Casey Bloys joined HBO in 2004 and worked his way up from director of development at HBO Independent Productions to the president of HBO programming in 2016.
He has overseen the development and production of many of the pay-TV service’s most popular series, such as Veep, Silicon Valley, Insecure and Barry, and launched Big Little Lies, Westworld, Succession, Watchmen and Lovecraft Country. Several of these have shaped popular culture, in addition to earning multiple awards.
AT&T closed its $85.4 billion acquisition of HBO’s parent company, Time Warner, in 2018, forming WarnerMedia. HBO had a streaming service, HBO Now, available to consumers who did not subscribe to a cable bundle. The telecom giant, however, wanted to become a significant player in the direct-to-consumer business and create a supersized SVOD offering. AT&T already had a hefty mobile phone customer base to which it wanted to offer content.
When then-CEO of WarnerMedia John Stankey announced that HBO had to significantly increase its output to feed the upcoming streaming service, legions of loyal HBO fans worried that a greater volume of programming would adversely impact its quality. HBO was recognized for premium, high-end, often cutting-edge programming that redefined what a TV drama could be.
WarnerMedia management named the new SVOD service HBO Max, relying on the attributes of the HBO brand to attract subscribers that already had numerous choices, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu, with more to come. Bob Greenblatt and Kevin Reilly were among the executives placed in charge of HBO Max. The service would consist of library product from across WarnerMedia assets—but mainly Warner Bros., including Friends—and high-profile acquisitions, such as Doctor Who. But the emphasis was on originals, with a varied roster of A-list talent—including J.J. Abrams, Ridley Scott, Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon—on board.
HBO Max launched in the U.S. on May 27, but COVID-19 halted many of the originals that were in production. Then, in early August, an unexpected announcement stunned the media industry. Jason Kilar, who was named WarnerMedia CEO in April, reshuffled management. Ann Sarnoff was appointed head of studios and networks, and Andy Forssell was named the head of HBO Max. Greenblatt and Reilly were out.
Bloys was promoted to chief content officer of HBO and HBO Max. In this role, he is responsible for HBO and HBO Max original series, documentaries, unscripted programming and specials.
While the coronavirus pandemic has delayed production of many announced shows, there are new titles on HBO and HBO Max. Bloys talks to World Screen about maintaining quality and HBO’s mission, working with talent, upcoming originals, the value of co-productions and the post–Game of Thrones era.
WS: Following AT&T’s acquisition of WarnerMedia, the company announced that it was increasing HBO’s output. Many fans of HBO wondered if that increase would negatively affect the quality of the programming. How are you able to up the volume and maintain the quality level?
BLOYS: Are you asking whether we did keep it up, or are you asking how we do keep it up? [Laughs]
WS: I think you have so far! But how will you continue to maintain quality?
BLOYS: I didn’t know if I had to make the case that we did! [Laughs] We made a big jump; we increased our scripted programming by 50 percent from 2018 to 2019. That’s when everybody had questions about the quality of the programming. It usually takes about two years’ turnaround time from when you say you want to increase programming to when you have the programming. It takes time to develop and produce and finally get these shows to air. So probably around 2017, it started to get much busier within the programming and production groups at HBO, and then, by extension, in all the other departments. For a little while, people would say, “Wow, we are so busy.” I’d say, “You’re not just busy now; this is our new normal. This is the level we are operating at.” We added staff in all departments to deal with the increased output. But I think the important thing is we did it slowly. We didn’t go overboard in terms of the amount of programming we were targeting and the number of people we were adding. It was a big increase, but we were able to manage it carefully.
WS: The country is going through a very difficult time, even setting aside COVID-19. The Black Lives Matter movement has spread beyond the U.S. Watchmen and Lovecraft Country were planned and made before this summer. Why have these shows been important to make?
