Interview Date: December 1st, 2017
Interview Location: New York, NY USA
Interviewer: Seth Arenstein
Collection: Hauser Oral History Project
Seth Arenstein: Hi, I’m Seth Arenstein for the Hauser Oral History Project at the Cable Center. We’re in New York City, it’s December 1st, 2017. I’m here with the EVP of Corporate Communications at HBO, Quentin Schaffer. And I have to mention this because Quentin is also a Cable Center Innovation Laureate and he is a member of the Community of Innovators. He does all sorts of great things for the Cable Center, goes out to the community. He talks to people, he talks to students, and he’s going to give a Mavericks Lecture.
Quentin Schaffer: Thank you very much, it’s a pleasure. Can’t believe it’s been ten years!
Arenstein: Great to have you here. So yes. Let’s talk about 10 years. Your first oral history ended 10 years ago and literally at the time “The Sopranos” had gone dark, literally. Now we’ve had Bob Zitter here, I don’t know, a year or two ago. And he told us about the technical side of going dark at the end of “The Sopranos,” and a little bit of the angst that was going on. What about on the PR side? Was there any angst?
Schaffer: Oh I can tell you when “The Sopranos” went black, literally, a number of us had seen in advance the final episode. And I actually had brought it home. You know this is when we could take VHS tapes home. I brought it home, was sworn to secrecy, but my wife watched it with me. We got to where it went goes to black and my wife goes, “oh they didn’t trust you with the final VHS.” I said “No no they told me this is it.” “No I think they left out a part.” I said “well, no, I think this is it.” And she goes “well if this is it, you’re screwed.” She said “people are going to be really angry.” And I said “well we’ll have to talk to David Chase about it and see.” And so I got in the next day and called up Ilene Landress, the producer, and she goes “No, that’s it. That is how it ends.” And at one point David wanted to end it in black and then have the black continue for like eight minutes, and they realized that was too long and it was going to look like the whole network went down. So they said no the credits have to come up within a reasonable amount of time. But then what we did from a PR standpoint in New York, I had a number of journalists who came in to watch the final episode an hour before it aired on HBO. So they would have a jump in terms of writing about it, and then we were there to talk them through. But David did not tell us what he meant by the ending. So we were floundering a little. But the critic who captured it best at that time, and remember a lot of people just castigated us, was Tom Shales of the Washington Post. He saw it and he felt it was the only way you could end the show. It was a brilliant ending because you’re basically saying this guy can’t even feel safe in a small diner. You know at some point is going to catch up to him. David Chase, meanwhile, had fled to a home he owned in France. I would try to reach him there. He had a little fax machine there but he didn’t want to talk to anybody. Then after a couple of days he decided, I’m doing one interview and one interview only, and he did it with Alan Sepinwall of the Newark Star Ledger because Newark was New Jersey (where much of The Sopranos took place). But he never explained what he meant. He left it open to interpretation. When “The Sopranos” went black, that was the same month when “Deadwood” had gotten shot (cancelled) after three seasons. Should have had a fourth. But they ended it too early to David Milch’s dismay. David Milch had another series he wanted to do but he didn’t expect to do it that soon. “John from Cincinnati” which didn’t quite work. So we then had a lot of people asking HBO, “well, what now? What’s your next Sopranos?” And we knew there’s not, there’s never going to be another Sopranos but it’s going to be what is the next quality show. But the cupboards were fairly bare there and we made an early mistake, “Mad Men.” One of the writers of “The Sopranos” Matt Weiner had written “Mad Men” as a spec script to get the job at Sopranos and he wanted to do it at HBO, and it went over to Josh Sapan and AMC.
Arenstein: Who we talked to the other day.
Schaffer: And that really was a tipping point in terms of opening up the gates to other networks out there that are doing shows as good as anything HBO has got. And that was a moment in time where we had to start to say, what is next? And we went to our new co-president (overseeing programming), Richard Plepler. He went out to Hollywood and he did a listening tour and he started talking to agents, reporters, producers, and said, “Tell me about your experience with HBO” And he said “I want to hear good and bad.” And they said “you know, you guys are a little arrogant, you know, a little rudeness there. We went to this other network because we thought we’d be treated better or we’d get more attention.” So Richard’s first mandate was, I want to change this. I want people to be bringing their shows to us and you know with Matt Weiner going out the door, that was not good. And then really for us it was about a year but we got rescued by vampires, when “True Blood” launched and had a very long run. And that was Alan Ball, a show runner we’d worked with before in “Six Feet Under.” And he captured the zeitgeist at that moment. That show, which started out talking about the disenfranchised, the vampires were the disenfranchised, all of a sudden took on this life of its own and became a big hit for us. And what was unique about it too was that the books, these paperback books. Charlaine Harris wrote the books, and they were very popular at airports. After the show her book sales skyrocketed and we saw the power of HBO visibility for a book. It was immense. We had seen it a couple of times before, I think “Barbarians at the Gate” was a best seller. After we did the movie that book was back on the bestseller list, so we had done this with other things, but that was a big, big moment for us.
Arenstein: Back to the going to the black with “The Sopranos”. Well the first point you have to make, here it is how many years later, and we’re still talking about it. So okay, mission accomplished. But the other thing is, did you warn affiliates? Or on the PR side, did nothing?
Schaffer: No we could not really tell anybody. We were told you have to just let it air. Everybody was going to watch that night, that was one of the biggest TV nights. I think it was 20 million viewers. But we were sworn, there was a very small group of us that we’re able to see it. And as tough as it was to not say anything, we realized if we did there’s no way we could explain it and we’d have to have problems. So once it aired, yes, then people spoke to it. Cable operators heard from a lot of people who complained, saying what happened? I lost my cable, my cable went out. I missed it, who killed Tony Soprano? And you know we said, well, nobody killed him officially.
Arenstein: Right, right.
