Interview Date: Thursday December 06, 2007
Interview Location: New York, NY
Interviewer: Steve Nelson
Collection: Cable Mavericks Collection
NELSON: Hello, I’m Steve Nelson for the Oral and Video History Program at The Cable Center. Today is December 6th and we’re talking to Quentin Schaffer, who’s Senior Vice-President of Corporate Communications at HBO. Quentin, thanks for taking the time to go through your life.
SCHAFFER: Thank you, Steve.
NELSON: So let’s just start at the beginning. Where did you come from?
SCHAFFER: Well, you want to go career-wise, Steve? How far back?
NELSON: I want to go back your childhood, a little basis.
SCHAFFER: A little bit? Got it – grew up in Connecticut, went to high school up in Deerfield in Massachusetts, went to the University of Southern California as a film and journalism major, and after college looked for jobs in the entertainment industry and it was a tough time to get one…
NELSON: I’m not going to let you go there so fast, okay?
NELSON: Because you’re a guy, unlike some other people in the business, who it sounds like you were interested in this kind of thing all along if that’s what you were studying in school.
SCHAFFER: That is true. I actually applied early admission to University of Southern California, got in in December when everybody else was waiting to see where they were going to go. I had applied to other schools but I had gone out there and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
NELSON: Did this come from childhood where you were watching TV and saying I want to be in the TV business?
SCHAFFER: Yeah, you know what’s funny? I was very obsessive about movies and television as a kid, probably watched a little more than I should have and my mother used to reprimand me and then she’d sit and watch the movies with me, so she encouraged this a little bit. I was always interested in the writing aspects, too, which is why I sought journalism. When I was at USC I had the perfect hybrid. I took film courses but I also became entertainment editor of the school newspaper, so I was able to interview a lot of Hollywood talent, and as a college student it was great. I got invited to all the premiers; I went to the Oscars the year Jack Nicholson won and interviewed him at the end of the show. He won for …Cuckoo’s Nest that year. I interviewed Sally Field early in her career, Lana Turner, who had a pictorial retrospective, Jane Fonda – it was just the ideal college job.
NELSON: Pretty amazing for a college kid, right?
SCHAFFER: It was great, and I dealt with all the PR agencies, so when I got out of college I said, well, you know, I know a lot of people out in the business now, but I think what happened is they run very tight shops so I couldn’t get a job and I wanted to have one in LA when I got out.
NELSON: As a PR job?
SCHAFFER: I was looking for a PR job because I made the migration from… I did journalism but I realized that PR actually paid better at the time. Maybe it still does, I think. I realized I could combine the two. You do the writing of press materials but you also are dealing with the talent and you’re more on the inside which I enjoyed from a PR standpoint.
NELSON: Well, now that I know you had these professional interviewing experiences maybe we could turn the tables here.
SCHAFFER: I don’t know, I was all print, Steve.
NELSON: Okay, but you knew how to talk to people, you knew what the business was all about.
NELSON: Okay, so you’re still looking for this PR job. You finally got something somewhere.
SCHAFFER: Well, this is going to throw you – so I went to the East Coast and I started looking for PR jobs and a friend of mine, a screenwriter who was sort of my mentor – he wrote Summer of ’42…
NELSON: And his name?
SCHAFFER: Herman Rauscher.
NELSON: Okay – give him credit.
SCHAFFER: Yeah, absolutely. He’s a terrific guy, and he said, “You know, I know a guy who’s a film producer, maybe I can get you a job with him.” So I worked for a film producer for a year and it wasn’t what I was looking for initially but it paid the bills.
NELSON: In what kind of capacity? Were you getting coffee, or…?
SCHAFFER: It was a small operation, you did everything. It was commercial shoots and it was a 24/7 job – 7 days a week I’d work until 10:00 at night and I said, you know, this isn’t fun, it’s not glamorous, and so I left there and took a job, my first PR job, for a small firm, Salters and Roskin.
NELSON: And what year is this?
SCHAFFER: This would have been in 1978.
NELSON: Okay, just trying to keep a timeframe.
SCHAFFER: Actually, let me say ’77. I worked for Salters and Roskin for a year, and I worked – this is very interesting – they handled Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, major stars, Dolly Parton. Probably the lowest echelon account they had was Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus. I worked on Ringling Bros.
NELSON: As the new guy, right?
SCHAFFER: As the new guy. Every client there benefitted because they all had friends they wanted to get in the circus, so they’d offer Sinatra or Dolly Parton, you know, if you want 20 tickets to the circus we’ll get you there. But the thing I learned about the circus, which I think was a great way to start in PR – not a place you want to end out – was they had a perspective that is no publicity is bad publicity. I now have a very different perspective but at the time we would look to create controversy and noise and it didn’t matter, any controversy the circus got people would want to go see it. They’d have a unicorn and animal rights advocates would say, “Eh, it’s not a real unicorn, they fused a horn on this horse and it’s a cruel thing,” but people would want to come to see that. They had a textbook of PR and it basically was – some things they still do today – they do the animal walk, and they do it right now through the Lincoln Tunnel, they close it off, they do it early in the morning. The elephants come through and the whole barrage, they get media coverage on it every year. When elephants walk down the streets of New York you get attention. They did clown auditions and you can go to clown college in Sarasota, Florida; showgirl auditions, and you get a lot of people in town for that; and then my favorite was the manure give-a-way. People would drive in throughout the tri-state area to get this elephant manure, which we called pachyderm poo, and they would get bags of this. We’d give them instructions to let this ferment and don’t put it on your plants right away, but this will be great fertilizer, and we got tremendous numbers of people, hundreds of people would come in for this. So we also then had the talent and we had the individual acts that we did publicity for. It was a great learning experience and I did that for about a year, year and a half, and worked with a guy, John Kelly, who is in the cable industry now, works for USA Network, heads up their PR, and we worked together there. And then I heard about an opportunity at ABC to write press releases and I said, you know, I think I’ll take this because the circus was a nice place to start but not one I wanted to…
NELSON: Yeah, how much pachyderm poo can you give away?
SCHAFFER: Can you bag, exactly.
NELSON: But maybe there’s a lesson in that in terms of packaging, marketing, promoting, you put a name on something you can sell it, in this case give it away.
SCHAFFER: Well, it was the old entertainment joke, you know, about “What? And give up show business?” So I basically went to ABC and I went to the flagship station, WABC.
NELSON: In New York.
SCHAFFER: In New York, and I wrote the press releases there and they started giving me some press contacts and I worked for a woman who left after about six months and after she left I got promoted to her job and worked for a woman, Judy Torello, who became my boss at HBO. But the interesting thing about ABC, though we were the local affiliate we had a lot of talent that were known nationally. We had Spencer Christian, Storm Field, Joan Lunden at the time had just left to go to Good Morning, America. So we had a lot of people that we could sell stories on nationally. That was great, and I also learned there, shifting from the circus to ABC, we’d rather have no publicity than bad publicity and a lot of it was there was a lot of damage control, there were a lot of ratings stories, you know, CBS or NBC would plant stories that ABC’s ratings were down. So you were constantly on guard and trying to get good stories. We had national news stories; John Johnson, one of our anchors, was requested by a hijacker – you don’t hear about hijackings anymore, but back then when you did – and he was asked to be a negotiator in this hijacking. That was a national news story. We managed to generate an inordinate amount of publicity for a local station. After I was there about two years, my boss went to HBO, and interestingly I might have stayed at ABC if they had promoted because it was one of those things, but they said, “You know, we’re not sure if you’re ready yet and we’re going to bring somebody in,” and they brought somebody in…
NELSON: Over you.
SCHAFFER: Over me. I just didn’t respect them, I didn’t feel they were somebody I wanted to work for. My boss who had gone to HBO said, “You know what? Why don’t you come over, talk to us here. It’s owned by Time, Inc., very respected.” I’d actually been a big fan of HBO’s movies because they had tons of unexpurgated movies which you could watch in your home and it was great back then. She said, “Just come in for the interview.” So I went over there and it was like probably people coming to the internet ten, fifteen years ago. It was an exiting, young, dynamic company. There were no rules.
NELSON: What year again?
SCHAFFER: This was August of 1980. I joined right when Cinemax was launched, and it was the environment there was just so exciting, and they had me interview with several people – my boss and her boss and her boss’s boss – and they basically offered me the job and it was one of those things where I was saying, wow! I’m young, this is a big risk, you didn’t know if HBO was going to be around in two years. At that point the commercial networks were so dominant, you never saw them faltering. You just said, boy, they’re what television is. They’ve got 80% of the market. And Fox didn’t even exist back then. Fox didn’t come around for another five years.
