The 2017 Television Critics’ Association (TCA) summer press tour kicked off this week in Beverly Hills, Calif., and HBO was one of the first networks to present its new programming slate in front of hundreds of TV reporters. Guess what they all wanted to talk about?
If you guessed “Confederate,” you would be correct. A week ago, the network confirmed the next project from “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss would be set in a world where slavery still exists, in an alternative timeline where the Southern states seceded from the Union. The backlash about the idea of “slavery fan fiction” was immediate, and many wondered what HBO was thinking — particularly because “Game of Thrones” has come under fire for its portrayals of race and violence.
At the HBO executive session at TCA Wednesday, programming president Casey Bloys admitted the network’s announcement of the show could have gone smoother — as in, given the controversial subject, maybe not casually blast out the news in a release with so little information.
“Our mistake — HBO’s mistake, not the producers — was the idea that we would be able to announce an idea that is so sensitive and requires such care and thought on the part of the producers in a news release,” Bloys said, calling the move “misguided,” according to reports in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. “We assumed it would be controversial. I think we could have done a better job with the press rollout.”
HBO quickly realized its mistake last week and sent Benioff and Weiss to talk to Vulture and defend “Confederate,” along with executive producers/writers Malcolm Spellman and Nichelle Tramble Spellman, who are black. “For me and Nichelle, it’s deeply personal because we are the offspring of this history. We deal with it directly and have for our entire lives,” Spellman said. “I think Nichelle and I both felt a sense of urgency in trying to find a way to support a discussion that is percolating but isn’t happening enough. As people of color and minorities in general are starting to get a voice, I think there’s a duty to force this discussion.”
“It goes without saying slavery is the worst thing that ever happened in American history. It’s our original sin as a nation. And history doesn’t disappear. That sin is still with us in many ways. … It’s an ugly and a painful history,” Weiss added to Vulture. “But we all think this is a reason to talk about it, not a reason to run from it. And this feels like a potentially valuable way to talk about it.
The Hollywood Reporter wrote that Bloys said if he could go back and make the original announcement differently, “he would have had all four producers sit down with journalists to share the idea and passion in a way better than the news release that was originally sent out.”
HBO isn’t just blaming everything on a bad press strategy. Bloys acknowledged there’s a lot of pressure to handle such sensitive subject matter. The show is “not whips and plantations. It’s what they imagine a modern-day institution of slavery would look like,” he said. He added that launching the controversial series is “a risk worth taking.”
“Everyone understands there is a high degree of getting this right,” Bloys said. “If you can get it right, there is real opportunity to advance the racial discussion in America. … If you can draw a line between what we’re seeing in the country today with voter suppression, mass incarceration, lack of access to public education and health care and draw the line to our past and shared history, that’s an important line to draw and a conversation worth having.”
Bloys emphasized that he has total trust in the “Confederate” team.
“The bet for us is on our talent. We have a long history at HBO of betting on our talent, and we’re going to stand behind them,” he said, according to The Wrap. “These four writers are at the top of their game. They could do anything they want. But this is what they feel passionately about, so I’m going to bet on that.”