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Prestige Television: A Tragic Story


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    HBO, defending its turf, scooped up big-name authors and directors, among them Margaret Atwood and Noah Baumbach, in what the industry terms “schmuck insurance”; the development deals meant that HBO wouldn’t see a project it rejected being peddled elsewhere and possibly becoming a hit. The risk-taking era was receding. Albrecht’s successor Richard Plepler tells Biskind, “We were under tremendous pressure to deliver more and more money to an earnings-based corporation that prevented us from expanding our programming, and that was just the reality of being part of Time Warner.”

    The story of these turbulent masterminds and their antihero doubles has been told in any number of books, including, ten years ago, Brett Martin’s “Difficult Men,” which critics compared to “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.” Biskind has the benefit of having waited to see the other side of Peak TV’s peak. In retrospect, a pivotal moment came in 2011, when David Fincher was shopping around “House of Cards,” about another seductive antihero: a devious congressman who plots his way into the Oval Office—and who, in his first scene, kills a dog. “I don’t spend any time in D.C., but I spend a lot of time in Hollywood,” Fincher would tell people. “If you’re talking about hubris and venality, they’re not that different.” The show’s natural home was HBO, which offered to shoot the pilot and see. Fincher had lined up big stars, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, and wanted a thirteen-episode commitment. That wasn’t the way business was done, certainly not at HBO, which was mired, Biskind says, in “internecine warfare, bad calls, and overdevelopment.” Then Fincher got an offer that blew HBO out of the water: a hundred million dollars for not one but two full seasons. It came from Netflix.

    The company was founded in the late nineties, by the computer scientist Reed Hastings and the entrepreneur Marc Randolph. Hastings, according to Randolph, wanted to create “the Amazon.com of something.” Randolph suggested home video. Netflix amassed subscribers by mailing out DVDs. It began streaming in 2007. Hastings, convinced that he could mine user data to pinpoint what customers wanted to watch, started researching “taste clusters.” He spent one family ski vacation holed up in a Park City chalet, tinkering with his algorithm. The studios kept licensing out content, thinking little of it. David Zaslav, now the C.E.O. of Warner Bros. Discovery, tells Biskind, “They fed Netflix when Netflix looked like a harmless animal. And then they were stuck having to continue to feed it, when it was clear that Netflix was a beast.” In 2010, Jeff Bewkes, the C.E.O. of HBO’s parent company, Time Warner, made one of those deathless “We’ll be greeted as liberators” statements when he said, of Netflix, “Is the Albanian Army going to take over the world? I don’t think so.”

    With “House of Cards,” which premièred in early 2013, Netflix established itself as a purveyor of original series to rival HBO’s. Jenji Kohan’s “Orange Is the New Black” came later that year, helping to boost Netflix’s stock price five hundred and sixty-six per cent. For both shows, Netflix dropped the entire first season at once, creating a model of viewership known as binge-watching. The Albanian Army had arrived. Showrunners flocked to this newfound haven of creative freedom, which seemed willing to throw money at something weird or dark. “Before you knew it, you had a revolution within the revolution,” Biskind writes.

    In Peak TV terms, consider the opening map from “Game of Thrones”: HBO was the arrogant Lannister clan of King’s Landing; FX and AMC were the brooding Starks of the North; and Netflix was the Targaryens, invading from across the sea with the help of a fire-breathing dragon—Hastings’s algorithm. Now Big Tech got in the game: Amazon premièred “Transparent” on its streaming service in 2014; Apple launched Apple TV+ in 2019, bearing “The Morning Show.” The tech giants “flooded the streaming space with money,” Biskind writes. But, as the FX chief John Landgraf, who coined the term “Peak TV,” tells him, “you don’t make art just by throwing money at it.” The legacy studios sprinted into the streaming wars, with Disney+, Paramount+, and Peacock. WarnerMedia funnelled HBO—along with DC superheroes and other properties—into HBO Max, designed to reach a broader audience than the premium-cable mother ship. The merger of Warner Bros. and Discovery, in 2022, turned Zaslav into a Hollywood power player. In a twist that the author of “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” might have found a little on the nose, Zaslav had acquired the storied home from which Robert Evans ran Paramount during its New Hollywood renaissance.

    Zaslav lacked his predecessor’s palate, though. His streaming outlet, renamed Max, is now the place, Biskind laments, “where you go to watch Batman spinoffs” or reruns of “Gossip Girl.” Fuchs delivers the eulogy. “This is a fifty-year-old company,” he told Biskind last year. “I consider that it died at fifty. There’s no longer an HBO.” But all the outlets were getting more cautious. In the spring of 2022, Netflix told its investors that it had lost two hundred thousand subscribers in the year’s first quarter, and its value plummeted. The “Great Netflix Correction” effectively ended streaming’s roll-the-dice era, and although Netflix itself recovered, its debt-saddled competitors were running scared. Hungry for subscribers, the streamers developed an “allergy to risk,” Biskind observes, leaning harder on preëxisting I.P., movie stars, and comfort viewing. Netflix and Amazon recruited executives from network TV, with the goal, in Biskind’s words, of “reaching as big an audience as cheaply as possible.” Now the algorithm rules us all.

    “Pandora’s Box” is as unsparing as “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” and the thesis of the two books is the same: Hollywood’s golden ages don’t arise from the miraculous congregation of geniuses. The industry’s default setting is for crap. Occasionally, the incentives change just enough to allow a cascade of innovation, but those incentives inevitably shift back to the norm. Many streamers, including Netflix, are now launching ad-supported tiers, meaning that they’ll be answerable to the same sponsors that propped up the networks. We’ve come full circle. “The post-network streaming world could turn out to look very much like the pre-streaming broadcast world,” Biskind concludes. “Instead of the Big Four networks, we might see Big Five Streamers.” Fewer protagonists are likely to murder a dog.

    Then again, what if something else has been happening, something not cyclical but transformative? Midway through “Pandora’s Box,” the shows under discussion signal a vibe shift. “The Sopranos” and its progeny of ruthless male antiheroes give way to “Orange Is the New Black,” “Girls,” “Insecure,” “Transparent,” and “I May Destroy You”—shows that empowered female, queer, and Black creators and offered complicated protagonists reflecting a wider range of identities.

    This, too, tracked a change in the marketplace: suddenly, it was seen as good business to diversify the screen, even if C-suites stayed demographically stagnant. Amid the backstabbing boys’ clubs, “Pandora’s Box” is littered with talented female executives who were unceremoniously ousted, including Carolyn Strauss at HBO, Cindy Holland at Netflix, and Christina Wayne at AMC. “It was the most devastating thing that had ever happened to me,” Wayne recalls of her firing, in 2009. “And may they rot in hell, is all I can say.” Matthew Weiner was also appalled at Wayne’s dismissal. According to Wayne, he lambasted the male executives at a black-tie event for “Mad Men,” saying, “You just didn’t want her there because your penises are too small.”

    Not that Weiner himself comes off well. “There was often drinking and getting high after five or six, and I really felt like he was recapitulating the atmosphere of the show,” the writer Marti Noxon tells Biskind. “He wanted to be Don Draper, and he’s not. The women just fell into Don Draper’s arms, but with Matt it was manipulation and power, targeting people about their bodies and their sexuality day in, day out, and an assumption that you have to play to his good side.” In late 2017, another “Mad Men” writer, Kater Gordon, accused Weiner of sexual harassment, a claim he denied.

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