Schaffer: So that was, yeah, a real wild moment. And it showed how many people were vested in it and just had lived with these characters and wanted a resolution. People wanted this resolution, they weren’t used to it. And I think that’s what cable did that was very different. We didn’t follow the usual network protocol of you’re going to have a beginning, middle, and end. There isn’t going to be a neat tidy ending, and Sopranos warned you about that over the years. They were certain episodes, the Russian who disappeared in the woods, his story never resumed and everyone’s dying to know what happened to him. The rapist with Dr. Melfi never got resolved. So you should have seen that David Chase was not going to give you some clean ending. And I think that’s what was so brilliant. He always did things a little differently.
Arenstein: Speaking purely from a PR point of view though, would you have, if you could have scripted it out, you probably would have called some of the affiliates and said, “look, you’re going to get a lot of calls on Sunday night at ten.” It was on from nine to ten? Yes. “And you’re going to get inundated with calls complaining about their cable service. Here’s what’s going to go on.” You probably would have done it that way, probably.
Schaffer: They would have said “what do you mean by that? Is it a very gruesome ending? What is it going to be?” It is almost best that we didn’t, that we weren’t able to do it. We just let it go organically and then we handled it in a less proactive way than you might be used to.
Arenstein: OK. Tell me about what you do on a day-to-day basis on the PR side at HBO. What kinds of things, must be different every day?
Schaffer: Every day is different. You never know when you come in in the morning. You can have a set schedule and you have no idea. I mean as you can see lately, there have been so many different crises, so you may have a focus on a few other things and then you walk in at the end of the day you’ve worked on three other projects. I think for me a lot of what we do, being that it’s PR, and not everything PR related is tangible. You have several things that you’re doing that maybe are quite visible that people say, “oh wow, great feature you placed here. Great interview.” And there’s a lot of invisible things you do. Things you head off at the pass before they become problems.
Arenstein: Stories that you keep out of the paper.
Schaffer: Stories you keep out of the press. So part of our job is just that, getting stories in the press and keeping stories out of the press. And it’s a juggling act that you do. How serious could this issue become? Are we being oversensitive? Because you have different show runners, you have different artists, and you may say to them, “you know I don’t think this is going to work well” and you might be able to get people to listen, particularly our programmers. I’ve got a number of different areas under me. One would be media relations, which is all the program publicity. Corporate affairs, which is dealing with our ancillary businesses. Marketing stories. International. We’ve got our corporate social responsibility, that’s now under PR and that’s a lot of social good that we do. We’ve got our consumer affairs which handle the e-mails that come in. It used to be the phone calls and the letters, very few letters, few phone calls. But mainly e-mails. We respond to as many of these as we can. And then we have our Talent Relations and Special Events Group because we do a lot of premieres and we also have to take care of talent. In fact, we do so many things with talent, you have to take care of their hotel, their airfare, their travel, their per diems, and keeping them happy. So they want to come back.
Arenstein: And you know people talk, at least in PR, they would always say “does PR have a seat at the table?” What about at HBO?
Schaffer: HBO PR has a big seat at the table and I’d say it has for quite some time. Richard Plepler, who is our CEO, came out of the PR side. And so he has tremendous instincts that he’s developed in advising CEO Jeff Bewkes when he was there, Bill Nelson, Chris Albrecht, all various CEOs we’ve had. He’s had a major seat at the table and he’s then continued this tradition. He likes to hear from different voices and he wants to know what people think. He does something very smart. Some CEOs would say “let me tell you what I think” and then they’ll say “now what do you think?” And you know any smart person is going to say, anybody, as Richard would say, anybody who has a mortgage is not going to tell you what they really think. In his case he will just say you know we’ll discuss something he’ll say “now what do you think. What are your thoughts about this?” And he’ll try to get an answer from you before he tells you where he’s coming from. It’s really I think it’s a very good way to do it. You know you talk more freely. Occasionally you might think, “well I wonder where he’s coming from?” But I’m going to just tell him quite frankly what I think and I’ve enjoyed that part of our relationship. It’s very transparent, everything is very open and candid. We don’t have to soft shoe around things, everything is an open conversation.
Arenstein: What would be something, can you give me an example of something that people would be surprised to hear that you deal with, or that PR deals with at HBO?
Schaffer: Boy that’s a great question.
Arenstein: Because it sounds like you’re all over the place.
Schaffer: We do everything. I don’t know if it would surprise anybody, but I think when you’re dealing with talent– A lot of our executives who have one-on-one relationships with talent, they start to get to know the talent, the ones who do it best. They get to know maybe what books they like, what social causes they like. When we find that out our corporate social responsibility group might say, oh breast cancer is a very important cause for this actor. You know I wonder why? Well, his mother died but he, I’d love him to do some spots. So that’s something we do that I think’s very effective and actually the talent love this. The talent are very moved when they can help a cause that’s important to them. You know many of them will come to a cause to support it. We just did the autism concert with Jon Stewart. Now all the talent there didn’t necessarily have a connection to autism. Many have a relationship with Jon Stewart but they all came out it was a very positive, good thing. But when you have a talent that really is passionate about something and will even travel for that cause, that’s something we do that I don’t think people know that much about.
Arenstein: Talk about things that people don’t know that much about. HBO documentaries are fabulous. But if you talk to the average person on the street and say, “HBO” they’d say “The Sopranos,” they’d say “Trueblood.” They probably wouldn’t say Sheila Nevins’ latest great documentary.
