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HBO on the Confederate controversy: we shouldn't have announced the show via press release

Network head Casey Bloys says the uproar lacked context — albeit context he can't yet provide.

2017 Summer TCA Tour - Day 2
Casey Bloys addresses the 2017 Television Critics Association summer press tour.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

When HBO announced Confederate, its instantly controversial series from Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss that's set in a world where the South won the Civil War, it expected the announcement to stir controversy and discussion — but perhaps not quite as much as it ultimately did, according to Casey Bloys, the network’s programming chief.

“Our mistake was the idea that we would be able to announce an idea that is so sensitive and requires so much thought on the part of the producers in a press release,” Bloys said in response to journalists’ questions during a session at the 2017 Television Critics Association summer press tour.

He said that, in retrospect, the network should have set up interviews with journalists, or hosted a press conference with the show’s creative personnel, in order to help provide further context for the ideas present in the show.

“[HBO CEO and Chair] Richard [Plepler] and I had the benefit of sitting with these four producers,” said Bloys of the initial pitch for Confederate from Benioff and Weiss, as well as writers Malcolm Spellman and Nichelle Tramble Spellman, who will also be deeply involved in bringing the series to TV. “I completely understand that somebody reading the press release would not have that at all.”

Bloys admitted, however, that he understood both the concerns and the controversy. When I asked him if he had any qualms about the idea behind the series — and its potential to speak to some of the country’s worst people — that were subsequently assuaged by meeting with Benioff, Weiss, and the Spellmans, he said that he was heartened that all involved acknowledged the potential pitfalls of the material.

Bloys specifically pointed to something Malcolm Spellman said in an interview with Vulture, in which Spellman called the material “weapons grade.” But, Bloys said, he also agreed with Spellman that if the needle can be threaded perfectly, drawing the line between the world of Civil War-era America and the world we live in now could prove very powerful. That task just has an incredibly high degree of difficulty.

Still, it’s very early in the life of Confederate, and Bloys doesn't yet know many specific details about the series — such as how it might present a version of slavery that exists in the modern day — because its producers are so early in their process (and two of them are about to be deeply buried in producing the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones). Until there are more concrete details available about the series, it will, necessarily, exist in a space where it is both its best and worst possible self, simultaneously — and all the perfectly handled press rollouts in the world can’t change that.

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