Felix Gillette and John Koblin, IT’S NOT TV

Felix Gillette and John Koblin, IT’S NOT TV

Zibby is joined by veteran media reporters Felix Gillette and John Koblin to discuss their latest book It’s Not TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, and Future of HBO, a fascinating exposé of HBO’s meteoric ascent and now, its precarious position in the market. The three talk about how the network’s innovation has helped it survive every near-fatal blow in its fifty-year history, the inspiration behind iconic series like The Sopranos, and the playbook that ensures even the strangest concepts become record-breaking, award-winning shows. They also share what their favorite HBO TV series is, and Zibby reveals she was an extra in one of them!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Felix and John. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss It’s Not TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, and Future of HBO.

John Koblin: Thank you, Zibby.

Felix Gillette: Thanks, Zibby.

Zibby: Congratulations on your book. I was just saying I love business books and profiles like this. I feel like one of my favorite books was DisneyWar, which you mentioned in this book. I read that years ago on my first honeymoon and was just like, okay, that should’ve been — . I won’t go there. Anyway, this is a great exposé and, really, the success of what it means to have your brand change over time, how you have to pivot and all the things and deal with different industry forces. It’s also a wonderful retrospective of some of the best shows of all time, which also was fun. I feel like I got entertained just remembering so many and marveling at the fact that one network had actually produced all these. You don’t necessarily think about the arc of it all. It was great. Why did you two decide to do this book? Why this deep dive? What were you looking for? Was this what you wanted? This is a lot of questions.

Felix: Part of it was that we watched, in the late nineties and two-thousands, this incredible revolution that happened out of HBO, these shows that you mentioned, The Sopranos and Sex and the City and Six Feet Under, that this one network had had such a huge impact in comedy and documentaries and drama. We were both, as people who’ve written about the media a lot and about entertainment, were just really curious. How did it happen? A lot of these revolutionary businesses, if you want to write a book about what happened in online retail, you can point to Amazon. You can point to Jeff Bezos. If you want to know about home computing, you can point to Apple and Steve Jobs or whatever. In HBO, there wasn’t really one single figure that you could say, that person was really responsible for it. It was this huge collective effort. It took place over decades. HBO’s coming up on its fiftieth anniversary. Part of the appeal was, let’s go back. Let’s figure out who the important characters were. Let’s figure out the major decisions that they made that they got right. Let’s look into the decisions they got wrong. We thought that would be an incredible narrative in and of itself and that also, there would be all these great lessons for other people who are in creative fields, that they would be entertained. It would be fun to go back and remember these shows, figure out where they came from, and also would walk away feeling like, oh, I get it. I get the HBO playbook.

John: In a way, HBO was sort of our trojan horse. Television has changed a lot over the last twenty-five years. There are a lot more shows than there have ever been. In terms of the elevation of the genre, it has eclipsed the film industry now. It is a revered art form in America at this point. We use HBO to take a look at all of those changes since the late 1990s.

Felix: Finally, the other intriguing aspect to us about HBO is that the era that HBO has ruled over and had so much impact on, which is the cable and satellite era of home entertainment — when we were starting to work on this project and first conceiving it, everyone was kind of, this era’s ending. There’s this new era with streaming entertainment. Everything is shifting towards that. That was the other appeal. What’s going to happen to HBO? Is HBO going to be able to make the transition to the streaming world? They had this new upstart, Netflix, that was really taking the lead in the new field. That’s also one of these great business dynamics that you see time and time again, the innovator’s dilemma where the incumbent that has ruled over one era of technology, the technology changes, and they get kind of caught up in their own success and struggle to make that transition. All of that really has played out while we were writing the book. It’s amazing to think of how different the landscape is in 2022 than it was when we started in 2019. Even as we were digging into the history and learning about all the stuff that took place over the past fifty years, we were also getting, in real time, to be able to chronicle how these changes were happening in the industry.