Schaffer: Yeah. Well I’ll tell you, what we look at it is, we always look at HBO as more than one show. So we look at HBO as the brand, and what we really want people to know… It may be a small percentage that watches a docu but we want them to know that when we’re going to do a docu it’s going to be something really good, really important, and something that is going to resonate. We have late night shows with John Oliver and Bill Maher. We do some comedy, some music concerts, original movies. We have a very good mix. “Vice” had a show that this summer, with its Charlottesville story, garnered more attention than perhaps any other news story. It was amazing the coverage they got. So we like to say we’re a package, we’re not just “Game of Thrones.” Which is why when people say “What are you going do after ‘Game of Thrones?'” like we’re only one show, we’re going, “Well wait a minute, you’re missing something, we have a lot of original shows and 70 percent of our schedule is theatricals.” And right now if you want to get a theatrical, there’s very few blockbusters left, right? You basically can go online and pay five dollars for a single movie, or we’ll have it. We have four of the major studios that have deals with HBO. And I think that’s something that people value because the ratings for those movies are enormous.
Arenstein: Wow, I didn’t realize that 70 percent is theatricals.
Schaffer: It’s funny the programming gets all the attention but the movies are a major backbone for the network.
Arenstein: So HBO as you pointed out is not always the hot show at the moment. Sometimes it’s not. But the record at the Emmys has to be something that’s to be reckoned with, there is no question about that, and that is an overall quality. How do you answer people when they say to you “oh gosh no more ‘Sopranos,’ no more ‘Girls,’ ‘Sex and the City?’” What’s your response?
Schaffer: I think the thing is you have to tell somebody about the value proposition. For HBO, and let’s say HBO is averaging fifteen dollars, $14.99 a month. You want people to understand what is the value they’re getting for that. And I think if they go out to see a movie in a theater you’re spending 10, 11, 12 bucks just for one person, for one movie. Plus your popcorn, plus your partner. So it’s very easy analogies. And I think for us what we found and I think the Emmys is one gauge. I mean we like the fact that we’ve won more Emmys than anybody for the last 16 years and had most nominations for the last 17 years. Does the Emmys boost our viewership? No, but in the Hollywood community it’s the ultimate triumph, and all the agents, managers, they want to come to the HBO party, everybody wants to be with HBO. I think what the Emmys also do, I think it shows the diversity of programs that we have. We’re not limited to just a comedy series or drama series but our shows, you know John Oliver is winning, and we’ll have original movies winning and we’ll have maybe a music show or a comedy show. We win in all these varied categories and we always come away saying you know that shows the diversity of the programming that we’ve got. Just this week, Rolling Stone came out with their 10 best shows of the year. On that list, five of the best shows were HBO shows. And that’s just one outlet. We see this with a lot of other outlets, this time of year when they do their end of year lists. We always seem to score more than anybody. And I think that’s a mark of the quality we continue to provide.
Arenstein: So while we are on the Emmys theme, I’ve got to ask, what do you and your department do in terms of Emmys, Golden Globes, etc., awards, what role do you play in that?
Schaffer: There’s an Emmy campaign that we’ve done for years and years. And what I’d like to say to everybody, because you know we usually don’t do any interviews specifically about the campaign, because we don’t want it to look like oh PR is driving the campaign and making it look like these shows would win only because of the PR campaign. What we’d like to say is listen if the shows are good the PR campaign can help bring awareness to it. So the way we look at it is HBO is not in every TV household. We’re in a 30 some odd million homes. For the TV Academy which has a membership about 22,000, I know that not all of them have HBO. So our first goal is we have to make sure everybody who’s an Academy member knows what shows are eligible that year. So we have to make sure we get the noise out there. These are the shows that are eligible. Then you want to make sure people have the opportunity to see those shows. And so we still do a mailing, a DVD mailing to the 22,000 members. We also have people use the Internet as well. You know with the Academy you can provide links for streaming, although we found that people aren’t using the links as much as you might like. We have the data on that. I think the DVDs are still the way to go. You do a few ads and the ads are more just reminding people these are the shows that are on. And now what the TV Academy has added are these panels that you do in Hollywood so you can’t do it for everything but you probably put four or five of your top shows. You do up a session and you show the show again and then you have the talent on stage and people come to talk to the talent get pictures. But at the end of the day I think when it comes down to the voting and people are looking at the ballot and there’s five shows I think people are going to vote for what they think is best and that’s where we are. We feel our main role is just making sure they know what shows are eligible and that they’ve had a chance to see them.
Arenstein: You just said something that’s always intrigued me. And it’s a little parochial I will admit. DVDs, having the DVDs sent to a critic versus telling them that there’s a link out there and you do this and this and there it is. You just said that the DVDs work better, or at least for the Academy.
Schaffer: For the Academy they do. For our TV reviewers we actually now do provide links, and that’s one hundred percent, and we had a transition there two years ago after “Game of Thrones.” We had four episodes of “Game of Thrones” that got pirated, traced to a DVD that went out for review. And so we changed our whole policy two months after that and started doing the links. And the links we can track and track very easily. But I think for the Academy we’ve talked about it, but right now we don’t want to get ahead of technology. We’re sort of saying we’d rather be a little bit of a laggard. If people still want to put a DVD in and are watching it, we’ll do that. Many of our other competitors are still doing the same. And I think there’ll be a point, maybe in another year or two, where that might go by the wayside. But right now you know we may have 40 shows that we’re pushing and 40 DVDs you want to get out there and to 22,000 members of the Academy. And they take it. You know they never provide you with their mailing list. They’re the middleman. You’ve got to pay them, work through them, to get it to people. I think they want to protect their members, otherwise the members could get bombarded. You’d have a hard time, you could compile a rough list but it’s not worth it. It’s better just to go through them.
Arenstein: Now, Millennials. We wanted to ask you about Millennials and how HBO appeals to Millennials in the sense that these are people who probably didn’t grow up with “The Sopranos,” probably didn’t grow up with “Sex and the City.” Does HBO consciously think, “oh gosh, you know we’ve got a different young group there and we have to appeal to them?”
