If I have to tell you that author James Andrew Miller has a new book about HBO, you should probably unsubscribe. Jim is a friend of What I’m Hearing… who wrote for me at T.H.R. and whose previous oral histories of Saturday Night Live, ESPN and CAA occupy major shelf space at What I’m Hearing H.Q. In Tinderbox, out on Tuesday, he uses 750 interviews to trace the history of Home Box Office from its 1971 origin in the brain of cable mogul Charles Dolan all the way to its pending spinoff from AT&T to Discovery, with all the programming dramas and executive intrigue in between. We talked about the past, present and future of HBO on Thursday; our condensed and edited chat is below.
Matt Belloni: It’s crazy how many different ways HBO’s ownership could have gone. Before selling to AT&T in 2016, Time Warner C.E.O. Jeff Bewkes was talking to Bob Iger at Disney, and, ironically, David Zaslav at Discovery. Rupert Murdoch made a hostile run at it. If Bewkes didn’t sell to AT&T, what do you think was the most likely alternative scenario for HBO and the Time Warner assets?
James Andrew Miller: From 2014 on, when Murdoch comes after Time Warner and Bewkes is able to beat it back, he went to the board and they said, “We’re OK now.” And he said, “No, we’re not, because we still don’t have an answer to the question of how we are going to compete with Netflix,” given that 50 percent of their operation was funded by Turner, which is a linear television operation. So the [cable] bundle becomes a cancer on Time Warner. They clearly had to merge or get taken over. And there’s not a long list [of potential acquirers,] given its size. You have Apple, Verizon, AT&T, maybe Amazon. Maybe, in a long shot, Facebook would be interested. But it’s not like there were 30 entities. Apple was interested in HBO, but it didn’t want Turner. Who wants to deal with the bundle?
In the book, Bewkes takes a shot at the “malpractice” committed on Time Warner by AT&T’s management. Do you really believe Jeff thought AT&T would come in and keep all his people and operate the business largely as it was?
Without a doubt. If you look at the DOJ testimony [when the U.S. government tried to block the AT&T deal], it wasn’t about saying AT&T can run HBO and Warner Bros. better than a management team that, by all accounts, was running things pretty well.
But it’s like what AT&T’s John Stankey said, they paid a premium for an asset and had a strategy to do something with it. They believed that if they had been given time to execute on that strategy—I don’t agree with them, by the way—they would have been able to create a lot more value. Do you think Stankey recognizes now that the Time Warner plan was destined to fail?
You gotta give Stankey credit for being able to pivot [and orchestrate a spinoff to Discovery] once he realized they weren’t going to be able to succeed the way that he and Randall [Stephenson, AT&T’s former C.E.O.] wanted. It’s admirable.
I’m a little less favorable than you are. I think the AT&T people exhibited a level of arrogance in believing they knew how to operate these assets—
But that goes back to my earlier point, Matt. That’s exactly right. Apple could have bought Time Warner for the change they found in the cushions of their couch. But [Apple C.E.O.] Tim Cook was disciplined enough to say, “We do certain things. We don’t think we know how to do other things. Our investors want us to stick to what we do best.” He had guardrails up. Stankey thought the opposite: “Vertical integration? We can handle that. We know how to do that.” It wound up being a lot tougher than he thought.
Knowing the HBO culture as you do, and knowing David Zaslav as you do, what do you think Zaslav’s biggest surprise and challenge will be when he takes over HBO and the Warner assets?
I think it comes down to this: How involved is David Zaslav, as an individual, going to be in this company? There are many different potential models. He’s obviously been spending a lot of time with [CAA’s] Bryan Lourd and [Endeavor’s] Ari Emanuel, and he’s been trying to engage himself with the creative community in a profound way. There are a lot of people who would be doing something different. That doesn’t mean what he’s doing is wrong. It just means he’s setting himself up to be the power in all areas. If somebody goes to Toby [Emmerich, who runs Warner Bros.’ film studio] or Casey [Bloys, who runs HBO], and they say no, David has to realize that the person might be calling him then, because he has made himself accessible, and he’s made it known that he wants to be involved creatively. That can be pretty tough when you’re also trying to run the entire company. [His challenge is,] how is he going to be able to run the company while also giving a sense of autonomy to people on the front lines?
