Chairman and CEO of HBO and Max Content, Casey Bloys (WCAS93) joins SoC Dean in Dialogue with the Dean
As the SAG-AFTRA strike dragged on and the WGA negotiations finally wrapped up, the Northwestern University School of Communication’s annual Dialogue with the Dean resumed by welcoming Casey Bloys (WCAS93), chairman and CEO of HBO and Max Content, to engage on October 5 in a very well-timed dialogue with Dean E. Patrick Johnson
“I want to address the elephant in the room,” Johnson began the conversation. “Talk to us about the strikes.”
“I think everybody was happy with the result,” Bloys told the crowd in the Ethel M. Barber Theater in the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts. “Now the AMPTP, the organization that represents the studios, is in negotiations currently with SAG-AFTRA and the whole town is holding its breath and hopeful. I'm hopeful there's a deal to be made.”
The strikes are symptomatic of something larger for the entertainment industry, said Bloys who’s been the head of HBO programming since 2016. “Technology can be good for the consumer, but it upends business," he said. “So just because the strike was settled doesn't mean that the business is settled.”
Growing up the youngest in his family in the small town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Bloys always knew he wanted to work in television.
“Looking back, I am amazed at the amount of television I watched,” Bloys said. His favorites were sitcoms and reruns like Gilligan's Island, Laverne and Shirley, The Munsters, LA Law, and St. Elsewhere.
“The thing about television was it's a place you come back to. I [always] think about being in the comfort of home and being welcomed back to whatever world or family it was [on the screen]," he added.
For Bloys television was a source of comfort, but when he transferred to Northwestern from American University his sophomore year, he chose to major in economics.
“I think I edited myself,” he said. “My dad was paying for college. I didn't know anybody who worked in the television business. So, it seemed like an exotic thing, for people from LA. I thought, ‘I'll just get a degree and then I'll figure it out.’”
He had friends, however, active in the School’s theatre scene. “I remember thinking, ‘What are you going to do?’ The idea that somebody would study acting. It did not seem like an option for me.”
After graduation, Bloys began working in television advertising in New York, secured a marketing job at Paramount through a client friend, and then moved to LA.
“The nice thing about television is everybody comes in on equal footing. I don't know any executive that came in above the assistant role because the point is to learn,” Bloys said. “You’re watching what your boss does, reading scripts, seeing how scripts take shape, and learning how people communicate.”
“You can come in from all kinds of backgrounds and do really well,” he added.”
“It is a constant state of anxiety. It’s a fun job but a lot of pressure and public evaluation,” Bloys said. “Managing that can be hard. You’re up against the legacy of HBO and then eventually your own record. It’s a big but fun challenge.”
Dean Johnson turned the discussion to HBO’s success during Bloys’ tenure, specifically how he can identify hit shows like Succession and White Lotus.
“We don't test shows at HBO. It's all about the quality of the show,” Bloys said. “A good show is entertaining, but the most successful shows have a lot to say about how we live today. When an HBO show is doing both of those things, they really do well.”
But where can and does AI fit in? Is it yet a threat?
“Writing, performing is an art form. I believe it requires the soul of a human,” Bloys said. “The shows have to come from somebody’s heart and reflect those things and given the experiences that I've had working with writers I don't foresee a world where AI can create a world that hits on those two levels.”
As the night ended the Dean asked Bloys how he reconciles the current political climate with the push for more diversity and inclusion on television.
“Look at Last of Us and House of the Dragon, our two biggest shows in the last year,” Bloys said. “You have a Latino lead and a non-binary lead and [neither were] really commented on. They are big shows and big roles, and it wasn’t a big deal. That’s a sign of progress.”
When Bloys took over programming in 2016, there was already momentum toward incorporating more diverse voices and faces in front of and behind the camera. Each of his teams took responsibility for the percentage of women and people of color on their shows and the number has risen to 50 to 60 percent, depending on the year. To him, that has made the difference.
“Good entertainment is an opportunity to change the culture,” he said. “That is why people look to us to tell those stories. Hopefully, they're being entertained and that is a way in.”