The behind-the-scenes story of HBO’s nearly 50-year history is chronicled in investigative reporter James Andrew Miller’s latest book, Tinderbox: HBO’s Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers. Miller — the former Washington Post reporter who has written acclaimed oral histories on Saturday Night Live, CAA and ESPN — spoke to 600 past and present HBO executives, creatives and talent for his 975-page examination of the cable network’s rise and longtime reign as the undisputed leader of prestige TV. He also looks at how the company is handling the newfound challenges of the streaming era.
What was it like reporting on HBO compared to SNL, CAA and ESPN?
There were some similarities — particularly with ESPN in the sense that there were a significant number of people who have been there for 20, 25, 30 years, so long that when you’re trying to do a book of record, they warmed up and were incredibly helpful across the administrations. The second thing is that, much like ESPN and all of these places, HBO started from humble roots where they were the underdog. Now in this post-Netflix era, they’ve gone back to feeling like they are the underdog and some of them relish that. As a result, there’s a real fighting spirit.
HBO has made some controversial cancellations, like Deadwood and Rome, and passed on some shows that went on to be big hits like The Crown and Breaking Bad. What decisions did you get the sense were most regretted?
Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Crown are the big three. The Crown was an obvious one, but Mad Men kept coming up. They had the opportunity to read Matthew Weiner’s pilot, and I get into the whole story of what happened. Nobody can be in a position where they buy every hit, of course. But I think all three of those could have been on HBO. It’s very frustrating for a network when they turn down a show and it becomes a huge hit. There’s a lot of finger-pointing.
You often expose tensions between talent and execs. Was there a project where the two seemed furthest apart?
One great thing HBO did was give creators and showrunners a lot more autonomy and a lot more freedom than the networks. And that served them really well. There was a period in the past decade, though, where they became much more hands-on and, dare I say, intrusive, according to some showrunners. You have situations with Westworld, with Vinyl, with The Comeback, with Enlightened, in terms of the dynamic between executives and the creative talent. The Comeback and Enlightened [both Emmy-nominated] were two cancellations that certainly surprised me because they went against what HBO has stood for. Michael Patrick King delivered hundreds of billions of dollars to HBO with Sex and the City, and the idea they canceled [The Comeback] the day after the 2005 Emmys was beyond a tad askew in my mind.
It’s interesting that you just included Westworld in that group of otherwise canceled shows. What’s been the issue there?
The show was so big and its ambition so vast, there wasn’t a united, effective understanding on the part of HBO about what it wanted or how best to protect the creators and the showrunners. There was a lapse in what the executives wanted and the creatives were thinking. Hats off to Jonah [Nolan] and Lisa [Joy] for hanging in there during some incredibly uncertain and ambiguous times.
One of the surprises in your book was the claim that Lovecraft Country was canceled after HBO spent $150 million on its debut season because showrunner Misha Green allegedly created a “toxic” and “hostile” work environment, according to other writers on the show. Are there more details on what happened? Did Green respond to that accusation at all?
Lovecraft was a beautiful show in terms of its look, its narrative and what I would also consider to be an exceptional marriage of storytelling and music. When the show got canceled, there were two predominant explanations out there. One was it had gotten too expensive. The second was there wasn’t a compelling vision for the next season. It turns out neither was the real reason. I had several sources within HBO and elsewhere — people who worked on the show and people who represented people on the show — who said the environment on the show was not a healthy one. For HBO, it was a double-down on sadness — not only is it losing a show that was such an outlier in terms of what it was trying to say, but then to have a Black showrunner — and a female Black showrunner — is not something that happens every day, and people were incredibly excited about that. So, again, the word I come back to is “sadness” that it was not able to continue. [Contacted by THR, Green declined to comment.]
Of the hundreds of people you interviewed, who gave you the best material?
That’s a good question. I think [former HBO CEO] Michael Fuchs prides himself on being fearless in terms of not trying to hold his finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. He’s very confident about his record and he can be incredibly entertaining. He’s not trying to be politically correct. He doesn’t hold back at all. There were also a multitude of people I pushed, where I’d ask the same question six, seven, eight times with the express purpose of going deeper and deeper and revealing more honest answers that I hoped would be beneficial to the reader.
On the subject of Game of Thrones — the company’s biggest series ever — do you get the sense that showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss would still have been allowed to end the show in 2019 if they hadn’t struck their end-date deal before AT&T had taken over?
It’s more than fair to think that AT&T might have said, “We want to keep this going.” But I think what would have happened then is [HBO programming president] Casey Bloys would have explained to [AT&T president] John Stankey, “We don’t have as much leverage [with Benioff and Weiss] as you might think.” HBO benefited from the fact that it established itself as an uber-friendly home for creators and talent. It helped put them in business with people like Larry David, David Chase and David Simon who are not going to take notes from network types. If the Game of Thrones situation happened right now, what choice would they have? If they say, “We’re going to fire you and bring somebody else on,” who do you bring on? There’s been many shows where the head writer left and then somebody else was brought in and couldn’t do it. The second option is somehow make it financially [painful], but they had little leverage — they couldn’t take their money away. And if you somehow “force” them to stay or engineer another way, that spreads like wildfire and it’s like announcing to the world, “We’re now just like the networks, if not worse.”
You mentioned David Simon. The Wire is a show that looms large, even to this day. Is there one thing you learned about that production that stands out?
Yes. I was fascinated by this. The Wire was not a great ratings winner, and it wasn’t a great awards winner for HBO. [Former HBO chairman and CEO] Chris Albrecht was ready to end it [after season three] and David didn’t want to let it go. David wrote a memo about his vision for the [the show’s final two seasons], and then came into a meeting with Chris and [former HBO executive] Carolyn Strauss, and was able to basically argue for the show continuing. Fans should be thankful to Chris Albrecht because he actually listened to what David wanted to do with the show and changed his mind. How many executives would change their mind in a meeting? It’s like going to the Supreme Court on appeal and baring yourself raw. This was a great example of the importance of advocacy and having an executive who listens.
What is HBO now? Not HBO Now, the app, but, you know, lowercase “n.”
HBO is a bunch of determined individuals who are waking up every morning, going to the office and trying to do the best they can to survive in a world that has not been particularly kind to their business model for the past several years. They’re trying to climb Everest on a cold day in their shorts. They’re trying to make sure they’re still relevant despite all the advantages Netflix has in terms of its subscribers, that Apple may have in terms of its money, that Amazon may have in terms of its determination and focus to be a powerful presence. And now they’re getting used to new parents, and no two parents ever behave the same. So I think HBO is an entity that’s fighting for survival.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.