NELSON: I know, you had those three networks and they were all over everything.
SCHAFFER: It was the three Goliaths and then PBS and then HBO. I think CNN was launched that same year, but there was not a lot of competition, but HBO was so small you just weren’t sure. But the cable industry was the industry that everybody was talking about, I guess the way they talked about the internet – this is the place that’s going to grow. Everybody had great expectations.
NELSON: So you didn’t feel… well, for one thing, I think you felt a little put out by the way ABC treated you, but you didn’t feel like I’m leaving this big time operation, I have a guaranteed future, who are these HBO guys? Because you were an HBO fan so maybe that really affected your…
SCHAFFER: I was an HBO fan and that helped, but the company had been around I think 8 years at that point, it had not been around a substantial period of time, so it was still quite new and I think it was in about six million homes then, which was a small part of the TV universe. I think we were in 1/12th of the TV homes, and that was one of the obstacles. When I first got there – I was used to at ABC calling up the press and giving stories…
NELSON: And they would respond to you – oh, ABC!
SCHAFFER: They’d respond! Now I’d call and they’d say, “HBO? I’ve heard of it, but you know, I’ve got to be honest with you, a lot of our readers don’t get HBO and I don’t think I could put a story in there. I think there might be a little backlash.” We would sort of say, “Well, let us tell you the overview of the company because I think what we’re doing is interesting.” We’re doing what up until that point no one had done; on television you’re getting comedy concerts, music concerts, no commercial interruptions, uncensored – you’re getting these movies and up until that point everybody was used to watching movies on TV with commercial breaks. Now when you watch a movie with commercial breaks it’s very hard; you just don’t want to do it. It’s very rare. It’s very hard to sit through. But back then we were selling the concept of HBO and getting into those markets. We knew the penetration of all the markets and we went to those markets where we had the largest penetration. At the time, TV Guide was the Goliath. They had, I think, a circulation of 18 million. TV Guide had 108 editions and we tried to get listed in each one of those editions and it was all based on our penetration in various markets. Once you got listed in TV Guide you had a much stronger sell with the press in that market. So we did a lot of educating of the press. I flew to Milwaukee, I flew to various markets to visit with TV editors and critics and just let them know who I was. We didn’t expect regular stories but we started to slowly get them, and we were very proud every time we got a piece. You’d run down the halls with a story – “I got a review!” It was exciting. Everybody was so appreciative of anything you did publicity-wise because, you know, the company hadn’t had that much attention up until that point.
NELSON: You mentioned that you would tend to do this in markets where you had good distribution.
NELSON: But then you had the challenge on the other side of getting that distribution. You said, what? 8 million homes – you’ve got a long way to go here.
SCHAFFER: Exactly, and that was obviously the sales and marketing team, the affiliate ops team. They were out there pushing, getting HBO that sort of attention. Our job was really more… it’s very hard to sell something when you’re really not available to people in a market. I mean, you can get that concept story but then to get regular coverage was tough. So I have to say from a PR standpoint, we were great at getting the HBO story out there, but the individual stories we did a little more gradually and there were certain critics. I can tell you, Jack Carmody of the Washington Post, tough as nails. He became a friend later on, years later, but one of the rudest, curtest people. When you’d call him, you almost dreaded calling him.
NELSON: “What do you want?”
SCHAFFER: Exactly. He’s a real softie, you realize later on, but you remember those critics who early on embraced HBO and then those who you had to win over.
NELSON: Who were the ones that did embrace it, since they seemed to be in the minority?
SCHAFFER: Well, it’s true, they were. A guy who’s actually just retiring this month, Mike Duffy, from the Detroit Free Press, Detroit News – he was one of the early advocates. Lee Winfrey, who’s now deceased, from the Philadelphia Enquirer, he was a big advocate. Ed Bark, Ann Hodges – two from Texas. Ann’s now retired, Ed has a blog. They came on board. The ones who we had to win over – Mike Drew from Milwaukee Journal, I had a lunch with him up there in Milwaukee and after that he started wanting to write more about us. We started mailing our tapes out, the VHS tapes, and back then it was even ¾ inch tapes.
NELSON: Now these critics, I guess they had their ¾ inch machine and they looked at it?
SCHAFFER: Exactly, that’s just what we’d do, and back then it was maybe a mailing of 50 tapes, not a lot. Now our mailings are upwards of 400 DVDs for reviews because we’ve expanded them greatly.
NELSON: Did the VCR help you there because these guys are busy and they get a lot of tapes, the ¾ inch machine is in the office, but then when you can send them a VHS tape they can take it home.
SCHAFFER: They can watch it at home. Yeah, it made a big difference. We had all the stories, “Wow, the VCR’s going to be a threat to HBO,” in terms of people are going to want to rent VHS tapes. Ultimately it turned out to be one of the best things for us. People were time shifting in their viewing; the critics, as you mentioned, could take these home, the machines they could have one at work, one at home, and it was a much easier operation. The ¾ inch machine you put it in and it makes all this loud noise and you don’t know what’s going on and finally the picture comes on. VHS was much quicker. And so that, I think, helped us a lot in terms of once we could get our product there and let them see it. And we had some great stuff. You’d want to see some of the great comedians we had early on because comedy, we owned that franchise. There was a huge comedy boom and getting people – Rodney Dangerfield and Jerry Seinfeld and all of these comics, particularly Seinfeld and Gilbert Gottfried and people like that, no one knew who they really were and we gave them that national audience. I think in one HBO viewing they got more attention then they would doing clubs throughout a whole year. The same with music – we used to do a ton of music, and this is sort of before MTV but we used to have two music concerts a month, and it really wasn’t until 1982-’83 we moved into original series with Not Necessarily the News, and then The Terry Fox Story, our first original movie for cable.
NELSON: And this was at least in part in response to the threat side of VCRs because you had to give them something they couldn’t see anywhere else.
SCHAFFER: Exactly, and I think, I will say that Michael Fuchs was very prescient back then because he basically realized that people were doubting at the time, “You’re going to get into series programming? That’s what the networks do. You’re going to do movies? Well, the networks do movies of the week.” But he realized you know what? We can do things that maybe they can’t do. Not Necessarily the News was a very funny, sort of Saturday Night Live like show, but they could spoof anybody. There’s nobody who’s going to be calling in saying, boy, you can’t do that. And The Terry Fox Story, what that really did for us, it brought Robert Duvall to that film – one of the great American actors – and he did that. And our second movie after that was Between Friends with Elizabeth Taylor and Carol Burnett. So we had these major stars coming to HBO and that over time started to build. You started to get a few and the agents in Hollywood say, “Oh, maybe my client ought to consider this project.” These films were produced with very low budgets but you would get talent attracted to doing these films because they had a passion for the subject matter, and because they had a passion they were willing to do press. They got paid miniscule amounts, I know, but they realized, “You know what? I’ve got pet projects I want to do,” and we were able to get them out there. We would bring them to film festivals, we would do interviews with them, and we started to realize, boy, we can compete. We’re not getting the space the networks do, but we’re making some headway.
NELSON: That must have been a bonanza for you to suddenly have Robert Duvall or Elizabeth Taylor to go out to these critics with because that would get their attention.
SCHAFFER: Exactly, because even those who maybe were on the fence, that pushed it over. Robert Duvall is going to be of interest because he’s got an HBO project but you can talk to him about other aspects of his career. But he was somebody the readers would want to read about, and the same with the other talent that followed, and I think that for us became the calling card. We started building up with each film and then the other series that followed, sort of building up a library of very good series and films. And we became known… before we had the reputation for series we were known for pioneering these original movies and did some of the most critically acclaimed movies from Barbarians at the Gate to McMartin to many others. So we’ve had a very good track record there, and though we don’t do as many as we used to because series is now the focus, you know each of these areas served a purpose for us during our history.