Schaffer: Well you know it’s funny you say this. Our new Head of Programming, Casey Bloys, has a real interest in finding those shows that would resonate with Millennials, with Gen Zs. He has done this before. I mean you know “Girls” had a terrific run, and we find “Silicon Valley” resonates. “Insecure” we’re doing now has resonated. But he really wants to find those shows that would work for Millennials. I have the benefit that I have three. I’ve got a 26-year-old, so she’s a millennial, and then I have two Gen Z-ers in the house and. And they’re my little focus group on stuff. I hear what they watch. They watch, they love “Vice.” A lot of times they’re watching on their phones. They sometimes needle me. “Dad. You don’t have this show that this network has or this streaming service has.” But I want to hear what they’re watching. And if they don’t like something we’ve done I kind of want to understand. I tell them not everything we do is for everybody. But I think what we found with them, I think the Millennials and the Gen Z-ers are, they have very short attention spans. So they do like the shorter stuff. And this is a positive for us, they have a social conscience. They are global citizens. They want to evoke social change. A lot of our programs, some of our original movies, some of our docus, have always fit into that. And you don’t want to thump your chest “hey look what we’ve got.” But they tend to find those things and I think that makes them feel better. The point I can make now that just came up is, the New York Times is doing a piece. They just called up and said “We’re doing a piece on holiday parties. And you know with all the sexual harassment going on we want to understand from you guys, what are you doing this year?” And I said “well listen we did away with our holiday party two years ago. This is the third year we’re not doing one.” “Oh really, why?” “Well they’re expensive things to do. Only half the company went and it wasn’t in the spirit of the holiday. It was fine but felt a little bit like a dinosaur.” “So what are you doing instead?” “Well you know what, we do a give-back program where different departments have a day where they spend helping a different cause in the city and we select from 12 causes. And the Millennials and the Gen Z-ers in the company love that.” And that, I found, says a lot. We know that we’ve got a very diverse audience and we know that the Millennials and the Gen Z-ers, the Gen Z-ers are the most diverse audience that has ever come around. So what it’s doing right now, which is great, you’re seeing more diverse types of programming because that’s where the audience is. And you know you want to keep them, you want to grab them. I shouldn’t say keep them because we don’t always have them right now but you want them. They’ve hopefully had a taste of HBO programming. We have a college program that is giving them a taste. And you just hope that down the road they’re going to subscribe and say this is a great value.
Arenstein: I have to ask this question: is there a show or two that you saw in previews and said “oh, this one is going to hit big” and it didn’t? By the same token, you saw something that you thought, “I like it but nobody is going to watch it” and it did hit big. I recall Chris Albrecht saying “nobody really watches ‘The Wire.’ We like it but nobody really watches it. We’re probably going to cancel it.” Well that didn’t happen, good thing it didn’t. But I remember him saying that so many times, he’d say, “there were more people at my Bar Mitzvah than watched that show” or something like that. So were there any examples where you said oh yeah, this is going to hit and it didn’t? And then you saw one and said, well…, and it hit?
Schaffer: I would say one that I thought was going to hit, and it had all the ingredients, was our series “Vinyl.” And the reason I thought it was going to hit, it was sex drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. So boy that covers a good swath. You had Martin Scorsese directing it and as a producer, Terry Winter who wrote for “The Sopranos.” You had Mick Jagger as a consultant and very involved in this, this for him was an important project. And some terrific actors, Bobby Cannavale, Olivia Wilde. And Ray Romano was great, and I loved the pilot and I said, “wow, this thing is going to take off.” And it was a very expensive production and it got about half the audience we thought it was going to get. As each week went on it was losing some viewers and we started hearing from people saying “you know it’s not fun, it’s too dark. It’s not what I had hoped it was going to be.” And I think if it had cost half the money you could have justified keeping it on, but it was one of our high budget projects and sadly they decided we can’t continue this for a second season because the audience has dwindled, it’s not doing what we had hoped. So that’s one. I think you sort of hit– you know there are shows like “The Wire”. It was definitely one, that’s a show that I always was surprised did not win Emmys. It got one Emmy nomination in all those years. You’d think at least it would get that respect. Now many call it the greatest series of all time.
Schaffer: But I think that was one that we– And David Simon was a genius, and he has stayed with HBO for 20 years because you know he can do something and it doesn’t have to get an audience. But I think that was one that I thought probably could have been discovered earlier. And I that we sort of look back at the PR and we just say you know I don’t know what we could have done differently. One year with “The Wire” which we did and David gave us– We actually, this is before bingeing of course, we sent out the fourth season of “The Wire” which was when they talked to the schools and education, we sent out all the episodes. And at the time they were concerned about our home video area. “Oh boy, no one’s going to buy the home video if you do that.” But I checked with (home video president) Henry McGee at the time, he goes, “no, you know what, we make a certain amount of money, I don’t think it will affect it.” So we actually did that and got the best reviews because critics saw the whole story arc.
Arenstein: Right. I guess the other David Simon show that I personally thought was fabulous was “Treme.”
Schaffer: Exactly. “Treme” we knew had a more limited appeal because you didn’t have your drugs and shootouts. But David evoked that world, that music world down in New Orleans, and he did a terrific job with that. I think in the three seasons he had he was able to complete the story arc that he had. And now he’s back with us with “The Deuce” and “The Deuce” really resonated. It’s a show that really did well, it debuted in the fall. But it was averaging 6 million viewers. And you know with James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and really captured that era. And in fact one thing David does, he manages to make something so authentic that there’s not a single historian that ever has come out who said “boy this is wrong.” Not on a David Simon production.
Arenstein: You know it’s funny you say that because I remember watching a Spike Lee documentary about post-Katrina New Orleans and I think it might have been on HBO, I don’t remember.
Schaffer: Yes, it was, “When the Levees Broke.”
Arenstein: Right, and I’m watching the people that he interviewed and I’m going “those people were in ‘Treme,’ he took that right from ‘Treme!'” And then I realized, it’s because David Simon was so historically accurate that these people seemed like they were from “Treme.”