Zibby: Wow. Did you have any pushback from people inside HBO? Was it easy to get all the information you wanted?

Felix: I think that it was such a collective effort over the years. There’s so many people that made valuable contributions to HBO that there wasn’t any one person that could say yes or no, I’m going to talk to you, and it would make a huge difference. For the most part, everyone was really cooperative and helpful and wanted to tell their role in this broader story. We had great participation from executives inside HBO that, over the years — the show creators, we got to interview some of the creators of some of our favorite shows, which is really exciting, to get to talk to David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, and talk to David Simon, the creator of The Wire. It was incredibly fun, that aspect of the reporting also.

John: It eased the burden that there wasn’t one “make it or break it” interview. That did help.

Zibby: It was so interesting to hear about the inspiration for so many of these shows, including David Chase’s inspiration for Sopranos and even what it was like working with Tony Soprano, how it was Tommy Soprano originally, which I didn’t know, and even with James Gandolfini, what that was like with him on set and how he didn’t show up a few times. My husband’s actually a producer, so I know what all the days mean, how everything is all set up. The fact that somebody just would not show up seems like, oh, my gosh, I can’t believe he would do that for days on end. Yet it rebounded. I loved how you talked about everyone watching it when it aired, that last episode of it. I think it was David Chase and his baby carriage and having to leave the room and wondering what everybody thought about it.

Felix: It was one of the other writers. It was actually Terry Winter, who was a writer for the show.

Zibby: Terry Winter. Sorry.

Felix: He was visiting in-laws in New York to watch the final episode. They were all sitting around. They’d be like, “Tell us what’s going to happen.” He’s like, “No, no, I can’t spoil the surprise, but you’re going to love it. You’re going to love it.” Then when it ended and it cut to black and there was silence, they were all like, “What? What’s going on?” and freaking out. They’re like, “Tell us what happened.” He’s like, “I think the baby woke up. I need to go.”

Zibby: People thought their screens weren’t working right or it went out or something.

John: That was tremendously fun, getting all that backstory in there. David Chase was this successful but very frustrated TV writer for years and years and years. He wanted a fresh idea. He had a sort of difficult or fraught relationship with his mother. He turned it into comedy gold. At cocktail parties, he would dine out on stories about his mother. David Chase’s wife was like, you should consider doing something about that. David Chase was also in therapy. It’s like, what if I combine these two things, difficult mother, fraught relationship with the mother, therapy, add a mobster element? Then away we go. The Sopranos eventually makes its way to HBO.

Zibby: Crazy. One thing that I loved — I think about this in terms of book publishing a lot and what books end up being successes. What makes some artistic creation successful? One of the through line theories here is that there is no one formula, of course. HBO seems to be able to try the things that would sound like maybe they wouldn’t succeed, like Succession, even, when you say, do you want to watch a show about billionaires in the office? You’re like, no, maybe not, but then it works. The ability to see something that everybody logically might think, no, this doesn’t make sense — it’s not about what makes sense when hits are created. It’s something else. You can’t quantify it or necessarily identify it using regular metrics and measures.

Felix: I think that’s one of the fascinating lessons of HBO. Now we’re in this world where it’s so en vogue to say whoever has the best data on customers, they’re going to win everything. What’s amazing about HBO is HBO was always really a wholesaler. They didn’t deal directly with customers. They sent out their programming to the cable operators around the country. The cable operators managed the relationship with the customers. As a result of that, HBO never had any idea who their customers were. They had no data whatsoever. They had to rely on something else. What they really relied on was trusting these artists and finding artists and listening to their visions. Casey Bloys, who currently oversees all the programming for HBO and HBO Max, there’s a great passage in the book where he was talking about that. It’s like, yeah, data’s valuable to us in 2022. It’s great in broad strokes to know what’s happening in the market and making marketing issues. It’s valuable in all these ways. It can tell you what customers liked in the past, but it’s not going to ever tell you what they like in the future. These ideas that have connected with people and these stories that have connected people, like you said, a lot of times, they just don’t really sound like they would work ahead of time. You have to be able to take that gamble and that risk and put that trust in the artists that you believe in. I think that HBO has done that to an incredible degree over the years. That’s really a key part of their success.