BLOYS: Not just Watchmen and Lovecraft Country but also I May Destroy You, Insecure and A Black Lady Sketch Show—these were all planned years in advance. That was the happy result of focusing on more diverse shows across the board. Even among Watchmen, Lovecraft Country, Insecure, I May Destroy You and A Black Lady Sketch Show, think about how different they are. Issa [Rae, co-creator and star of Insecure] shows a distinct picture of being single and dating in Los Angeles. Michaela [Coel, creator and star of I May Destroy You] is dealing with sexual trauma. Watchmen and Lovecraft are huge shows but different in their genres and tones. It just demonstrates what happens when you try to seek out diverse storytellers and stories. It’s the very happy end result of consciously trying to broaden the slate.
WS: And will inclusion and diversity continue to be part of the programming strategy?
BLOYS: Yes, of course. I May Destroy You and Lovecraft Country were two of the buzziest shows of the summer. They are delivering. Diversity is not just important because it’s the right thing to do; it’s also the right thing for the business. Audiences want to see more representation on-screen.
WS: What has HBO historically offered talent? How are HBO and HBO Max attracting talent when there is so much scripted product in development and production?
BLOYS: At HBO, what we’ve had for a very long time, and why we continue to have people who want to work with us, is a direct relationship [between talent and] our executives. In other words, there are no studio layers. It’s a very direct [line] to the decision-makers. We usually start the relationship by making it clear that the show is their show. We’re very conscious about the notes we give, very thoughtful about what goes into them. They are never commands; they are always recommendations. We try to have a collaborative approach to working with talent on the production side. We usually ask, How do we execute the creator’s vision? It’s never about the easiest way to do something. A lot of times when you go into production and you say, Hey, we want to do something that looks like this, the answer will be no. But with HBO, when we go to production for a huge show, like a Lovecraft or a Watchmen or Game of Thrones, the answer is never no. It’s, “How do we achieve that?” That’s a very important distinction—that willingness to try to deliver on the showrunner’s vision. That goes across the board in all areas—in publicity and marketing also. It’s a very collaborative approach. When we do a campaign, it has to be something that not only we’re proud of, but the showrunners are proud of.
What I’m going to try to do at HBO Max will be a different kind of programming. The idea with Max is to broaden the appeal, but my hope is that we can offer creative writers and producers a similar experience where they get the same kind of individualized support, so it doesn’t feel like they’re just on an assembly line.
WS: What are some of the HBO originals that will be coming up when they are ready? And, in general, is an HBO original going to be different from an HBO Max original?
BLOYS: HBO will continue to be HBO. There is no change in its mission. By that, I mean we will continue to offer shows that we’ve done in the past. You can look at the last five years that I have been in charge to see what the future will look like, as to the kinds of shows and the diversity of the slate. What we are trying to do at Max is provide a broader offering. There will be reality shows and broader comedies, and we’ll probably be looking at big, broader dramas based on underlying IP like Green Lantern, which is coming. There will be younger-skewing shows like the new generation of Gossip Girl. With broader dramas and comedies, reality, adult animation and a kids’ offering, the idea is that HBO surrounded by this wider offering is even more compelling than HBO on its own. So, the goal is to offer shows that you wouldn’t necessarily find on HBO but would still like to watch.
WS: You mentioned development. Looking at the impact of COVID-19, is that one area that has remained relatively the same?
BLOYS: Yes, writers can write during COVID-19, so that has happily gone on. Until we get production going again, there is a bit of a logjam. There is a lot of writing going on, but not as much production, so we need that to even out. That’s why it would be great to get shooting again in a way that is safe and doesn’t put anybody at risk. It would really be great for the entire industry if we could figure that out.
WS: When do you see production starting up? In the fall?
BLOYS: We have either resumed or are about to resume production on some HBO Max shows. We are in prep on a few HBO shows. Even with all the safety guidelines and protocols, someone could get sick. And if they do, we’re going to have to shut down. Like everyone else in the industry, we are trying to find a way to work safely and build in enough systems so that we can respond quickly and responsibly.
WS: HBO has participated in many international co-productions. Chernobyl comes to mind, as does Gentleman Jack. Will co-productions continue?