Schaffer: So exactly right. We did that. That was a brilliant docu, Spike Lee. I think, honestly, I think someday he should be known more for his docus because I think he’s done some brilliant docus. And that was one we premiered down in New Orleans. There’s the Superdome there, next to the Superdome is this 20,000 seat theater and we premiered it in there and allowed the citizens to come and it was great. Showed all four hours, it was a long film. But you know when you’re living that, you want to see it. And he came down and it was very special.
Arenstein: So, Quentin, you know I hate to say it, but part of PR, and a big part of PR now is dealing with crisis and crisis PR. And HBO, as most major brands, has not been immune to crisis. So there are a few that I can think of, and one is about the President’s head and “Game of Thrones.” Another one is about the horses dying on “Luck.”
Schaffer: You know we’ve had so many different crises over the years. But I mean this is one where– “Luck” was a show that David Milch did with Dustin Hoffman. I really liked it. In fact, when you talk about shows, I wish this one had continued. I think it had tremendous potential. But when you’re working with race horses, what they don’t tell you upfront is race horses are highly fragile and very high strung. And so we have the AHA monitoring the horses. How many hours they work in a day. Many of these were former race horses. So there are certain criteria you need to follow. We actually added to that criteria other things. We took x-rays of the legs and we went to great lengths. And I think when we lost the first horse, it was as the end of a day shoot and it happens. It stepped the wrong way on the track and broke the ankle. That unfortunately was a terrible moment. But this can happen. Then there were two other incidents where they happened not even during the shoot. And so at the end of it we were basically sitting around saying, “listen, how many horses can you afford to lose in shooting a show?” And the answer should be zero. So we basically at that point said you know we have to cancel the show. And Richard Plepler had a major role there and said we just can’t continue. We took a big write down, several millions, tens of millions of dollars. But it was the right decision. And then a lot of people don’t know I think we had about 20 horses that we had purchased for this, shooting the show, and we actually placed every one of those horses so that every one of them was put to a nice retirement place. You know that was a responsibility that we wanted to see through. So that was something that was one that something you can take all these precautions in the world. But there was nothing you could do to prevent that from happening. You couldn’t substitute a Clydesdale for a racehorse you know. And these horses, it’s probably why you haven’t seen a lot of horse racing series before. Working with animals is tough enough but they are very fragile.
Arenstein: Can you take us behind the scenes a little bit on that one? And talk about HBO’s reputation which many people attribute a lot of that to you and your steady hand, being there for so many years. Did somebody come in, maybe Richard Plepler, come in and say, “gee, how big a hit are we going to take PR-wise if we continue the show, if we don’t continue the show?” Was that kind of thing going on?
Schaffer: You know it was also more about what is the right thing, and it was really more like, yes, the PR thing, that’s not good, but really, should we be doing this? And I think Richard asked the question “can anybody here guarantee me we won’t lose another horse?” And nobody can. You know these were accidents, no one even expected that, and I think he really made the sound decision that as much as we like the show and we’d love to see it continue, it is not worth it and we basically canceled it. There was no major animal protest, no PETA– PETA has sort of a thing with AHA so they had their own thing. But no, we were heading this off just saying no, that can’t continue. And I think the actors were disappointed but everybody understood. You know they say now, “I understand why you guys made the decision.”
Arenstein: OK. And now that the hacking. Tell us about that.
Schaffer: Yes, the hacking. You know if you look at the country today you have two types of companies: one that’s been hacked and one that doesn’t know they’ve been hacked. It’s fascinating when we were working on this you started hearing about everybody being hacked. The New York Times has been hacked. You know there’s really not a company or outlet that you don’t hear about. So while we’re working on this, the first thing you do, you first have to– you’re kind of surprised when this happens because this letter comes in and the hacker is making this threat. And you’re trying to think “Oh God this is real,” and they’re giving you a deadline and they’re asking you to make a payment, and they’re telling you don’t go to law enforcement. You know just like out of a movie. You first you need to get a major law firm behind you, a major crises PR outfit that can advise you because you know very little information. When the incident first occurs, you do not know that much. So any statement you make– Your instinct is normally to assure everybody, “oh we found out the hacker” but you don’t know that. And if you make a statement you can look like a fool the next day when something, when it changes. It changes daily. And that you don’t know what the hackers’ next move is going to be. You get law enforcement involved though they tell you don’t go to law enforcement. You know it was usually the kidnapper that would always say that in the old FBI series. Well you know you get them involved, but listen, the FBI was hacked. The CIA has been hacked. There’s no one who hasn’t been hacked, but you get them involved because they’ve dealt with other cases like this and they understand, and as you probably saw they actually tracked down where this came from, an Iranian hacker. But I think what you had to be very careful. When you’re doing this you have a lot of unsettled people and you have to look at your stakeholders and the most important group are your employees. You want to make sure your employees know, that they’re informed before they’re reading about it in the press. So you’re trying to tell them a little bit as you’re going, a little bit here, a little bit there. Telling them maybe there’s a new security system that’s just been put in place. You have hired these major tech security companies. They’re looking and tracking, and then you’re trying to let them know if their personal information has been compromised. All of those steps have to be taken in addition to people who are your clients. Actors that you may work with. If their Social Security numbers were compromised because of contracts you’ve got to let them know, by law you have to let them know. But you want to let them know so they can still do something, they can take measures. Being hacked is a very agonizing process because it hits, and then several days go by. You’re waiting for the next hit. And what’s interesting is the media, they play a role. Now some of them are very responsible. You have to– they’re going to report this company’s been hacked. But some of them become a tool of the hacker who then uses them and says, “Hey, I’m next dropping this information” and they sort of feed the information to the outlet, and then the outlet runs it. There’s a great conversation to be had with the media about where the responsibility lies and where you are violating that and you’re becoming an accomplice to the hacker. Because that was something we really learned you know with certain outlets. And luckily ours had a happy ending. I mean the hacker did not have “Game of Thrones.” There were scripts that had already been online that had already been stolen. They did put up a few shows but the shows they put up, “Insecure” and “Ballers,” they actually ended up getting higher viewership numbers this summer. So it was sort of, it didn’t have the impact. And I think when everybody looked at how we had handled it they said “you guys seemed to handle it very well.” It’s a jolt for any company. When you realize– it’s very invasive, you feel violated. And now as a result it makes you much more careful about what you put in e-mails, what you save. It’s anything you’re sent. You know I don’t open anything unless I really know who it’s from. And our security outfit. They test people in the company. They sometimes send a fake e-mail or something to see if somebody will open it. They want to see if people are being vigilant. Because all it takes is– This is the key, it takes one or two weak links. You can have everything strong and one person lets in a hacker because they haven’t thought “Who is this person?” So that was actually something that I think a lot of people were asking us about since it all happened, because they want to be prepared and they want to know what steps did we take. I’d say another thing is you also you get your I.T. people very involved. You don’t put your CEO out there as the face of this. You use your I.T. folks when you’re responding. You just don’t want to say a lot because you don’t know a lot. So you want to kind of make sure before you’re saying anything, that it’s all been verified and you’re good to go.