John: Felix and I have been writing and covering HBO for years. I remember in the run-up to Succession in 2018, I saw billionaires and other insider-y media stories. I was rolling my eyes. I think a lot of people were. I think it premiered in June of 2018. Even HBO executives had sort of measured expectations. I remember at that time, there was some person at HBO who was like, Succession is a utility player. It fits in between the schedule where we have two bigger shows. Yet the reason why it was such a success, Jesse Armstrong, the creator of Succession, HBO, they had cultivated that relationship with him for years and years and years. They just believed in him. They’re like, if he wants to give this a whirl, let him give it a whirl. Let’s see what happens. There you have it. HBO has one of its most critically praised shows and a show that has won Best Drama at the Emmys now two times. It’s pretty incredible. There is a playbook. Succession is not a mistake because HBO does trust the artists.

Felix: Another part that was so fascinating when we were digging into the history is, where did that idea come from at HBO? We really trace it back to this moment that was really crucial in the mid-nineties. In the early years, for the first twenty years, HBO — the name itself, HBO stands for the Home Box Office. Initially, the idea was, we’re going to show people things that you would need a ticket to see out in the real world, so movies, sporting events, comedy performances, music concerts. TV, not really. TV, you don’t need a ticket for. Anyone can see TV in the home. The broadcast networks are so powerful. They have such a control over the culture. We’re not going to go head to head and do what TV is doing. We’re going to do it differently. They avoided, for the most part, doing serialized television shows for the first twenty years. Then at some point in the nineties, they started realizing that no matter how great one single event is, seeing Dolly Parton in concert in London or seeing Jerry Seinfeld do his stand-up performance on Broadway, that’s a one-off event. If we really want to hold onto our customers and keep them coming back week after week every Sunday, we need to start doing these serialized shows.

Then it became the question of, what can we offer TV creators and TV writers that they can’t have at the networks? We can’t give them as much money. We can’t give them, you’ll get filthy rich when it goes into syndication in ten years. What are we going to give them? A pretty crucial insight that they had was, you know what? We can give you freedom. We can give you freedom that you couldn’t have on the broadcast networks because we don’t have advertising. We don’t have commercial sponsors. You’re not going to have sponsors looking over your shoulder saying, I don’t really want you to touch that controversial subject. Can you make the characters a little bit more likeable? You’re not going to have a standards department looking over your shoulder and saying, hey, let’s steer away from AIDS, abortion. Let’s keep it in a safe zone. You’re not going to have that. We’re going to give you total freedom to take the story where you want to take it.

That was so appealing to veteran TV writers. If you look at those first run of shows and who created them — Sex and the City came from Darren Star. Darren Star had already had a lot of success in commercial broadcast television. He created Melrose Place, 90210. He was incredibly frustrated with dealing with networks. When he came up with Sex and the City and decided to go and do it with HBO, he was thinking of it as almost like an independent film, indie film kind of style. He did not expect it to be a huge commercial success. They allowed him to go to places he couldn’t have gone earlier in his career. It turned into a huge hit. Same with David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos. He’d worked successfully in broadcast television for years and also was very frustrated with the rules. Tom Fontana, who created Oz, he had a successful run with Homicide on NBC. Alan Ball, who created Six Feet Under, he also had worked in commercial television. They all kind of fit that same mold. When you give people who have worked in the medium for a long time under very strict rules and turn them over and say, okay, do what you want to do, it’s just very powerful. I think that’s the lesson that continues to play out and the reason that HBO continues to keep capturing the zeitgeist year after year after year. That’s a huge part of the lessons that come out of this book.

