HBO's president of programming Casey Bloys addressed controversy over the show Confederate at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in Beverly Hills Wednesday, standing by the in-development Civil War drama but acknowledging that the network made a mistake in announcing the show in the way it did.
"Hindsight is 20/20. If I could do it over again, our mistake, HBO's mistake — not the producers' — was the idea that we'd be able to announce an idea that is so sensitive and requires such care and thought on the part of the producers in a press release was misguided on our part," he told reporters, acknowledging the furor over the yet-to-be-written series, which takes place in a world where the North lost a third Civil War and slavery is legal in the South.
"The problem is that Richard [Plepler, HBO chairman and CEO] and I had the benefit of sitting with these four producers and we heard why they wanted to do this show, what they were excited about, why it was important to them — so we had that context," he said. "I completely understand that someone reading the press release would not have that at all. If I had to do it again, I would have rolled it out with the producers talking on the record so people understood where they're coming from."
Bloys said HBO "assumed it would be controversial" but "could have done a better job" with the press roll out. "We knew the idea would be controversial," he said, "but we thought it would be a little more standard — here is the press release, what are the questions?"
Yeah, that didn't happen. Instead, Twitter users started an intense conversation about how the show's writers, Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, could be in charge of a conversation about slavery when their own show has had an abysmal record of inclusion; even the (much too late) acknowledgment that Confederate will include black writer/producers — Empire's Malcolm Spellman and The Good Wife producer Nichelle Tramble Spellman — wasn't enough to calm outrage from many, including writer Roxanne Gay who dammed the series in the New York Times this week.
He expressed ultimate confidence in the team. "These four writers are at the top of their game," Bloys said. "The bet for us is on our talent in Michelle, Malcolm, Dan and David — they're behind it. We have a long history of HBO of betting on our talent." He continued, "They can do whatever they want so I'm going to bet on them. This is what they feel passionate about."
Bloys made the series sound like a well-intentioned but misunderstood piece of work that aims to correlate the history of African-Americans with modern-day ills plaguing the community, including mass incarceration, police brutality, voter suppression, gaps in education, access to health care and more. "Everybody understands that there is a high degree of difficulty in getting this right. If you can get it right there is a real opportunity to advance the racial discussion in America. It's an important conversation. [The producers] acknowledge there's a high degree of difficulty, but they all feel, and we support them, that it's a risk worth taking."
Ironically, those same issues are why many feel that the show, which has been panned as "slavery fan-fic," isn't needed now — especially as documented instances of discrimination and racially-based crimes increase and media-savvy nationalists and "alt-right" spokespeople appear in the mainstream. Critics of the show, which as of now still in the conceptual stage, say Confederate will only embolden racists more. Bloys noted the concern and said producers are considering it as they write.
"Even if our roll out wasn't ideal, the response is valuable to producers as they go to write about it. Hearing reactions is invaluable...They have a shared sensitivity to the material that they are taking it on," he said. "The more people hear from producers and why they want to do it, it'll make sense. All we can do is ask that people judge the final product of these artists instead of what it could be or might be." He assured that Confederate won't be the kind of "slavery porn" we know from movies and TV shows replete with the chains and tattered clothing.
"The producers have said that they are not looking to do Gone with the Wind 2017...It is what they imagine a modern day institution of slavery to look like."
Considering how the initial announcement of it was bungled, Confederate will have a more thoughtful official rollout when it's time to be unveiled for the public. "We're a ways off," he said, noting that early press for the project might look like a series of interviews. "I imagine it being something like laying out their vision," he said. "Again, all we can do is ask that people judge the final product of these artists and not what it could be or might be."