NELSON: But those films did become a signature in that they set that tone for the creative community that HBO is a place you want to work. It’s not really, as you’re saying, they’re not getting paid much relative to some theatrical…
SCHAFFER: Exactly. We became the hot place now, and you wanted to have a project with HBO on your resume, and I think that’s what started getting the agents and managers in Hollywood to say, “You know something? We ought to think about this.” I think we were really the first obviously cable network to be doing this and it sort of set the pace down the road. I think the biggest thing for us was the move to original programming, which though to this day only represents 30% of our schedule. It defines the personality of the network and it’s what people talk about. It’s the water cooler talk. Theatricals are still the train that drives this, that’s 70%, but I think original programming has been the thing. The value for HBO is off the charts.
NELSON: That may be the locomotive and you’ve got all this other 70% behind it.
SCHAFFER: Exactly, and not to give short shrift to the other shows that actually carried the ball early on – documentaries and sports programming, which still are an essential part of the network. We won a Peabody Award in 1982 for She’s Nobody’s Baby with Marlo Thomas, in ’82. The Peabody’s one of the most prestigious awards; that was a milestone for us.
NELSON: That made people look up. HBO?
SCHAFFER: They said HBO winning the Peabody? We didn’t know they had original programming. So our documentaries… and the documentaries won an Oscar in the ’80s for Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam. To win an Oscar was unprecedented. So documentaries and sports… we own the sport of boxing and we’ve had that for a substantial time, but we did great sports documentaries, we’ve had shows be it early on Inside the NFL to Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, Bob Costas now, our sports for when you look at all the other sports networks, we get a lot of attention for spending a lot less than what the other networks do. I’d say boxing is the only sport we pretty much own. We’ll do a documentary of the NFL or NBA, we’ve managed to create a lot of noise and win a lot of Emmy Awards.
NELSON: But you’re showing the boxing match, not just the show about the boxing match.
SCHAFFER: We’re showing it exactly, we’re going into the corners, no breaks for commercials and we have been doing that… the networks were in it early on and then I think really after Howard Cosell came down on the networks after one fight that he felt should have been called the networks pulled back and we’ve just moved ahead, and I think that allowed us to pretty much own that sport in terms of the attention we get.
NELSON: From a PR standpoint, just going back to that talent thing we were talking about, when you started getting Robert Duvall, Elizabeth Taylor, I assume from a PR standpoint you must have been in the face of Variety and Hollywood Reporter at that point?
SCHAFFER: Yes, we did get some attention from them and we started learning that when you get the big stars you’ve got to go through all the special treatment. They may not have gotten paid enough but you’ve got to make sure you’ve got the budget for all the limousines and the airfare and the hair and makeup and so forth. So we got a little taste of it early on, which obviously later on the talent now when they come to us we treat them just as they’re treated at the major motion picture studios and so forth, but early on we were feeling our way. Can we okay this? We’ve got this sort of budget and how much can we ask them to do? We were feeling our way because we didn’t want to push our luck.
NELSON: Well, give me an example maybe of where somebody made a demand that you kind of went back to management and said, “Gee, she wants this.”
SCHAFFER: Well, without citing anybody’s name in particular, because I think what they were probably asking was reasonable by their standards…
NELSON: Certainly what they were used to.
SCHAFFER: Exactly, and they’re saying, “Okay, if I didn’t get the paycheck, I should have maybe gotten a little more here.” I think later on the biggest one for us was when we did If These Walls Could Talk, and we were dealing with Demi Moore, Cher and Sissy Spacek, and they were all three major Hollywood stars and that’s when we realized how much hair, makeup, stylists and all can be. But what they were asking I don’t think was outrageous based on what they were used to from the studios.
NELSON: But when they came to you and said I need such and such, you’re kind of going…
SCHAFFER: That was one where we all had to say… we had to sort of call around the studios just to check what the norms were. We didn’t know. And that was the one I remember the most because it was the biggest, it was the biggest leap. Early on it was less so. Early on was just more working with talent that… periodically you’d work with a star that wouldn’t do much press for you and we would tell our programmers, you know what? If you’re going to do another project, if press is important don’t hire this actor because he didn’t want to do it.
NELSON: So you’re actually getting involved back into the casting process because this is important to you – by you I mean HBO…
SCHAFFER: We would say, “Listen, this actor didn’t do much press at all for this project. We just want you to know, if you’re thinking of hiring him again, we can’t tell you who to hire for a role but you may want to put that into consideration,” because if you’re doing a movie and you can’t get publicity and noise for it people aren’t going to watch it. So that was another aspect. Now again, I don’t want to mention names because many of these people are still in the business.
NELSON: They may do another project for you, or not.
SCHAFFER: Exactly. It’s interesting, some of the biggest stars – we dealt with Kurt Douglas early on – did a ton of press for us. Some of the biggest stars did more than you would ever expect and it was the next level down where they were a little more cautious.
NELSON: Get a little more demanding and looking to be treated like they’re A-list when they’re just B+-list or something?
SCHAFFER: Exactly, and there still was at the time – and there’s less so today – it was considered at the time by many agents in Hollywood, TV was like a pariah. If you’re a movie star, you don’t do TV.
NELSON: Oh, yeah, that was very big at that stage, yeah. That could ruin your career, right?
SCHAFFER: It could ruin your career. Why would you do TV? You’re not going to be able to go back to movies. So that was a consideration that I think agents in Hollywood looked at, and we obviously had to overcome that and I think today if you look at the roster of talent that has been on cable, I think there are very few Hollywood stars that haven’t done something on cable television. I’d even have to look to see, but I can’t even think who it would be.
NELSON: And they probably would be foolish not to.
SCHAFFER: Now I think you’d be foolish, but people forget that back then there was this division. We get a little bit of it today. Sometimes we’ll do a movie with a star and the agent or manager will say, well, this star has a movie coming out in six months. It’s a theatrical movie, we don’t know if we want her to do too much press now for this TV show versus the theatrical movie. So they’ve saved up, and so that sometimes catches you off-guard, and again, the talent are getting advised by their own publicists, their agents, their managers, and then we’re making a request. So there’s lots of people trying to say why it’s to your advantage to do it and we’re always trying to get them to do as much as possible or understand what they’re not willing to do and what they are willing to do. There are certain stars who understandably don’t want to do an interview in People magazine because People magazine hurt them years ago. There are other stars who don’t want to do electronic press; they’re not comfortable with that. There are others who might do the voice-over for a documentary that you’re doing. Recently on the Iraq war we did a documentary on Iraq and James Gandolfini was the moderator and he said… you know, Chris Matthews wanted him and a lot of the shows in D.C. wanted him on-air and he said, you know, I’m not an expert on Iraq. I just feel for the men and women who are sent there and I’ve done this documentary for them but I don’t want to be asked questions about all the statistics and so forth. That’s not what I’m comfortable with. So you need to find out in advance what your talent are comfortable doing and don’t put them in a situation where things could backfire.
NELSON: Yeah, and in Gandolfini’s case he could also get in the way because of his visual persona so soon after The Sopranos. It’s kind of hard to get around.
SCHAFFER: Exactly, it’s true. It was an interesting case with him because after Sopranos whatever thing he was going to do next he was going to be looked at very discerningly and I think people… by doing a documentary like this, so different than Sopranos – if he’d done another series, another movie, people would have compared the two. They actually put that aside. It was a very smart career move and what he did, for the first time in his career he did electronic press. He did it with the group but he never did electronic press up until that point, until the final season of Sopranos he did one electronic interview, but he was never comfortable doing that. He sat down with the men and women, the veterans who’d come back, and did interviews with Brian Williams, NBC Nightly News, because he was so passionate about the issue, about the people that served, and I think he also was reluctant at first… when he was approached by Sheila Nevins to do this documentary he said, “I know you want me for my celebrity but I think that’s a distraction,” and Sheila Nevins said to him, “No, let me tell you, it’s just the opposite. People will watch this because you’re associated with it and we’re going to give on-camera the men and women who are interviewed are going to get all the attention.” In fact, most of it was shot with the back of his head. You see a few shots of him but it was all the story of the men and women, and he then was comfortable with that. It turned out to be a terrific documentary. He’s an example of somebody who you really had to understand what he’s willing to do and what he wasn’t willing to do, and we knew very much in Sopranos, but it was a pleasant surprise for the documentary because he did as much for that documentary as he did probably the last four years for Sopranos, I’d say.
NELSON: Well, we’ll come back to The Sopranos because you can’t talk HBO without it, but I just want to follow up. You talked about maybe casting certain talent that would work with you more closely, but I imagine after awhile you started getting projects where it wasn’t a matter of you casting the talent as talent coming to you and saying, “I have this project and I’d like to work with you guys on it.”