BLOYS: We have a long history of collaborating with both Sky and the BBC, obviously English-language programs. We had Chernobyl and brought Sky on as producers. They had The Third Day with Jude Law. We do His Dark Materials with the BBC. We’ve got a long history of collaborating with lots of U.K. outlets, and we will continue to do that. We’ve got My Brilliant Friend, a show I love, the adaptation of the Elena Ferrante novels. We continue to do things we think our subscribers will be interested in. You’ll see in the first quarter we’ll be airing some HBO international shows. There are around 45 series from across HBO Europe, HBO Latin America and HBO Asia that are available to stream on HBO Max, but we are going to air two international shows on HBO for the first time next year. When I talk about the diversity of our slate, co-productions will always be a part of the offering. Gentleman Jack is a good example. It’s a story that you wouldn’t necessarily know about Anne Lister, who is often known as the first modern lesbian. To put that story in a beautiful period piece, with a character that bold, the show is a great offering. When you think about putting it in the same slate as Lovecraft Country or I May Destroy You, the voices can come in all sorts of packaging. International co-productions will continue to do that for us.
WS: Are people coming to HBO Max for HBO content and originals and staying for their favorites like Friends or The Big Bang Theory? Or do they come for their favorites and discover the originals?
BLOYS: I think it goes both ways, because Max is a combination of great library product like you mentioned—Friends and Big Bang—HBO originals and Max originals. Anything fresh gets viewed very quickly. So, it’s been a nice cross-section, and that is the promise of the whole offering.
WS: What can you tell us about the much-talked-about Friends reunion? And now I understand there is a West Wing reunion.
BLOYS: The Friends reunion is something everyone wants to do and one of the things that COVID-19 has impacted. We are hopeful about getting that produced and on the platform as soon as we can. We reunited the cast of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to celebrate the series’ 30th anniversary, with the entire Banks family back together. We will have that on HBO Max around Thanksgiving. People are also excited about the West Wing event, which will be a special to benefit [the non-profit group] When We All Vote ahead of the November election. We will be bringing together Aaron Sorkin and the original cast for the first time in 17 years to do a theatrical stage presentation of an episode from the third season.
WS: Has the pitching process been negatively impacted by COVID-19 because the person pitching needs to feel and see the reaction of the people in the room?
BLOYS: If you accept that nothing about this is ideal, I will say that at first, I wondered what a Zoom pitch would be like. But people have adapted to it. I have heard plenty of pitches via Zoom that we have ended up buying. Human contact and seeing people’s reaction in the room is certainly nice. It has gone much better than I would have predicted when we started this in March. It is possible to have a successful Zoom pitch.
WS: It will be interesting to see if the planning procedures and efficiencies that have come up during COVID-19 might be kept even afterward.
BLOYS: My guess is that people will want to be in rooms again pitching and all that stuff, but from my own life, just in terms of travel, now that we’ve seen what can be done with video conferences, I don’t know that I would hop on a plane to New York as quickly as I would have before.
WS: What does HBO Max have for children and families? That’s an important demographic for the service.
BLOYS: We’ve got all 50 seasons of Sesame Street, animated series Tig n’ Seek and Looney Tunes Cartoons and some great originals, including specials from Cartoon Network and Mo Willems.
WS: What can you tell us about HBO Max’s international rollout?
BLOYS: Right now, we’re focusing on the domestic market, but international is going to be a very important piece of this. I believe Latin America will be the first area of concentration, but the goal is to eventually have a fully international platform.
WS: I remember speaking to Richard Plepler and Mike Lombardo years ago after The Sopranoshad finished airing. That show was so seminal and raised the bar so high that many people were thinking, Oh my God, how does HBO go on after that kind of success? Game of Thrones also changed the way we experience shows by bringing cinematic qualities to television. How are you approaching the post–Game of Thrones era?
BLOYS: What was nice about the timing of that was that it coincided with the increase in programming in 2019. After Game of Thrones went off the air, there was some of that “Oh my God, what is HBO going to do?” thinking. And then we were able to say, Here’s Chernobyl. Here’s Big Little Lies season two. Here’s Euphoria. Here’s Succession season two. Here’s Watchmen. That pretty much put an end to the “What’s HBO going to do?” questions! [Laughs] We were able to show you what we were going to do. And that was only possible because of the increase in programming and resources.