Review of “It’s Not TV” by Felix Gillette and John Koblin
In 2013, when I started at the Times-Picayune, HBO shows did exactly what my editors told me they wanted my writing to do: they started conversations. Locals were fighting over their portrayal on Treme, and, to my disgust, many little reporters of my generation were sucked into not covering real people, stories analyzing “girl” feminism, politics of “the entourage” or the bro-y cultural references of “True Detective”. But five years later, when I started writing for a show on HBO: “VICE News Tonight,” I was thrilled to be on the ground floor of HBO’s attempt to reinvent journalism, especially on a show that had, with its coverage of Charlottesville, proven it could start conversations like any HBO drama.
Throughout this era, there was a feedback loop as HBO eagerly plundered the talents and storytelling tools of traditional newsrooms to create its shows — and not just the explicitly journalistic programming that my colleagues and I let’s create. These dynamics have a long history.
As veteran media reporters Felix Gillette and John Koblin explain in their new book, “This Isn’t TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, and Future of HBO“, HBO was born out of journalism, a byproduct of Time Inc.’s plan to diversify its holdings. Their gossip-packed reporting tells the unlikely story of how a print media company invested in a program to bring a clearer TV picture to some neighborhoods, embraced satellites, and found that original programming was a cheaper way to fill its slate than paying Hollywood studios.To attract viewers, HBO’s early executives envisioned a network which has come to reflect contemporary culture – its detective and crime, political and industrial news – better than many newspaper sections devoted to these topics.
In a narrative as polished, risk-averse, and page-turning as the prestige format HBO spawned, Gillette and Koblin switch between the character arcs of the writers and programmers who have slyly guided our national conversation, and the costumes for which they work. . Both battered reporters have spent years covering media for Bloomberg News and The New York Times, and much of the reporting comes from their own supplemental stories. Like an HBO show, the book attempts to fashion an engrossing emotional thread from these titles. And, just like an HBO show, it draws heavily on others, with endnotes often revealing that what appeared to be a quote from an original interview was taken from an HBO oral history project or even a podcast on “The Sopranos”.
The character whose work at HBO propels the book’s early chapters is its former CEO Michael Fuchs, an entertainment lawyer turned chief development officer, whom Gillette and Koblin describe as a sleek, Robert Evans-esque daredevil, ordering his troupes of “be more outspoken, more open, fresher, more experimental, more daring. These troupes included Sheila Nevins, a survivor of the broadcast news, who found television documentaries at the time “elitist” and “pedantic”. dreamed up the long-running “Real Sex” series (1990-2009) — a playful documentary series that wandered into bedrooms, strip clubs and even masturbation classes — when she directed, she said , that “sex is a serious wound in this country.” Fuchs also identified other injuries, giving the green light to “And the band played” (1993), an account of the country’s wavering response to AIDS, itself based on a controversial book by journalist Randy Shilts. When the film garnered praise, Fuchs said in a note to staff, “‘Let’s be Dickens,’ let’s look at contemporary society like no one else in the country.”
The imperative was appropriate, and not just as a call for sprawling, populist storytelling. Dickens began his career as a journalist and continued to publish journalism even as his fame grew. Such a practice surely helped his fiction convince audiences of the evils of greed and the dangers of urban modernity. It’s a journey 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 secured memorable funding for the latter by telling the suits to think even more like Dickens: “You won’t steal market share from the networks just by venturing into worlds they can’t, you will steal it. taking their worlds and turning them with honesty and wit and a darker, cynical, and more piercing point of view than they would.
Like newspapers in Victorian London, HBO enticed audiences with taboo topics such as access to abortion, as it did in “If These Walls Could Talk” (1996). Carolyn Strauss, who rose through the ranks of original programming, learned to sell ‘creative freedom’ to big-name showrunners, and got lucky with veterans who were fed up with network ratings – like Darren Star, creator of “Sex and the City” (1998 -2004), which Gillette and Koblin describe coming to HBO disgusted that Fox refused to let him write a gay character on “Melrose Place.In other words, even the imperative to tell bold stories was primarily a matter of good business sense.
“Sex and the City” itself was based on a series of columns by a journalist, of course. And HBO liked to not only base its shows on reporting, but to fill writers’ rooms with former reporters, a practice that has fueled Hollywood ever 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 real treat for chatting (and drinking) with journalists. When Plepler took over programming in 2007, it didn’t just hire journalists to write — it paid Tina Brown and Frank Rich to identify talent. Rich’s nose for culture proved astute. He championed and produced “Veep” (2012-2019). Then, in the mush, Rich found the writer who would go on to create “Succession,” a show that leapt like a hound towards the two main interests of viewers in the era of Donald Trump: an ambitious distaste for the world of more and more hidden. of the 1%, and suspicions about the role of money in the disorderly news cycle.
This show, which follows a billionaire family whose fortunes are in media and entertainment, premiered in June 2018, the same month I started “VICE News Tonight.” If I had watched “Succession” then, I might have realized that it couldn’t last long. In episode 2 of the second season, the Roy family decides to close a blog called Vaulter, whose offices looked like the one I cycled to every day, with its unlimited seltzer and branded beer. Shortly after the episode aired 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 still found in professional danger. another owner took over a loss-making newsroom.
Meanwhile, writers were taking advantage of the tighter feedback loop between nonfiction and television. In 2018, Frank Rich’s son Nathaniel sold a magazine article to Apple TV for a reported $300,000 – probably more than ten times what he earned from print – while the rights to a viral New York Magazine article that was scooped up to become Netflix’s new success series, “The Watcher”, were sold in seven-figure deal announced. That kind of money can affect what editors and journalists choose to do, forgoing coverage of unglamorous people to devote scarce resources to pieces that result in compelling television: character-driven stories about true crime, cops and robbers, and ungodly rich. Other journalists are skipping intellectual property wars to jump into writers’ rooms.
Gillette and Koblin report on the journey from journalism to streaming, but don’t ask what the process has done to journalism itself. This question can best be answered by the fictional Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), who finds himself, in the same “Succession” episode that kills Vaulter, as the head of the family’s conservative news network. It’s a role his jester assistant tells him is “like, kind of against my principles.” Wambsgans offers a cue – a cue that, in Dickensian fashion, shows how power in the media can really work when no one is watching. It’s not, he told his assistant, “Charles Dickens World, OKAY? You don’t walk around talking about principles.
Adriane Quinlan is a Brooklyn-based journalist. She won three Emmy Awards as editor of VICE News Tonight.
The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, and Future of HBO
By Felix Gillette and John Koblin
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