SCHAFFER: Yes, that’s the ideal.
NELSON: Is that how Band of Brothers came about?
SCHAFFER: Band of Brothers was Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg saying we’ve purchased Stephen Ambrose’s book, and Stephen Ambrose was the hottest selling non-fiction writer at that point for several years running. And they said we feel, HBO, you’re the only place that could make this. We had a relationship with Tom Hanks from a previous mini-series From the Earth to the Moon on the space program. So that experience went so well his first choice was HBO with this, and there was some talk that ABC was interested when they heard about the project but they said, you know what? Only HBO could do it. And we went ahead with it; it was about 120 million dollar budget, but Hanks was so determined that HBO was the only place to do this that he convinced Spielberg, they had meetings, and then the project became the highlights of my time at HBO, which I could give you a whole reason why or story why if you’d like.
NELSON: Well, get into that a little bit because that’s one of the things we want to capture from your career is what some of the highlights were. Apparently this was a major event, a big turning point.
SCHAFFER: This would be, I would say, probably the number one, and the reason is once we did the project and we knew Hanks and Spielberg were supporting this and Hanks was going to do some press but also just enough to get this attention, showing up at press conferences, showing up at screenings – what we did that was so novel was we said how do you take a show like this and get it international attention, not just national attention, and we said, you know what, the best thing to do is do a screening on the beaches of Normandy. So we went to Normandy and we met with the mayors of the three cities, three little towns, and two of them only spoke French and so we had a translator there, and the other spoke French and English but only would speak French in our meeting because that was his town and he wasn’t going to speak English to us. So we met with them on this rainy little drizzly day, it was freezing cold up there – Utah Beach, Normandy Beach – and they said, well, it’s possible you could do it but you’re going to have to bring everything in. There are not theaters up, you’re going to have to tent this on the beach. And so we said, well, okay, we’re interested in doing it, and we then looked at the cost and it was expensive to do but we realized we just spent 120 million dollars on this production. We went to American Airlines and said would you like to be a partner to help travel people over there? Because what we want to do is we’re traveling all the talent in there – we’ve got Tom Hanks, Spielberg – but we also want to bring the families of the men who this movie is about and many of them, fortunately, were still alive at that point. We brought in the men who served, their children, and their children’s children, and we put them all on a plane, we brought them to Paris…
NELSON: Did one planeload do it?
SCHAFFER: I think it took two. We brought them to Paris because many of them were 70s, 80s, and I’ll tell you, there were two of them who had heart conditions – we had a doctor on board – and they were determined to go because some of them had not been back to Normandy since the war, 50 years, and for them to go to that beach – I get touched when I talk about this – with their kids and grandkids and say this is where it all happened and then to watch the movie that brought it to life… many of their grandkids had no idea what really happened, and they were such heroes. We brought them into Paris, we let them rest for two days, we had them tour the town, and then we rented a whole train and the train took them on a four hour trip up to Normandy and while we were there on the train Tom Hanks did press interviews, all the men did interviews, the actors did interviews, Stephen Ambrose did interviews. We got a tremendous amount of press. When the train arrived in Normandy, all the young kids – these are French kids who were 6, 7, 8 years old – were standing out there with American flags. It was like we’d just landed…
NELSON: And liberated the beach.
SCHAFFER: Liberated Normandy. It was the most touching thing, and Stephen Ambrose who was a real tough old hard-as-nails guy was teary eyed, he was wiping tears from his eyes. We then had the fighter jets flying over, we had a ceremony with the flags and we screened two hours from the production and there was not a dry eye in the house. It was one of the most amazing things for 1,200 people, we got 1,200 people up there, and it would be hard to ever… we got more letters after that from families saying I can’t tell you how wonderful it was for you to do this and to bring my father back here, and we kept in touch with many of those families since. A number of them have died over the years. The number that die every year is startling and there are not a lot who are still around. But it was one of those moments that you could never, I don’t think you could ever top that and you just felt so proud about being part of HBO. Then what happened – we did this in June because originally we were going to air Band of Brothers June 6th, which was D-Day, and then for production reasons and we wanted to do a press tour, they decide to move it to September – so we did this in June three months before it aired, but we got a tremendous amount of publicity for this. The other thing I did, which I actually thought was rather fun, I called Ann Roosevelt, Susan Eisenhower and Winston Churchill the Third, or Winston Churchill, Jr. – I said, “We’re doing the screening; we’d love to have you come.” And they all came and they did press. So I had Eisenhower, Churchill and Roosevelt there. And I have a funny story, Steve, because on my expense report I had breakfast with the three of them one morning and I had to, when I came back, put on my expense report ‘breakfast with Churchill, Eisenhower and Roosevelt’ and I said, “Let’s see if this gets through the expense department, which it did. They had a great time, and in fact we had them doing interviews on the beach of Normandy. Poor Susan Eisenhower – the one thing we probably didn’t have was enough suntan lotion because the sun reflecting off the water…
NELSON: In June, the direct sun.
SCHAFFER: Exactly. She got real sunburned on one side of her face and when we came back I sent her a box of suntan lotion, actually, but they had a tremendous time and they did a lot of interviews as well. So that was all in June. Band of Brothers aired in September on HBO, September 2001, right after 9/11. Everybody was so distracted by 9/11, we weren’t sure what sort of attention we were going to get. People embraced this movie because this was about heroes and I think people were looking for something at that time and it was put on the cover of TV Guide two weeks after 9/11 because although it had already premiered, TV Guide said, wow, it’s getting incredible ratings and this is a show that everybody is talking about. So it was an interesting time period going from June, one of the highest points, to September, one of the lowest points, and yet this film was able to resonate and went on to become the biggest seller in DVDs afterwards. I think people give these as gifts every Christmas to their parents, fathers, and so forth. So that, Steve, easily would be…
NELSON: Well, that would top almost any PR guy’s story.
SCHAFFER: That was a dream.
NELSON: I mean you don’t want to call this good luck, but the fact that you were on right after 9/11 which is we’re under attack, and here’s a story of fighting the aggressor.
SCHAFFER: Exactly, and I’ll tell you, I know the timing – if you remember after 9/11, where I lived in Connecticut, every house put their American flag out. Every street had the American flag out. It brought everybody in the country together. It was as patriotic a time as I’d ever seen and it was just amazing. So I think it was the perfect antidote for people during that time to say, you know what? We’ve been through bad times before and people rise to the occasion. Here’s a perfect example of that.
NELSON: But when you had the idea, going back to the idea for this screening, and this is obviously going into it, I think it got bigger and bigger as you went into it…
SCHAFFER: Oh, it did!
NELSON: You started bringing the Eisenhowers and the Roosevelts, but you knew from the beginning that this was going to be not your average, everyday program publicity effort. This is a big thing.
SCHAFFER: We did.
NELSON: But how did it? You had to go to somebody and say, “Here’s what we’re thinking of doing, here’s what we think it’s going to cost.” How did people react to that?
SCHAFFER: Well, I’ll tell you, it’s an interesting thing. Stephen Ambrose was intrigued. He didn’t think we could pull it off. He said, “How are you going to do that?” Hanks and Spielberg were fine. They said, “Boy, if you can do it, great! We just don’t want to be embarrassed but if you think you can get attention up there and bring press up there…” The interesting thing was Dick Winters – now he was the hero of Band of Brothers – he lives in a small farming community in Pennsylvania and his men in the 101st basically said, “Well, he’s the guy. You’ve got to sell him on this.” And we drove down there – it was, boy, like a five hour drive – one day, we met with Dick, and his wife at a restaurant, and we went through exactly what we wanted to do, and I remember he said afterward, “No, I don’t feel I can do this. It’s jeopardizing the men. You know, they’ve got a lot of health conditions,” and he pulled out a piece of paper which he handed us and it was all of the men. Basically he had been keeping in touch with them over the years, every one of them and all of their medical conditions – diabetes, heart condition, etc. – and he said, “You want to take this on, you want to risk this with these guys, I’m just not comfortable.” So we had a moment of conscience where you’re saying, wow, is this just a publicity stunt we’re doing, or are we doing this because we think this is really a valuable thing? So we started talking to some of the men who had worked under him and we said, “Listen, we just want to find out, are you guys amenable?” Every single one of them, when they heard this they said, “I’m going. If I have to die there that would be the greatest thing. I want to get over there.” We then ultimately convinced Dick, we’re going to do this, we’d love to have you on board, and he ultimately did come around. But I think as the commander of these guys he was looking after them and he didn’t want to put them through anything.