Zibby: It’s kind of like my kids at recess. You’re still in your uniform, but you get to go out and do things a little bit differently. Learning about all of the peaks and valleys of this whole network and all of the events and everything, how did this impact the way you see other companies, the way you see entertainment in general? How has it affected how you see the business in general?

Felix: I think part of the way it’s impacted it is — the HBO brand itself, it’s such a strong brand, thinking about how they built up the brand over the years and made a lot of decisions about doing everything to build up HBO as a notion that says prestige, that says edgy, that says top quality. Another concept that came out of this book that I thought was really fun to learn about was, we talk about the HBO shrug. The HBO shrug was shorthand for this attitude that HBO had as the network matured where they weren’t going to worry so much about how they spent money on their key products. They were going to be pretty loose and err on the side of, you know what, is it going to cost more money to make this show, to make it look really great? Eh, okay. We’ll give it an extra ten million dollars. We’ll figure out how to make it up on the back end. It’s going to look great. It’s going to look better. Again, it’ll contribute to the overall halo of HBO brand. I think that also, that looseness and trust that if you spend the money on a creative product and you give the creators leeway to do what they really need to do — The Sopranos is a great example. David Chase was very adamant that, when he was pitching it to HBO, he really wanted to shoot in New Jersey and not just do it in Toronto or Los Angeles and then have someone go take some exteriors out in New Jersey. He really wanted the show to soak up the whole atmosphere of New Jersey that he was shooting in.

I think that was so crucial. It cost a lot more money to do it that way. HBO was very supportive from the beginning. Yes, get out there. Do it. We want to see that. When you rewatch The Sopranos, as I did when we were writing this book, it’s amazing to me, all the shoots and scenes that take place down in these weird outdoor industrial rivers. You can kind of smell the whole place and feel it. It just made such a huge difference. Again, if they had been worried up front, let’s just do it for the least amount of money we can do it for, it would not have been the same. It would not have come off the same. That’s one of the things I see a lot of times, is a business doing everything it can to support the artist. That, again, kind of cuts against the current zeitgeist. A lot of times in business now, it’s all about, listen to the customer. Listen to the customer. Listen to the customer. Getting to the same idea, sometimes you really just need to listen to the artist.

Zibby: People don’t know. People don’t know what they want.

John: I think it’s instructive. Over those fifty years, HBO has survived near-fatal blows going back to the rise of the VCR in the 1980s. Then we move into streaming and then corporate takeovers. HBO has weathered every blow. I think the book will be appealing to people for exactly the reason you mentioned, Zibby, the fact that there are so many HBO shows where it’s like, I love that one. I love this one. I love that one. If you don’t watch a lot of TV or not an HBO fan, the book can provide this blueprint of how a company can survive, how a culture can survive and thrive amid multiple challenges over the decades.

Zibby: It’s so funny because I’m usually pretty resistant to change. I like restaurants that look exactly the same now as they did when I was a kid. HBO, I remember the swirling logo with the stars. Do you remember that, with that song and everything? Yet I’m still tuning in. I don’t hold it against them, any of the change. Whatever they’re doing, they’ve sort of taken us along, which is great. Learning about even some of the sexual abuse of executives and all of the sorted tales of what was going on behind the screen and all of that, it just adds to the mystique of how this brand can withstand so much when other huge brands during the same period of time, like Kodak or something, have just disappeared, brands that I thought would be here forever and were the biggest deal ever controlling entire cities. I’m fascinated with how brands, they either get it or not get it over time. This is such a great example of a brand that really gets it. What is each of your favorite HBO shows?

Felix: I love The Wire, still, to me, is the high-water mark in my mind, my favorite show still. David Simon, the whole Baltimore scene going from the drug trade to the dealers to the city council members and peeling back all these layers and exposing what went wrong in this post-industrial city, just mesmerizing. Still love it.