Arenstein: And then the one that I don’t know anything about here at all is the President’s head in “Game of Thrones.”
Schaffer: This was an awkward one. This was one where when we did Game of Thrones there was a home video release and in the background was President [George W.] Bush, there was his head on a spike. And somebody had had his head from another movie and it was on a spike in the background, it was so subtle you could barely notice it. But when somebody brought it to our attention, Lisa de Moraes from the Washington Post, all of sudden we go, “wow we didn’t know, we didn’t see that.” And we then tried to track down where this might have happened. You’d have to freeze it to see it because it was so–, but nowadays everybody can freeze frame stuff. What we had to do is we really had to pull those DVDs from the shelves. We had it blotted out. We tried to track where this came from and it happened at a period where we had just done a wonderful film on Bush 41, terrific documentary. And this happened literally a week or two after that and was very unsettling because we just said “oh my god, we just did this great event up there (in Kennebunkport) and now we have this.” We don’t really know where it came from. You know there was a prop box of lots of heads and somebody puts these out there. But it was a very awkward moment which we dealt with very quickly and resolved as quickly as we could. So if you hadn’t seen it before it was going to be hard to find it after that because we took care of it.
Arenstein: So I guess this leads into another question we have here on the list and that is: How has the role of PR changed at HBO since you’ve gotten there?
Schaffer: It’s sort of you’re involved in everything. There’s really not a department, an area, we don’t deal with regularly. And I think you kind of realize that you want these different areas– Your general counsel you want to talk to if you’re dealing with a sexual harassment case tied to a show, you understand their perspective. Everything that you deal with there’s a different area that probably plays a role, will help you. Be it our marketing or I.T. folks, our programming folks. Programming checks ideas with us. They’ll say “hey, we’re thinking of doing this thing with this actor. How promotable do you think that is for you guys?” You know it’s not the only reason they may do something but they do check with us which I think is really helpful.
Arenstein: So now we talk about this very competitive universe that we’re in now. You have people like Netflix, you have people like even Amazon and AT&T is doing very good pieces on DirecTV and things. A lot of people making content. How do you as a PR person strategize on that?
Schaffer: A lot of them are touting their program budgets now. You know Netflix will say oh we’re spending 8 billion dollars, or Amazon I think is 4 billion dollars. And I think the press have reported that we’re about maybe two and a half billion dollars. But we always have looked at it as it’s not– and Richard’s line is “more isn’t better, only better is better.” And we’re all about quality. And I think our attitude is there’s so much programming to watch, 500 scripted television shows that people can’t sift through it. So what they don’t want is another 500 hours of scripted television. What they really want is quality. (Note: the 500 scripted shows = 4000 hours and add to that 750 unscripted shows = 5000 hours for a total of 9000 hours) So what we try to do is we try to curate what we’re putting on and try to put on things that we all think are going to resonate. And you don’t have to spend this, as Richard said the other night, “Monopoly money” on a show like “Lord of The Rings.” I mean Amazon is going to try that. I think that’s good. They hope it becomes a “Game of Thrones” for them. But what we do is pick our shots and I think we have this diverse mix so that we’re not about just one show. And when you’re looking at the whole mix of our stuff, we always– every month there’s going to be a lot of things because we are always voted on each month. People’s pocketbooks, they got to write that check. You don’t see that with network TV. Right. Network TV, although I watched that the other night, couldn’t believe how many commercials. That’s another thing, we don’t have commercials and that’s still been a very valuable thing. The other thing is too, we also stream our programs. Because of HBO Now we’re able to stream and we’re reaching a younger demographic. We’re reaching people who just wanted HBO. So while it was great when we were part of the cable package, in the skinny bundle we’re doing very well. But we’ve always been the last thing added to the big cable bundle. We helped carry the bundle. But I think now we feel pretty good about our position. And then I would say, the other thing we say, there was a period where Netflix as an example was saying, “you know, it’s Netflix versus HBO.” They initially were trying to do “we’re going to be them before they’re us.” I think we’ve seen sort of a different attitude. I think when you’re not the disrupter as much anymore but you become more accepted and established. They now say what we say. It’s Netflix and HBO, or it’s FX and HBO. It’s like, it isn’t either or. We had for years and years– There were a lot of cable networks we’ve always been mentioned with. Oh it’s HBO and– let’s say the FX guy or Showtime. Well no it’s HBO and Showtime– You know they always dragged us along. There was a great quote by a journeyman basketball player whose name escapes me. His first name was Jack [Haley] and he was traded to the Chicago Bulls and his first game with the Bulls Michael Jordan played. And this guy Jack played in the game and scored zero points and Michael Jordan scored 52. And Jack’s quote was, “I’ll always remember it as the night Michael Jordan and I teamed for 52 points.” And so it was one of those lines. That’s how I felt. A lot of our competitors are always sort of dragging us in because they might have one good show. And our attitude was, as long as we’re always part of the dialogue. Where you worry is if they’re not talking about you anymore. That’s the thing. We always want to make sure we’re– our program resonates.