SCHAFFER: As I said, we had two doctors with us and we had one guy who did have a heart ailment over in Paris but turned out to be fine. I don’t know if he ended up making the screening, but the fact that he came over there with his family was enough. So there were a lot of issues that we dealt with and we were going back and forth saying “Is this the right thing? Are biting off more than we can chew?”
NELSON: Internally you’re telling people, we’re going to take these old guys over there and they have all these medical problems and they might die en route, what are people internally saying? “Wait a minute. Quentin, you’re getting a little carried away here.”
SCHAFFER: We had a lot of discussions about it, Steve. It’s funny, one day you’d feel more one way and the other day you were more the other, and also it was huge – you’re doing this in a foreign country, the resources… I had to send staff over there four months early, three or four months early. Two guys had to be there setting this up because nothing was there. We had to bring everything in, all the technical equipment. This was very remote, and for those who go up there now, you’d say where could they have done this? Well, we did it at the beach, at Utah Beach. There’s nothing there, basically. Omaha Beach is the one most people go to because Omaha’s got all the tombstones and that’s the one that probably gets the most attention. Utah Beach is just as it was 50 years ago. There’s minimal monuments, it’s exactly… you could feel the invasion coming on a misty cloudy day. It’s why that was the site that we picked. It was one that, you know what, we went back and forth and it was the best decision we ever made doing it there. And then we did other things after that where we were ambitious. We screened Stalin with Robert Duvall. We screened this in Moscow during the period of Perestroika. It wasn’t a flattering portrait, not that there could be of Stalin, but this is a movie of a tyrant and we got all the permissions and we went over there. It was an interesting time because the country was in flux, but we got a lot of publicity for that. But I think that sort of said to us after Band of Brothers, we can go outside the country and we can do this with other things if it makes sense.
NELSON: I can see how the Normandy thing – because that resonates so much with so many people here in terms of the publicity. What benefit to you is there to get publicity in Moscow?
SCHAFFER: We knew for Stalin we were going to get the entertainment TV press. For virtually most of what we can do now we always know we can get that. Our discussions are always about off the TV pages. How do we get off the TV pages and what press would be interested in our projects? For Stalin we said, you know what? The best press, beyond historians, are going to be those international journalists who are in the Moscow bureau, the New York Times, the LA Times, the Boston Globe. If we come there and this is significant, and we had partners, former members of the Russian government who were advising us, we think we can make noise – you’re bringing Robert Duvall there and you’re showing Stalin in Moscow? And it worked. Every outlet there covered this. We got a tremendous amount of international attention which resonated domestically because these were all the syndicated and major news outlets.
NELSON: So that would wind up back in the New York Times and etc.
SCHAFFER: Wind up back here, exactly. So it was one of those things that was much less expensive than Band of Brothers because in Moscow you do have theaters set up and we had consultants over there that helped us with it, but it was a goldmine for us publicity-wise. And Robert Duvall was great. He did every outlet we asked him to do, whereas when he first came to us with The Terry Fox Story, we asked him selectively because we just didn’t know how much to push, and here he was back home again.
NELSON: By this point you kind of had your PR chops down in that you had much more confidence in how you could work with the talent, whereas what you’re saying with the Terry Fox thing is that, well, can we ask him if he’d do this interview?
SCHAFFER: Absolutely. We had so much more confidence that in the case of Robert Duvall, I played a little joke with him which I actually still have. I did a fake newspaper article about Stalin, the project, and I had one of my colleagues who knew Duvall, I actually had him misquoted throughout the whole article saying “Robert Duvall as Stalin? I thought he would have made a better Lenin,” and it was all these inappropriate things. So I had Duvall get this article and pretend he was furious, and he’s a great actor so it wasn’t a stretch, and taking it out on my colleague and it was absolutely hysterical. So we had fun with him. We took him and did Good Morning, America one morning there and in fact I have a picture in my office still of Robert Duvall, myself, and my colleague. There’s a clock in the background – it’s snowing outside – and the clock was significant because my daughter was born while I was over there, from my first marriage. That marriage didn’t last, of course, that was a bad move to make. I tried to get back.
NELSON: Bad PR at home, right.
SCHAFFER: But then Robert Duvall’s stepdaughter was there – I kind of couldn’t focus – she booked all my travel there and I couldn’t get out of there for like 36 hours because the flights weren’t that regular. So that night I had to do a dinner with… Jeff Bewkes was there, Michael Fuchs was there, Richard Plepler, and we met with a lot of the Soviet generals and diplomats, and the word by that point had gotten around that this PR guy, his guy gave birth yesterday in the States and they were all, “Oh, you poor guy,” and they were very sympathetic, and I sat at dinner next to a Russian colonel and he said, “You know, I was in Afghanistan when my child was born and I didn’t see him for four months, so don’t feel so bad,” and it was this universal you made a mistake, you shouldn’t have been here, and my boss even said to me before going on the trip, “Are you sure?” I said, “Richard, it’s my first kid. They’re always late.” My child came a month early, so it was an experience that was memorable, in not always the best of ways.
NELSON: Yeah, you lost that bet on the timing.
SCHAFFER: I lost that bet.
NELSON: Which seemed like a good bet at the time.
NELSON: So, yeah, I was going to ask – maybe that’s it – I was going to ask you because you’ve obviously had some spectacular PR successes, and PR’s one of those things where, as we all know, having done it myself, things can go wrong, right?
SCHAFFER: Oh, yes.
NELSON: Can you give us an anecdote where something went wrong? I don’t want to embarrass you, but…
SCHAFFER: Oh, no! I can give you… Obviously there are lots of anecdotes were things went wrong. I’ll give you an anecdote I think that was one… the one that strikes me that is intriguing and I think a good lesson is we did two concerts with Michael Jackson, the first one in Romania which I went over for, which actually was incredibly memorable, and the second one we did in New York at the Beacon Theater several years after that. And what happened is Michael Jackson collapsed during rehearsals and all of the sudden we started getting all sorts of negative attention. This was two days before the HBO concert and everybody was concerned – “What’s going on? What’s going to happen with the concert?” and so forth. So we had an emergency meeting with Michael Jackson’s managers, Jim Moore and Sandy Gallon, and his PR guy, Lee Salters, veteran PR guy. We all met in a little trailer by the Beacon Theater and they all said, “Well, you know what we have to do. We have to get out there and we have to tell all the press,” and there were 150 press gathered around outside the Beacon Theater, cameras, photographers, Michael Jackson was…
NELSON: Oh – huge!
SCHAFFER: Huge! So they said, “This is what we need to do. We have to say the concert’s cancelled, this is his condition; he’s going to be okay. This is what the doctor said. And then HBO, you can mention what you’re going to put in its place.” And I said, “You know what, makes sense to me.” And then they turned to me and said, “And you’ll be the spokesperson.” And I said, “Me the spokesperson? For Michael Jackson, out there? But they’re going to ask a lot of questions.” They said, “No, no, the reason we want you as the spokesperson,” this was a lesson in controlling the dialogue, “is they know they can’t ask you about his marriage to Lisa Marie, what was happening about any of the children and parents who have complained about visits to Neverland, all of his personal issues. You’re just the HBO guy, you don’t know anything.” I said, “Well, thanks!” They said, “All you can do is say from the network we’re concerned about his health but the doctor says he’s going to be okay, and this is what we’re putting in its place, and maybe the show will be rescheduled, we don’t know yet.” And that’s what happened. And that was sort of like the 15 minutes of fame I guess I got. I was in every local and international newscast. That was a crisis of huge proportions. We’ve had other things where you’ll have a film reel breaking in the middle of a production, you know, which we actually now always have two projectors running at all of our events, and that was one where people were kept waiting for a substantial period of time, probably two hours, I think, because they kept thinking it was going to get fixed in time. It was a movie we did, Don King.
NELSON: So it’s like, be patient…
SCHAFFER: Be patient, we think it’s going to end. We’ve got the producer up there trying to entertain them, and Jeff Bewkes went up on stage an entertained them – this was way back.
NELSON: You should have rolled tape on that. We could have had a new live standup show here.
