HBO programming president Casey Bloys used his time in front of the press Wednesday to defend the premium cable network's decision to move forward with its controversial slave drama Confederate.
"File this under hindsight is 20-20. … The idea that we would 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," Bloys told reporters Wednesday at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour. He said that if he could do the announcement over again, he would have had all four producers sit down with journalists to share the idea and why they are passionate about it as opposed to simply issuing a press release.
"We assumed it'd be controversial. I think we could have done a better job with the press rollout. … What we realized in retrospect is people don’t have the benefit of having the context of the conversations with the producers that we had."
Picked up straight to series, Confederate hails from Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and will launch after the fantasy series wraps its run either next year or in 2019.
The series, which chronicles the events leading to the Third American Civil War, takes place in an alternate timeline where the Southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution. The story follows a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone — freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.
Pressed to share details of his the initial pitch meeting with the Confederate team, Bloys acknowledge that the subject matter is "weapons-grade material."
"Everyone understands there is a high degree of getting this right. … If you can get it right, there is real opportunity to advance the racial discussion in America," he said. "If you can draw a line between what we're seeing in the country today with voter suppression, mass incarceration, lack of access to public education and healthcare and draw the line to our past and shared history, that's an important line to draw and a conversation worth having. [The producers] acknowledge this has a high degree of difficulty. It's a risk worth taking."
"The bet for us is on our talent … that they're going to be the difference," Bloys added. "We're going to stand behind them. The hope is that [viewers] judge the actual material versus what it might be. … We will rise or fall based on quality of the material."
"This is not a world in which the entire country is enslaved. Slavery is in one half of the country. And the North is the North," Malcolm Spellman said. "The imagery should be no whips and no plantations."
Added Nichelle Spellman: "The concern is real. But I think that the four of us are very thoughtful, very serious, and not flip about what we are getting into in any way. What I’ve done in the past, what Malcolm has done in the past, what the D.B.s have done in the past, proves that."
Benioff and Weiss, who are readying the final season of HBO's most watched series in history, will not be involved in any of the potential Thrones prequel series the premium cabler is working on and will instead transition to focus on Confederate, which they originally envisioned as a movie but adapted as a TV series given what they have said was an abundance of ideas for the project. Weiss, for his part, said that he was aware of the sensitivities that come with two white showrunners working on a slave drama and made it a point to ensure that the series had distinct voices contributing to its storylines.
"We know that the elements in play in a show like Confederate are much more raw, much more real, and people come into them much more sensitive and more invested, than they do with a story about a place called Westeros," said Weiss. "We know they are different things, and they need to be dealt with in very, very different ways. And we plan, all of us I think, to approach Confederate in a much different spirit, by necessity."
Although Bloys has yet to see a script for the series, he confirmed that the depiction of slavery would not be what viewers are accustomed to. "Producers have said they're not looking to do Gone With the Wind 2017; it's not whips and plantations. It's what they imagine the modern institution of slavery would look like," he said.