John: I feel like this question should be, what’s your favorite HBO show other than The Sopranos? I will say The Sopranos. Even when Felix was discussing, you could sort of smell New Jersey. You could feel New Jersey. I grew up in that part of New Jersey. The pizzeria in the opening credits of The Sopranos, that was around the corner from my grandmother’s house where I lived in high school, so I’m deeply invested in that show. Like you Zibby, the swirl and the stars of, here’s the HBO movie that’s coming on, I’ve been watching it since I was a kid. Saturday nights were my favorite night of the week because that’s when HBO would premiere a movie that had just been in theaters six or eight months earlier. Me and my dad, we’d gather around the TV and watch it. Then within a few years, HBO started doing original series. Suddenly, I loved Saturday and Sunday night. This network has been part of my life for the last three decades in a really powerful way. Now I get to cover it professionally. It’s a professional story. It’s a personal story for me. HBO’s got something. There’s some secret sauce. It just really gets in your head. You can think about those things where it’s like, oh, my god, it’s an HBO movie. This is so exciting.

Felix: It’s also one of those things that’s super fun to debate with your friends. Talking about HBO has always been really fun. That was part of the appeal, too, of the book, is talking with people. What’s the best HBO comedy? Oh, I think it’s Silicon Valley. I think it’s Veep. No, Larry Sanders. You have to go back and watch Larry Sanders. Just the fact that we watched that transformation in our lifetime where it became something that people wanted to talk about so much, even the fact that you can go to college campuses now and there’s classes and syllabus about these shows and where they came from and the implications culturally, it’s just amazing, especially when you, as we did in this book, think back to the origins of HBO and how much it was on the fringe of Hollywood when it started. We tell the story of when HBO finally decided after a couple years in the 1980s, they decided, we’re going to start making our own original movies because there’s not enough product coming out of Hollywood to keep our customers happy all week. They’re kind of trying to cut us out anyway and come up with their own service where they could go directly to customers and go around us. We’re going to make our own movies. When HBO first said they were going to make movies, people mocked them and laughed at them. Those are going to be terrible. They’re not going to be able to figure out how to make original programming. They don’t know how to do that. They’re just a distributor of our movies. It is incredible to watch that transformation and how they got from there to creating new shows that are talked about and revolutionizing the medium and taught in colleges and all of this.

Zibby: It’s so crazy. It makes me feel kind of old, to be honest.

John: Zibby, can I turn it around? What are your favorite HBO shows?

Zibby: I have to say Sex and the City. I was actually an extra on one episode when I was twenty-something. It was the highlight of my life.

John: Which one? Which episode?

Zibby: Samantha was at Lotus meeting Smith Jerrod during that period of time when she was dating him. I was in the background. They were like, “Show up in your coolest going-out clothes.” I am not a cool dresser at all. I showed up in what I thought was a cool going-out outfit. They looked at me, and they were like, “Wardrobe.” I had to wear some outfit I felt completely uncomfortable in. Then after this whole day — I was there forever. When I went to screen it with all my girlfriends, it was like, wait, if you pause it, you can see there. That’s my eyebrow in that scene. That’s where I was standing. I was like, I can’t go into acting. This is too slow for me. I’ve loved so many shows. I loved your book. I’m so glad I learned more about it and the people behind it and being able to look at something that I love. I’m a brand loyalist too. I found it absolutely fascinating, even though I’m speaking rather inarticulately about it. I really enjoyed it. Congratulations. It’s a great book. I can’t wait to hear what else you profile going forward. Is there another thing on the imminent horizon, or no?

John: We have to find the next topic.

Felix: We’re taking suggestions.

Zibby: I think you should do something in publishing. I would be interested. Anyway, goodbye. Thank you. Great to meet you.

Felix: Thank you so much, Zibby. That was amazing.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

John: Thank you, Zibby. Bye.

Felix: Bye.

IT’S NOT TV by Felix Gillette and John Koblin

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