SCHAFFER: Oh, exactly, and some nights it’s just talent getting waylaid for press conferences. We did a satellite press conference and there was a hurricane that was hitting Virginia. Sissy Spacek was going to do an interview. You know, there are certain things out of your control, but luckily we had other talent to cover there. There’s never been anything that was a total washout, disaster-wise. A lot of it’s just crises that you have to try to resolve and you build up… I sort of look at PR like the law profession. You build up case studies, case histories, and you really over time say what did we do on that one way back there and what happened there, and you also see what other people do. I read every morning, when I read the newspapers and the press I like to read what other people are saying about problems and issues. The New York Post today has a story on NBC laying off employees and they’re talking about specific names of employees that hasn’t happened yet, but The Post reporters…
NELSON: The Oxygen people? I haven’t seen that story but…
SCHAFFER: This is on MSNBC from their news divisions, and so I just want to see what the PR spokesperson said, and they talked about this has been an evolving process, this is something we’ve looked at in the past, we’re looking at it now, we’ll look at it in the future,” but I’m always curious to know how people handle it and then what’s the feedback on how they handled it the next day or the day after that because you know, we’ve always been very smart about this. We never give a flat “no comment”. I think a no comment, if you’re looking at the law profession, it’s like saying I plead the 5th Amendment. Pleading the 5th never sounds good – “no comment” never sounds good. Sometimes our legal department will say, “You know something, if you don’t want to jeopardize the case, you can say it’s without merit, and in certain instances we will do that, but we really like to try to either on background or at least give some sort of statement so that you don’t look like you’re in a very indefensible position, and I think it’s served us well because there’s always something you can say and I’m still startled today when I see the no comments on situations where you say, gosh, haven’t they gathered together in the room to come up with something a little better than that. Obviously there are instances where things are so sensitive, but we’ve found that in time it serves you best with the press, it’s best to get your statement out and we’ve spent a lot of time building relationships with the press. We get together with them all the time for backgrounders and overview stories, and we try to be very upfront and transparent about what we’re doing to the point where we’ll talk about things that maybe didn’t work and things that could have been better, and things that we’re proud of. We’re not always, yes, everything we do is golden.
NELSON: “This is the greatest series we’ve ever done.”
SCHAFFER: Exactly. So we’ve been very careful when we have crises in terms of handling it in a way that based on case histories and based on any repercussions down the road makes us look the best given the circumstances.
NELSON: Well, as people who know PR, and I may have mentioned I’ve been involved with it myself, that staying ahead of the story and being transparent, if you have to take your hit now, take it now, is something that is widely known and yet widely not practiced by people who should know better.
SCHAFFER: So true, and the most important period is that first day, those first few hours when you first learn about a crisis and it’s those first few hours because nowadays… It used to be, when I first came to HBO in 1980, if you had bad news or there was something you didn’t… you had to announce something being cancelled, you’d say, “You know what? Let’s announce it on a Friday. It’ll appear in the weekend newspapers and somehow may not even get to Monday.” Nowadays because of the internet, you have a microsecond to respond. Things travel so quickly, and as the Mark Twain statement goes, “A lie is halfway around the world before the truth’s put on its boots,” that for us has been one of the lessons. Those first three hours, even if it’s a local paper that first says, you know, I’ve heard that on the set this happened, such and such and such and such, you want to respond because in those first three hours you can try to correct that story but if you don’t get to them quick enough they go on the internet, somebody picks it up and then you’ve got an AP story out there, and then the AP story goes to more internet coverage and then you’ve got your electronic outlets starting to report it. It takes on a life, and it is so hard, once you get a negative story out there it doesn’t matter how good you are, it is very difficult to bring it back to where it was. You can minimize the impact, but once the negative’s out there, it sits in the back of their heads. So we know that you’ve got a very short period of time to fix things and you’ve got to get everybody together on the same page, all the various areas that may have some interest in this and it could be if it’s something involving talent, when we work with talent, if the talent has a personal issue we will give them our guidance but we basically say you need to hire Stan Rosenfeld in LA, you need to hire an expert who deals with this all the time because you’re dealing with news outlets and gossip columnists who we don’t generally deal with. We stay away from that. We don’t deal with the Gawkers. The thing about Gawker, if you responded to every rumor they put in and then you don’t respond to something that they put in that’s maybe true, then they’re going to say, well, unless HBO responds we’re going to know it’s got to all be true because they usually respond if it’s not true, and we just don’t play the game. We just leave it out there. But we’ve tried to be careful with the talent. It could be anything from… with Halle Barry, there was an auto accident when we had done Dorothy Dandridge and we said, listen, you’ve got to get advice from Stan and he guided her through it. She did the mea culpa. It’s coming clean, saying not everybody’s perfect. I think what happens when you don’t do that, and I always go back to Richard Nixon, the more you try to cover up and conceal the more that becomes the story. If you’re dishonest with the press or if you try to cover things up it’s going to come back and haunt you. So we always try to be as upfront as we can but never misleading or giving wrong information. So that’s been one of our, I’d say central themes when it comes to the gossip scene.
NELSON: Now one of the things you do have to contend with in the press, and this is a problem of your own making, and that is that HBO has often set such a high standard in terms of what you put out there on the air. There have been many, many, many groundbreaking things that you’ve done. So as soon as somebody in the press – because I see this stuff too – as soon as somebody perceives that, oh, well, this series or this film didn’t quite… they’re really all over you about that.
SCHAFFER: They are.
NELSON: How do you deal with that because you don’t want to be put in a defensive position?
SCHAFFER: You’re right, and I’ll give you a perfect example. We had a fairly small movie called The Deal. This was made in 2003; we acquired it, we didn’t make it. It’s about – interesting! – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the whole relationship there. We said, you know what, it’s a good movie, it was never shown in the States, you recently had Frost Nixon on Broadway that Michael Sheehan was in and there’s an interest in him, and we said, “It’s kind of timely. Let’s buy it and put it on.” So we put it on and we sent it out selectively, a selective mailing. Well, the New York Times got it, Alessandra Stanley, who is a friend, and she did a review that basically said, well, this is a bad indication of where HBO’s programming is headed and I don’t understand why they would do something like this. I said to Alessandra, “Why would you write this? You know this is a movie we picked up, we didn’t even make it! A lot of people were interested in this, why would you do this?” And she said to me, she said “I hold you to a higher standard than everybody else.” There was a certain unfairness to this because yes, we’ve set the bar high, but I also felt it was unfair in that this wasn’t an indication, this was just we have a lot of different programming and the programming doesn’t have to appeal to everybody. There’s a certain niche that this is going to appeal to, and as indicated by the rating, a very small rating, but that’s what we expected. Our documentaries appeal to a niche, our sports programming or series programming. Even Sopranos – a lot of people don’t know this, Steve – we have 30 million subscribers. Do you know how many people never watched Sopranos of that?
NELSON: I’ll say half.
SCHAFFER: Two-thirds of the audience.
NELSON: Has never watched it?
SCHAFFER: Never watched it, despite all the press. Sopranos would average per episode about ten million people, so 20 million never watched it, and what we had to do was appeal to them with other things. A lot of them loved our theatrical lineup, some loved Curb Your Enthusiasm, or Rome, or those other series that we do. Some loved our documentaries. So for us, you couldn’t just say one program defines the direction HBO’s going to go in. We’ll take risks – John from Cincinnati, we took a risk with that, it didn’t fully work and yet it got an audience. We were getting four to six million, four million for the premiere and building upwards to five, six, but critically it took a bit of a beating. But you know what? Would we take the risk again with David Milch doing it? And interesting, surfing… there are not too many surfing dramas that you can think about, it’s hard to find new milieus, but we’d do it. As long as we do something… if we take a risk we want it to be something smart. It’ll be risks that if it doesn’t work out you’ll say, yeah, but you know what, we’d do it again because it was different. We’re usually not going to do something, we don’t try to pander, say, well, let’s try to create something that’ll get the whole audience out there. The critics may kill it but let’s do something sensational. We don’t do that sort of thing.
NELSON: Well, that’s the rating’s game, appeal to the lowest common denominator to get the biggest number of bodies.
