The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Traditional journalism gave birth to HBO. Then HBO crushed journalism.

A new book by two journalists shows how HBO swallowed up the national conversation

Brian Cox, left, and J. Smith-Cameron in the first season of “Succession.” (Ursula Coyote/HBO)
9 min

When I was 27, I conned my way into a job as a reporter for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. The hire was a stretch. I’d only been to Louisiana as a do-gooder volunteer and a sin-seeking tourist. Terrified, I started cramming: reading old articles, skimming John M. Barry’s “Rising Tide” and watching HBO’s “Treme. The 2010-2013 series gave me what any carpetbagging reporter really needed: the attitude of the city, its texture, its walk and its talk. When John Goodman’s character started spewing facts from Barry’s book, I wondered why I’d bothered reading at all.

In 2013, when I started at the Times-Picayune, HBO shows were doing exactly what my editors told me they wanted my writing to do: They were starting conversations. Locals were fighting about their depiction on Treme, and, to my disgust, many of the cub reporters of my generation were sucked away from covering real people to write articles analyzing the feminism of “Girls,” the politics of “Entourage” or the bro-y cultural references of “True Detective.” Five years later, when I jumped to a job writing for a show on HBO — “Vice News Tonight” — I was ecstatic to be on the ground floor of HBO’s attempt to reinvent journalism, especially on a show that had, with its coverage of Charlottesville, proved it could start conversations like any HBO drama.

Throughout that era, there was a feedback loop as HBO eagerly plundered talent and storytelling tools from traditional newsrooms to create its shows — and not just the explicitly journalistic programming that my colleagues and I were creating. Those dynamics have a long history.

As veteran media reporters Felix Gillette and John Koblin explain in their new book, “It’s Not TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, and Future of HBO,” HBO was born from journalism, a byproduct of Time Inc.’s plan to diversify its holdings. Their gossipy, cameo-padded reporting breezes through the improbable story of how a print media company invested in a scheme to bring a clearer television picture to certain neighborhoods, embraced satellites and discovered that original programming was a cheaper way to fill its slate than paying Hollywood studios. To pull in viewers, HBO’s early executives dreamed up a network that ended up reflecting contemporary culture — its policing and crime, politics and industry news — better than many newspaper sections devoted to those topics.

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In an account as polished, risk-averse and page-turning as the prestige format that HBO gave rise to, Gillette and Koblin flip between the character arcs of writers and programmers who have been slyly guiding our national conversation and the suits they work for. The two beat reporters have spent years covering media for Bloomberg News and the New York Times, and much of the reporting comes from their own incremental stories. Like an HBO show, the book attempts to shape a compelling, emotional yarn out of those headlines. And, also like an HBO show, it draws extensively from others, too, with endnotes often revealing that what appeared to be a quote from an original interview was drawn from an HBO Oral History Project or even a podcast about “The Sopranos.”

The character whose work at HBO propels the first chapters of the book is its onetime chief executive Michael Fuchs, an entertainment lawyer turned development exec, whom Gillette and Koblin paint as a stylish, Robert Evans-esque daredevil, ordering his troops to “be more candid, more open, more fresh, more experimental, more daring.” Those troops included Sheila Nevins, a rescue from broadcast news, who found TV documentaries at the time “elitist” and “pedantic.” She dreamed up the long-running “Real Sex” (1990-2009) — a playful doc series that wandered into bedrooms, strip clubs and even masturbation classes — when she realized, she said, that “sex is a serious wound in this country.” Fuchs identified other wounds, too, greenlighting “And the Band Played On” (1993), an account of the country’s sputtering response to AIDS, which was itself based on a controversial book by the journalist Randy Shilts. When the film drew raves, Fuchs said in a note to staff, “ ‘Let us be Dickens,’ let us look at contemporary society like no one else in the country.”