Yeah, being “talent-friendly” doesn’t mean being friends with the talent, it means giving them what they want, and that’s when it becomes very difficult for someone like him.
Everyone is asking me, of course, “Who comes off the best in the book? Who comes across as the biggest asshole?” What would you say if asked that?
My books are sometimes like a Rorschach test. I’ve heard, “You really destroyed him” and “You were so nice to him” about the same person! I try to capture 360 degrees of people. No one is perfect, and no one is incapable of making mistakes. Look at someone like Carolyn Strauss [a career HBO executive who served as entertainment president for 10 months until she was ousted in 2008 and became a successful producer]. She is someone I hold in high regard and is someone who I don’t think got enough attention on the positive side, who had a difficult departure on the negative side. I try to be fair, I’m not out to take anyone down.
Michael Lombardo, the former top programmer, comes across pretty poorly. I only interacted with him a little bit, but I never saw how he is often portrayed in the book: How intimidating and petty and vindictive he could be. Do you agree with that assessment?
People who know Mike Lombardo know that his friends swear by him, he’s been an incredible friend to many people, he was around HBO a long time. Did he undergo a metamorphosis when he got the top programming job? According to everyone I spoke to, absolutely. Was it difficult for him? Yes. And did he make it difficult for others at times? Absolutely. He had a very unhealthy dynamic with [then-HBO C.E.O. Richard Plepler,] and as a result, there was a trickle-down [effect,] and he displaced a lot of frustration onto other people.
You talked to 618 sources. I didn’t even realize Chuck Dolan was still alive. Who wouldn’t talk to you?
Dennis Miller [who hosted a weekly HBO talk show from 1994-2002] said no. I’ve interviewed him for other books but his HBO show left a bad taste in his mouth, I guess.
How real were Time Warner’s 2006 discussions about buying Netflix?
I have no reason to believe that Reed [Hastings, Netflix’s co-founder] would have sold. They had a clear idea of what they were going to become, and it was huge. And this was 2005, 2006, Time Warner had just dragged its investors through a nearly $100 billion write-off called AOL. It was the largest disaster in American merger history. Do you want to be the one to stand up and say, “By the way, we still want to double down on this internet thing because this thing called Netflix, we think that’s going to be the next big thing?” And then if you did that, Brian Roberts [of Comcast] and John Malone [of Liberty Media] and all of your cable partners that literally feed you, they’re going to say, “Oh, you’re gonna desert us? OK fine, we’re going to punish you, and it’s gonna hurt.”
So you believe there was no way for HBO to stop Netflix in those early years.
I agree. And the best example is also in your book: There was no way for the movie studios and the linear networks to stop HBO in the ‘70s.
Exactly. In some ways, Netflix played by the same playbook that HBO did decades earlier. The investors who were investing in Netflix didn’t care if they made a profit. Time Warner was making 1,000 times more money, even up until recently. But Time Warner had to deliver earnings.
What’s the most surprising thing in the book?
It’s how touch-and-go HBO has been over its history. Time Inc. almost hit the delete button several times. And take VHS. HBO’s big thing was uncensored, uncut movies. Now everyone could go to Blockbuster on the corner without a subscription fee. And yet somehow they would claw their way out. When John From Cincinnati went on, everyone said the magic was gone, then came Girls and Veep and Thrones and all these other shows. The question is, can they continue to do that in these next three or four pivotal years?
And you believe these next few years, when the pecking order of global streaming services is determined, will dictate the next 20, 30 years?
At least the next decade, without a doubt. There can only be so many winners. I don’t believe you will have an ecosystem that looks anything like today. You know, Discovery [even combined with Warner Media] has a scale problem, so who knows if that will survive?