SCHAFFER: That’s the rating’s game, that’s exactly right. I’d say it’s the biggest plus for HBO, is that we don’t have to play that game, the CPM game. We don’t have to worry about how many people are watching each show because quite honestly what’s happening in the viewership, and it’s happening with everybody but it’s been happening with us for years – we used to like people to time shift. If you had a VCR, tape the movie that you didn’t get to watch and watch it later. This is before on-demand. Now people can get HBO On-Demand, incredibly popular, I think 12 million people get it right now of our 30 million. They’ll watch HBO – 150 titles – at their leisure. That is a huge advantage to us. Certain shows for us… the premiere, Soprano’s got the highest number of people for its premiere. It would get 65 percent of its audience in its subsequent plays on HBO, multiplex, on-demand, DVR it would pick up 35 percent. Most of our shows are picking up less than 50 percent in the premiere. The Wire, one of the most critically acclaimed shows, gets 25 percent of its audience for the premiere and 75 percent on all the other plays. The same is true with Flight of the Conchords. Big Love, I think, is probably about 45 percent for the premiere. Entourage is 50% – that’s now the next highest, but 50 percent are watching it at other times. So for us, that’s a great plus. For the networks, they get their biggest hit on that premiere. They’ll pick up added revenue possibly unless they’re giving it away in some of the other venues, but they still need that big audience for that Sunday or Thursday premiere. We’ve never had to worry about that and that’s a great advantage that we have, and partly why we don’t have to go after the biggest audience. We can just go after niches to satisfy them, and I think it’s something that we’ve been doing for much longer than people are probably aware. They always would talk ratings but for us it was never about that.
NELSON: Now one thing I’d like to ask you about – this is going back in time a little bit in terms of bad press – in the early days, HBO is starting to be picked up on systems and seen in places where maybe it hadn’t been seen before, you must have gotten some flack from local press, town fathers, about some of the content, particularly things of a sexual nature?
SCHAFFER: Yes, very good question. Yes. What we would have to do, and there were two ways we would handle this – one is we would present the story, and we present this to Washington as well when they’re talking about looking at cable and putting in new restrictions, we would basically say, okay, what you have to understand is HBO is an invited guest into the home. Everybody gets the commercial networks, you know. If people sign up for basic cable you’re going to get your certain number of channels, I know the packages vary. But for HBO you’ve got to spend additional monies and you know what you’re getting for HBO. Our programming is going to be a little more R-rated then you’re going to see certainly elsewhere. So we’ve always said that’s what differentiates us from the networks and from basic cable. For those markets what we would try to do, there’s two things – one, we have a regional PR group and they handle different areas of the country working with the cable operators in those areas, and we’ve been doing this for years. They would basically go, if there was a town where the cable operator had a problem, and it could be just as you said, maybe we have an abortion documentary we’re presenting, and there’s a town in the south saying, you know, I don’t like this, we don’t want this on your network, we want it removed for our town, which you know we can’t do, we’re not going to do that…
NELSON: Of course.
SCHAFFER: We would advise them and try to help the cable operator do something smart, either a story with the local paper or a screening because a lot of times what happens is people haven’t seen these shows and they’re reacting to shows they haven’t even seen, and we would present it and try to help them because a lot of these small towns at the time didn’t have PR people to help them out. We to this day still do this and what we do is there are a lot of shows that HBO does that we can take, they’re sort of our currency, and we can go into markets and we will do a screening and we will bring in the local mayor of the town and show them that HBO’s more than just Sex and the City, Sopranos. That we do some very thoughtful, smart original movies, thoughtful, smart documentaries on all sorts of subjects from the environment to genocide to nuclear terrorism, and we found ways to do this time and time again, and you build up over time, people start to remember HBO does a lot of good stuff. The most important market of course for this is Washington. I look at our three markets when we’re doing screenings – Hollywood’s important because of the creative community. You want them to know this is what HBO’s doing, that’s a hot place to be, you get a lot of your talent there.
NELSON: And here’s who’s in it and you should be too.
SCHAFFER: Exactly. New York’s important because it is and probably will remain the media capital. It’s all the media, for the most part are here or have representatives here. D.C.’s important because of the policy makers, and we realize in D.C. HBO to some is sex and violence when they hear this. So what we’ve done over time is we’ve done a series of screenings down there on some of our original movies and even some of the series… we brought Sopranos down there with David Chase and we brought in a group of 100 people to do this. We had a film documentary on Abu Ghraib that Rory Kennedy did and we got obviously Ted Kennedy, but a number of other people from the Senate out there to see that HBO keeps cranking out these quality shows and they’re much more than just an R-rated pay network. So we’ve been very, I think, smart in terms of not allowing any of these markets, particularly in Washington, to spin a dialogue about HBO without having experienced some of the good things we’re doing.
NELSON: Is that part of your… it’s certainly part of your programming, but is that also part of your message that you have a lot of socially relevant programming? You look at the topics you’ve covered, Angels in America and the list goes on and on, but is that a message from a PR standpoint that you really want people to understand?
SCHAFFER: It is, and in the case of Angels in America, that’s a great example, what we did was we went out there and after we did our screenings there were a number of AIDS organizations that said, “Could we use your film for an event we’re going to do?” And we allowed all these organizations to use our film as long as they didn’t charge admission to it. There are ways you could present it.
SCHAFFER: To do screenings. And that, I think, worked very well in terms of getting those groups the support they need because a lot of the nonprofits don’t have the resources and when you have a film or a project that can help them you want to get them on board and use it down the road. It’s that echo you get after it’s aired on HBO but it can resonate for the next year because you’ve got awards coming up. The screenings don’t stop just because it’s aired on HBO. So that’s something that we’ve been able to do. I’ll give you an example of where we look at a project and we say, “Okay, what region of the country would this probably resonate in maybe more than others?” In the case, just coming down the road, of John Adams – we’re doing the David McCullough non-fiction book in March – and already we’re going to do a major screening with the largest cable operator, Comcast, in Philadelphia. Philadelphia, as you know, is where Adams spent a lot of time and Brian Roberts is very behind this. So that’s a market that’s going to really resonate with this, as will Boston.
NELSON: Yeah, a Revolutionary city.
SCHAFFER: David McCullough is fully behind this. He’s really the best person you can have in terms of an expert or someone who can help you control any dialogue. If there’s somebody who says, “What about this liberty?” this is all vetted with him. It’s one thing we do that fits in with this question as well is controlling the dialogue. We can’t tell the press what to do or what to write, but what we can do is we can anticipate in advance – when we do a documentary or an original movie, we can say, okay… Next year we’re doing Recount about the presidential election, the vote in Florida – quite a controversial subject, I might add. You’ve got the Bush camp, the Gore camp. Already the media were saying, it’s HBO doing this, it’s going to be a biased look. We said, “No, no, no, we want to present a look at what a circus it really was down there and kind of odd how the whole nation’s future was determined by a bunch of people who had never experienced anything like this before.” So we got three experts involved in the production, we brought consultants on, they weren’t originally involved, but Jeff Toobin, Mark Halperin and David Kaplan. We then said, “You know what? If we truly believe that we are trying to do a look at this, not a biased look, we should let representatives from the two sides see the script and let them vet it.” Tell us what problems there are upfront. We went to James Baker early on, Ginsberg, and they said, “You know what? You captured it. This is it.” And then we have a director, Jay Roach, who’s got a comedy background. He’s done Meet the Fockers, Meet the Parents and the Austin Powers movies. He’s directing it because there’s a humor to this, too.
NELSON: Well, it as a circus.
