addressed during the course of a given day, even in a given meeting, to be effective. I’m not saying that these executives deserve the Medal of Freedom, but these jobs can be much more complicated than they appear, and the people who survive in them and do well and make some of these decisions. … It’s almost like an art form because there is no specific rule book, so you have to be very careful about how you operate.
In the course of the 49 years, to your point about Game of Thrones, there were a lot of battles and there’s a lot of sharp elbows, and somehow there remains this powerful duality throughout HBO’s history where people were very, very proud to work there and there was a lot of esprit de corps. Of course, you had a myriad of firings and dismissals, some of them at the highest levels of the company, some of them incredibly shocking, and you know, I was fortunate to get the people that were involved in those episodes to talk about it because it remains very emotional for them for people 20, 25 years later, 30 years later, even 35 years later. I mean, it’s extraordinary how visceral those moments were.
DEADLINE: I feel we are back to Michael Fuchs again …
MILLER: You said it, not me.
DEADLINE: So with everyone you did speak with and with the absence of Old Man Murdoch, was there anyone you wanted to talk to for Tinderbox who was simply a no-show?
MILLER: The person unfortunately I didn’t get to speak to was Dennis Miller.
DEADLINE: That’s an odd one. He had a good run at HBO from almost 10 years until Bill Maher came along. Why did he decline to participate?
MILLER: I wanted to talk to him because I thought it was an important show for HBO. He was great to me in other works — I mean, obviously with SNL and he was involved with ESPN. I was told there was nothing personal, but I think he had a tough ending with HBO. But you can’t win it all.
DEADLINE: Well, that’s as good a segue as I’m ever going to get. Right near the end of your book, Casey Bloys talks about, and I’m going to quote this, “For the first time HBO and HBO Max are being steered by executives with long HBO tenures.” He goes on to say that this helps “cuts down on confusion in town about who does what.” With that, from your perspective, where do you see HBO settling into this digital streaming world with HBO Max and now linking with Discovery?
MILLER: That’s a big question. First of all, not to be critical of the word, but I just think it’s interesting that you used the word “settling into” because I don’t think anybody has the luxury of setting into anything now. David Zaslav told me, “This battle is a war; these streaming battles are a war.” I think that there are so many unbelievable questions being asked about the future of the business, ergo the future of these companies, that it’s not hype to talk about, you know, some of them are in a fight for survival.
And so, I think Casey’s point is a very clear one, which is they wanted to send a signal to their own. Look, it’s not about Bob Greenblatt or Kevin Riley and who were maybe doing what versus what Casey’s doing; they’ve now streamlined everything to the point where I think that there is a clear understanding of who is doing what and why they’re doing it. When you have different executives in different parts of the company, sometimes overlapping, it’s hard for them to be on the same page. That’s not a criticism; that is just the way it is. So I think that, on an operational level, they have tried to make sure that the lines of communication, the lines of decision-making, are clear.
DEADLINE: How do you see that translate into the programming?
MILLER: Well, when you’re starting Succession, Casey decides that we can do the show without big stars. So for Succession, that works out well and that’s a big decision and that’s great. But at the same time that doesn’t mean that they’re going to turn down a great idea or a great project from a big star. Now the canvas has to be filled with a variety of approaches and strategies and they seemed to be open to that.
DEADLINE: The deal to merge WarnerMedia with Discovery still awaits regulatory approval, but Zaslav is already planting his pillars, bring Kevin Mayer on as a consultant with big streaming swings. You are the Boswell of HBO now, so will it remain the pinnacle of prestige programming, or has Camelot finally receded?
MILLER: The larger question is, what’s going to be happening as a parent level? Is there going to be enough money for them to compete with Netflix and other competitors? Is there going to be enough scale for them to flourish and survive into the future in a few years from now?
DEADLINE: All good questions, but as you said before, quoting Zaslav, this is about survival in the marketplace — so can HBO really still cut it?
MILLER: I think Casey’s really good at understanding what he has control over and what he doesn’t. Those larger questions are things that he doesn’t have control over and so, he’s just going to I think remain focused on finding the next Succession and finding gems like Mare of Easttown or The White Lotus and making sure that the pipeline is filled with compelling content but still distinguishes itself in the marketplace.
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