Arenstein: So from a PR standpoint you sort of stand back a little bit.
Schaffer: Yes, exactly. And you know you can’t force it. If something’s not good then you kind of have to accept it and move on. There’ll be shows that maybe you’re not sure will really take off. You know you just never know. Over the years some I’ve hit right and some I’ve hit wrong but it doesn’t diminish– You know when the company’s agreed to get behind something, whether I like it or not, we’re going to do that. And sometimes it might be something I might love and they say, “no, we’re not going to put as much effort behind that. It’s not quite a–” And those, you have some pet projects like that. But you know it’s all fine.
Arenstein: The future of HBO? You’ve kind of touched on it with HBO Go and HBO Now. Where do you see HBO in about five years?
Schaffer: I think we still look at the HBO brand as being so well-known, so well-established. And I think our hope is that we continue this. Remember we’re still only in 40 million homes so there’s a lot of growth that we could pick up. I think what we’re trying to do now, a lot of our deals are such where our price isn’t going to be continuing to go up. We’re trying to get more people, but you know keeping that price down. I think people are very price conscious particularly Millennials and Gen Z-ers who like things free. And I think we haven’t utilized data as much as some of our competitors. But I think as we’re starting to get more data I think that’s going to be very helpful for us, particularly with our marketing. I think our marketing will benefit greatly and in terms of finding those new undecideds, those people who don’t have HBO. That’s something where we’re hopeful that will work. So I see us doing– I think the HBO brand should be thriving and doing very well. There will probably be some other fall out then. And I think there are other networks, I won’t name ones, but I think there will be some others that may fall by the wayside that just can’t keep up. I think you’re going to have to be in that mix of four top networks. That’s where you are going to be safe. You got to be in that mix and that includes streaming service. But you’re going to have to be in that mix and I think we’re up to the task.
Arenstein: So, Quentin, if I were to shadow you for a day at HBO and I’m sure it’s different every day. But what would I see? What do you get when you walk in the door? What’s the first thing you do when you get to your office here? Assuming you’re here in New York. You probably travel like crazy.
Schaffer: The first thing, really, you’re going through all the media that’s come out. Digital media, all those stories about HBO and our competitors– just to get engaged before you begin your day. I get in early, try to get a grasp on that. That sentiment dictates then what your day’s going to be. And then after that it varies depending on the time of year. If it’s an awards period, a time we’re launching a lot of new shows, a time we’ve got various crises that we’re dealing with. Every day is different. There’s no pro forma day or no pro forma week. But I’ll be in touch. I have a weekly, I’ve had for my entire career, with (now Chairman & CEO) Richard Plepler. We sit down Monday morning first thing. Well first thing meaning 10:00 in the morning. We’ve had this forever and that’s how we sort of set our week. We kind of go “OK what could go wrong this week? What could go right? What are the things we need to focus on?” And we take it from there. And I think that at the end of the day I think one of the things we look at is– you know Richard always says “what defines success?” So be it the hacking, be it a promotion here, a crisis here. At the end of the day, what is it we want to see? And then how do we get there? Too many people I think start “well let’s do this, let’s do this” and they’re not looking at what their end goal is. And that’s one thing we do and I think that informs our strategy.
Arenstein: That’s a total PR type of attack.
Schaffer: It really is. And we are also very good. When Richard and I talk we have a shorthand. So we think very much alike in how things should be handled, but we also then bring other people in. And I think what I found is when we do events and we do a good job we give a quick pat on the back but we don’t linger on the praise. And so one of the things I have sort of picked up from Richard– I mean I kind of had this from an early mentor, but it was really, don’t seek praise. If it comes great, but see constructive criticism. Sort of figuring out, OK this is what we did, but what could we have done a little different, a little better. There’s always something. And that’s how we grow. That’s how we’ve over the years been able to correct something. So in a week we might finish and had some success and say “you know, we handled this great. The one thing I would have done differently if we did this again–” And these all for PR, like law, become case studies. So you’ll look back and say “yeah how did we handle that? Well this is how we handle it. Now we’re going to do it a little better.” I think with digital and social media and everything is being so fast you need to be very careful about how you deal with that.
Arenstein: I recall I was talking with Dave Walker in New Orleans about how “Treme” was received tremendously in New Orleans, which you know, can’t get a better compliment than that. But what about geographic series? What about “Sex and the City” and things like that? I know you have a whole bunch of anecdotes about how you do these geographical launches.