SCHAFFER: It was a circus, but the lessons here are you need to – and I harp back to something I hadn’t mentioned, but we learned a lot from this, A Bright Shining Lie, the Neil Sheehan book, we did the movie of this several years back. Neil Sheehan was not involved in the process and it turned a little ugly when we ultimately decided to invite him in to take a look and he said, well, I’m not comfortable with this, and they made changes. And then David Halberstam later came out pointing his finger at the movie. But we finally did get Sheehan onboard, but he should have been onboard from the very beginning. And so one of our roles in PR is we say, okay, if it’s a non-fiction subject, or even a documentary or original movie, who is the expert or the consultant, how do we vet all the facts that you’ve got in this because we want to be able to say that we’ve got this annotated. I like to get a script that’s annotated that anything that I am wondering is this true, did you take a liberty – because you do take liberties for certain movies, composite characters and all – but I want to be able to say quite candidly, yeah, we took some liberties here because if you didn’t do that you’d have a five hour movie and we had to do a few shortcuts. So that’s something that we’ve always done to try to control the dialogue so that it doesn’t turn negative. When you start heading down a road and there are lots of experts out there, especially with the internet now – everybody’s an expert! – you want to make sure that you can answer their questions and not be caught off-guard saying, oh, I don’t know, or I don’t have anybody, put you on the phone. So in the case of John Adams, David McCullough’s your inoculation there, as long as he’s onboard. I would say we do this with virtually everything now that we think you might have an issue with. And we also do it, I should add, in the case of certain fictional shows and I’ll give you a perfect example, Steve. On Big Love – Big Love’s our series that deals with a polygamist family. When we first did Big Love, the Mormon Church, the Latter Day Saints, we were in contact with them and we said, “Listen, we want you to know we’re doing this show. It’s a series about a polygamist family,” and they just said, “Ughh, you’ve got to be kidding!” We said why don’t you come in, and they came to New York, we met with them, their public affairs guy that brought their general counsel, and we said, “Listen, tell us what your concerns are,” and they said, “Well, you know what? Our concern is that by your doing this series, you’re going to continue the myth that Mormons are polygamist and it’s not true. In 1890 the Mormon Church condemned polygamy, that was about the same time they had statehood, and in fact, the people who practice this are the extremists.” We said, “We understand that, an in fact, we will make sure it’s in all of our press materials and we can actually do you a service because we’re going to get this out there as much as we can.” And we did, we corrected it. They never were fans of the series, nor would I expect them to be. In fact, I think they were a little surprised by some of the language and nudity when they first saw it, but I think we kept our word. We were totally transparent with them. We had shown them the early scripts. So when the second season came, I called my contact there at the Mormon Church and I said, “Listen, I’ve got the second season. I’d be happy to send it to you if you want to see. We’re doing exactly what we said we’d do before.” And he said, “You know, don’t need to see anymore, thank you though, but I understand.” The reason that was important though it’s a fictional series, we didn’t want to upset the church and I think they had some legitimate concerns. They represent 6 million people in the U.S., 12 million globally, and if the church comes out against something like this, you know, and feels you’re really being unfair then that’s a lot of people that you’re going to upset. So I think we’re cautious with some of the series programming, as well. Though it may be fictional, if it has some roots tied to some truths you want to make sure that you can answer those questions.
NELSON: Now we’re running a little close to the end of our allotted time and I said I’d get back to this. The “this” was The Sopranos. Has there ever been a press flurry that was generated by a mere ten seconds of air-time. We’re talking about the infamous black air.
SCHAFFER: Absolutely never.
NELSON: And what was your role in that, or do you just sit back and say what can I do?
SCHAFFER: You’re absolutely right. When The Sopranos had its finale, I had gotten a copy of it a month before it aired and I brought it home and I watched it. And actually my wife watched it – I swore her to secrecy, I said, “If you ever breathe a word…” and then when it ended she turned to me and said, “Well, they obviously didn’t trust you with the end of this.” And I said, “No, this is what I thought that they said, but I’m not 100% sure.” So I went back to work and they said, no, no, that’s it. So I went home that night and said, no, that’s it, that’s how they’re going to end it because they’re leaving it… David doesn’t want to be so black and white about what really happened to Tony Sopranos and my wife said, “You’re going to get killed!” I said, “Well, I hope you’re wrong.” So what we decided to do, the night it aired I aired it early, the finale, upstairs here, about three hours early for a number of critics around the New York area. I wanted to give them a chance to write stories because it was airing at 9:00 and they’d have to write it at 10:00 to make their deadlines. So I did it early enough that night, and half of them really responded favorably and the other half had their doubts. It was then the next day when the flurry of calls started coming in. Now, David Chase was in France. He has a place in France and goes there for downtime. He wasn’t going to escape this; he was there to relax, he and his wife have spent a lot of time there. I then got on the phone to David and said, “You know, David, we’ve got a flurry of calls coming in.” This is important to note, David said, before this aired, he said, “I want you to know in advance I’m not going to talk to the press about this, I’m not going to do any interviews. Let them write what they want but I don’t want to do anything.” Well, it happened that next day the Newark Star-Ledger, a guy, Alan Sepinwall, called up and said, “David, you promised me an interview. We’ve been the paper that’s followed you. We’re thrown in Tony’s driveway every morning. You promised us that you’d give me an interview after Sopranos.” And David said, “Oh, I guess I did.” So David does the interview with Alan Sepinwall, doesn’t tell me. We then learned, because his piece went online right away, and I said, well, David said he wasn’t doing any interviews. Well, what the good thing is he answered enough there with Alan that we could say to the other press, you know, listen, it’s the Newark Star-Ledger, he wasn’t supposed to do it, it was an earlier deal he made. But still you have people saying was this deliberate, was this sticking it to the fans and why did he do this? What we did to handle this – the calls came in huge volumes and I would call David in Paris just to let him know, and his fax machine… we faxed him a few things initially and the fax machine gave out. Or no, I guess it was his printer, the cartridge went out and he wasn’t so close to Paris to get a new cartridge. So we would read him a few stories. You know, we were enjoying some of the mystery, letting people guess because people had all sorts of theories, and we corrected the things that were totally erroneous. If they had a casting thing and they said, “This actor was the same actor that appeared…” that we corrected. But what we didn’t want to do is we didn’t want to spell it out for them. We wanted them to guess, and we likened this… You have to understand, David is a huge rock and roll fan, we likened this to The Beatles. When The Beatles wrote the Abbey Road album and the White Album, there were all sorts of things in those albums that the fans started reading extra meanings into and it started this enormous intrigue and interest.
NELSON: Well, how could you get more coverage than that? It just went on and on and on.
SCHAFFER: Oh, it’s true! So we talked about this and David said it was like Paul McCartney. Everybody thought Paul McCartney was dead and stuff, and so David said, “Why don’t you tell the press the walrus is Paulie.” He was actually enjoying this. It was interesting because it was one of those things that it took a life of its own. Anything you said… I one day talked to the New York Times and I knew that the ten seconds of black, David’s original intention was to do three minutes of black. He wanted to do three minutes because he wanted to have no end credits and the director’s guild said you can’t do that, you’ve got to put the end credits. So because of the director’s guild it was only ten seconds, three minutes would have really… After ten seconds people didn’t necessarily think their cable went out, but with three minutes you would have really thought that. So David then, about a month after, was given an award by the television critics in LA and it was the first time he’d come back to the States to talk about this. I said, “David, they’re going to ask you about the finale of Sopranos and you’ve got to be able to say something.” So he got up front, he’d thought about this and I gave him some ideas, and he didn’t take my ideas, and he got up there and it was very funny, with all the critics in the room he said, “Well, I’m here with Alan Sepinwall,” who introduced him on the stage to win the award, from the Newark Star-Ledger, and he said, “Alan, tell everybody in this room, you know it’s not unusual to go out to dinner in a diner in Jersey and have everything all of the sudden stop, right?” And Alan sort of acknowledged this. And then he said, “Well, about the finale, I’ll just say this: when I hit Stanford Film School, I went to Stanford Film School…” they’re very good in documentaries, no many people know about their feature film aspects, but he was there very long ago with his wife, they’d just gotten married and moved to California. His wife and he went out to see Planet of the Apes. At the end of the movie, the final scene with Charlton Heston on the beach and the Statue of Liberty in the background, David turns to his wife and he says, “Oh, they had a Statue of Liberty, too?” And his wife turned to him and said, “What are you talking about? This is crystal clear.” And David said, “So what do I know about endings?” It was the prefect response because I think for David… a writer shouldn’t be held accountable. I think the best thing is for people to read into it what they want and I think ultimately the message is Tony Soprano lived a life of crime. People who live lives of crime have to look over their shoulder for the rest of their lives, and maybe something will happen in this innocent little diner, or maybe it will happen down the road, but this is the life he chose and it probably isn’t going to end well. And that’s the message he ultimately wanted to leave without it being Tony Soprano dead in a bowl of onion rings face first. That was what he wanted to achieve. And I personally hope – people ask about a Sopranos movie – I hope he never makes one because once you make one, if you’re advancing the story forward, unless you’re doing a prequel, you’re going to have to demystify the way the show ended in that final episode, which I think many people feel was one of the great endings.
NELSON: I do, and speaking of endings, we’re going to have to end now.
SCHAFFER: Perfect, that’s great! Steve, thank you!
NELSON: I don’t know if we’re going to cut to black after this, but thanks so much for taking the time.
SCHAFFER: Thank you, that’s a good way to do it, Steve, thank you so much.
NELSON: There are some wonderful, wonderful stories about the content and the PR and everything that goes on at HBO. Thanks again.
SCHAFFER: Thank you, Steve. It was great.