The imperative was apt, and not just as a call to tell sprawling, populist stories. Dickens began his career as a reporter and continued to publish journalism even as his fame grew. Such practice surely helped his fiction convince audiences of the evils of greed and the dangers of urban modernity. That’s a background he shares with David Simon, the Baltimore Sun alum and HBO showrunner whose credits include both “Treme” and “The Wire” (2002-2008). Gillette and Koblin show how Simon memorably got funding for the latter by telling the suits to think even more like Dickens. “You will not be stealing market share from the networks only by venturing into worlds where they can’t, you will be stealing it by taking their worlds and transforming them with honesty and wit and a darker, cynical, and more piercing viewpoint than they would undertake.”

Like the newspapers of Victorian London, HBO drew in audiences with taboo topics such as abortion access, as it did in “If These Walls Could Talk” (1996). Carolyn Strauss, who rose up the ladder in original programming, learned to sell “creative freedom” to big-name showrunners, getting lucky with veterans who were sick of network notes — like Darren Star, the creator of “Sex and the City” (1998-2004), whom Gillette and Koblin describe coming to HBO disgusted that Fox had refused to let him to write a gay character on “Melrose Place.” In other words, even the imperative to tell bold stories was primarily a question of good business sense.

“Sex and the City” itself was based on columns by a journalist, of course. And HBO loved to not just base shows on reportage but to fill writers’ rooms with ex-journalists, a practice that’s fueled Hollywood since the first modern writer owed rent. But Gillette and Koblin show how HBO tightened the loop thanks to Richard Plepler, a public relations expert whose secret sauce was a true delight at schmoozing (and drinking) with reporters. When Plepler took over programming in 2007, he didn’t just hire journalists to write — he paid Tina Brown and Frank Rich to identify talent. Rich’s nose for the culture proved astute. He championed and executive-produced “Veep” (2012-2019). Then, in the slush pile, Rich found the writer who would go on to create “Succession,” a show that bounded like a hunting dog toward the two major interests of viewers in the Donald Trump era: an aspirational disgust with the increasingly hidden world of the 1 percent, and suspicions about the role of money in the helter-skelter news cycle.

That show, which follows a billionaire family whose fortune is in media and entertainment, premiered in June 2018, the same month that I started at “Vice News Tonight.” Had I been watching “Succession” then, I might have understood that it could not last long. In Episode 2 of the second season, the Roy family moves to shut down a blog called Vaulter, whose offices resembled the one I biked to daily, with its unlimited seltzer and branded beer. Not long after the episode ran in 2019, HBO canceled its series with Vice, forcing our show to reinvent itself and putting us in the same position as my former colleagues at the Times-Picayune, who that year found themselves in professional peril as yet another owner took command of a money-losing newsroom.

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Meanwhile, writers were cashing in on the tightening feedback loop between nonfiction and television. In 2018, Frank Rich’s son, Nathaniel, sold a magazine story to Apple TV for a reported $300,000 — probably more than 10 times what he made from print — while the rights to a viral New York magazine piece that was scavenged to become Netflix’s new hit series, “The Watcher,” were sold in a reported seven-figure deal. That kind of cash can affect what editors and journalists choose to take on, forgoing coverage of the unglamorous to pour scant resources into pieces that translate into compelling TV: character-driven stories about true crime, cops and robbers, and the ungodly rich. Other journalists are skipping the IP wars to jump into writers’ rooms.

Gillette and Koblin report on the pipeline from journalism to streaming but don’t ask what the process has done to journalism itself. That question may be best answered by the fictional Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), who finds himself, in the same “Succession” episode that kills off Vaulter, at the helm of the family’s conservative news network. This is a role his goofball assistant tells him is “like, kind of against my principles.” Wambsgans offers a retort — one that, in Dickensian fashion, shows how power in the media might really work when no one is watching. It is not, he tells his assistant, “Charles Dickens World, OKAY? You don’t go around talking about principles.”

Adriane Quinlan is a journalist based in Brooklyn. She won three Emmys as the head writer of “Vice News Tonight.”

It’s Not TV

The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, and Future of HBO

By Felix Gillette and John Koblin

Viking. 416 pp. $28

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