Schaffer: Well I’ll tell you years ago when we first launched “Sex and the City,” very New York show, you know high fashion, we really weren’t sure if it was going to resonate around the country. We did a premiere in New York. It was the first TV premiere. No one had ever premiered a TV show in a theater before and it was one of those proud moments because I didn’t know if people were going to come out for it. People came out for movies but who’s going to come out for a TV show? And it played really well and then we said “boy let’s do some screenings around the country.” So we did Chicago, San Francisco. We would screen it at clubs. And people would have drinks and we all of a sudden realized, boy, the show is resonating. This is about people who are single in the city. And it’s all about looking for love and romance. And it was not particular to New York, it was universal. So then you jump ahead to some of the other shows, be it a show like “Veep,” where– “Veep” did have a lot of consultants and research and Frank Rich played a very good role in this to make it authentic. It could have been laughed at and discarded. But it became, it was so dead on in Washington. And I remember the same was true with “Silicon Valley,” our series “Silicon Valley.” Mike Judge who did it, Mike, years and years ago and early in his career, worked as a software engineer up in Silicon Valley and he hated it. He was totally bored and one day he went in to quit. They said “why do you want to quit?” And he said “well I don’t like the people, the work is boring, and every day at the end of the day I want to kill myself.” And they said “well if we up your stock options would that help?” And he kind of looked and said there’s a show here. And then he came back and did the show for us. And the great thing about “Silicon Valley” is he brought in all of these consultants and experts, and it resonated with Silicon Valley. We did a screening up there the first year. Elon Musk came and a bunch of others came, and we really saw, wow, they’ve captured it. Because they were laughing at things that we wouldn’t have understood. Somebody is riding a bicycle, they said “oh my god that’s so exact,” and we’re thinking “how is that funny?” And so what I realized after that was, it was a quote really and I’d heard early on from Suge Knight who talked about rap music. And he said when you set out with a rap song you first have to capture the neighborhood, the urban neighborhood, because if they don’t think it’s authentic, that show is crap. It’s not going to take off around the country. And so I always had that in my head. I think OK, when we did “Westworld”—“Westworld” was about artificial intelligence so that is bringing us back up to Silicon Valley. So what we did is, we had met, Richard and I had met a Russian billionaire Yuri Milner who had invested early in Facebook, Airbnb. And we had met him and we said “listen would you be interested in doing a premier of a screening of this?” And he’s really only interested in science, projects that are science related, this felt like it fit the bill. He said “Yes I’d like to do it but I’d like to do it at my home.” And he has a very nice home up in Silicon Valley. “And I want to invite my audience. If you have some other people…” He invited the 100 top AI engineers and incredible people. We had dinner that night, a private dinner he put together that Sergey Brin came to. It was very surreal. We brought our talent up there, showrunners Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, and Thandie Newton. They screened this and people in the room, came up to Plepler and said “You know I really don’t watch TV.” Because they were, if anything, they’re watching things on their laptops. “But boy this thing was really good.” And there was a woman who is married to a guy from Google was like the number 7 employee, and she goes “do you know who’s in this room tonight?” I go “no, I don’t know anyone.” And she says, “you have everybody who is important in AI in this room tonight.” And that started– After we did that screening, we kind of started feeling a buzz up there, and people up there were alerted, “hey this is a cool show, and this gets it right.” And AI can be very dangerous and in fact there’s the OpenAI group that is trying to protect people from AI going out of control. And did we have to do that screening? No, but I think because we did it, it really helped the series in gaining this stamp of approval.
Arenstein: Most influential people in your career, a few of them?
Schaffer: I would say probably the most influential has been Richard Plepler, my boss, who has really been a tremendous mentor, someone I highly respect. He’s incredibly honest, thoughtful, totally open, transparent, and really seeing somebody who could rise from where he did. He’s a real quick study. To become the head of the company was tremendous. Also within HBO over the years, Seth Abraham was a guy who was an early boss of mine who I had tremendous respect for. And he understood PR. He was the sports guy but he also had a PR background. Very smart about talking points and remarks, and a very decent guy. So at HBO, I think those two. There’s many others that I’ve worked with who I’ve really liked. I think in the industry itself, I don’t know Brian Roberts and John Malone but I have the highest respect for them because I see what they’ve done. In terms of people that I’ve met and know, I’d say Josh Sapan and John Landgraf. I think they both are so secure. They take the high road. They’re very positive. You don’t see them getting out of control. They do high quality stuff. I have the highest respect for them. And then talent being the third category. There’s so many. But over the years the way I look at talent is: who have I met, that I maybe met early on, that is just the same as later on. You know people like Tom Hanks or Lena Dunham. There are people that haven’t changed, that success hasn’t ruined or spoiled them. And there are many others but those are the ones I appreciate the most because I say “boy you know these are good people.” And the same is true with the late Jim Gandolfini. He was the same guy he was from the start. And we were all devastated when we lost him.
Arenstein: What are you most proud of?
Schaffer: I would say when I mentioned earlier, I love the idea that years ago when I came up with the idea to do the premiere of “Sex and the City.” I remember going to Plepler and I said there’s a New York Observer column– I said “would it be OK if we did a screening?” It was only for 200 people. And he goes “you think people will come?” And I said, “I don’t know, but we have Sarah Jessica Parker.” And it was a big success and now everybody does these screenings. And I remember then we did, a few years after that, we did “The Sopranos.” The first year we did that, a screening at a theater for 300 people, Springsteen came, and we did the after-party at Joe’s Pizzeria because no one knew what the show was. By the end of the show we’re doing it at Radio City Music Hall. So I had a lot of pride there. These Hampton screenings we used to do, Hollywood comes to the Hamptons, right. I did approach Michael Fuchs many years ago. Michael Fuchs was out there in East Hampton. David Brown of Zanuck/Brown was from Southampton and they hosted the first one and everybody came to those. And then I would say, the two other things I would like to highlight: “Band of Brothers” of course. Launching that, being on the beaches of Normandy with Hanks and all the veterans coming. That was an unbelievable, unforgettable event. And I would say there’s so many little ones, and I’ll just give you one example. We do a lot of these documentaries and with documentaries, you feel you’ve made a difference. Two years ago we did a documentary on the diver Greg Louganis. And Greg Louganis is probably the greatest diver of all time, won more Olympic gold medals. Unfortunately he never at the time got this recognition because he was gay and HIV, and so Wheaties never put him on the box. And they put lesser athletes on the box. So we did this documentary and how he really never made the money he should have, didn’t get the endorsements he should have. But he’s such an up guy! Very, very positive. He was about to lose his house in California, was having some issues. And we did this documentary and a woman was watching it on cable, watching HBO at her home in Chicago, and she started online, “hey, let’s get some signatures. This guy should be on the Wheaties box.” And about six months later General Mills, to their credit, put him on the cover of the Wheaties box. And I just felt good about that. That’s a small one, but we’ve had a lot of shows like that where you just feel, “boy you know what? We made a difference. We were able to nudge the world a little and it felt good.”
Arenstein: Quentin, this was a pleasure.
Schaffer: Yes, Seth, thanks so much.