When Succession was on the air, I would watch each episode in real time and follow the chatter on social media. There was an amazing community of Succession devotees, and while I believe the overwhelming majority of them were simply real people who loved the show, it always felt like there were a few HBO PR people in the mix as well, helping the hype train. I’ve felt that way about certain Netflix shows too, that certain Twitter users just seem way too invested in hyping completely random shows. I always thought “yeah, paid PR.” That’s exactly what it was and is, and now Rolling Stone has the receipts. Or at least some partial receipts from HBO.
In June 2020, HBO’s then-president of original programming Casey Bloys needed someone to “go on a mission.” Bloys — who was named HBO’s CEO and chairman in October 2022 — was irked by a tweet from Vulture TV critic Kathryn VanArendonk, who had some thoughts about Perry Mason, HBO’s series starring Matthew Rhys as a private detective turned defense attorney in 1930s Los Angeles.
The remake of the original 1960s show carves out an origin story for Mason, showing flashes of him serving in World War I, which VanArendonk felt was weak storytelling. Days before the series aired on the platform (VanArendonk seemingly had a screener for review) she subtweeted the series. “Dear prestige TV,” she wrote, “Please find some way to communicate male trauma besides showing me a flashback to the hero’s memories of trench warfare.”
Bloys was annoyed, according to text messages reviewed by Rolling Stone, and sent VanArendonk’s tweet to Kathleen McCaffrey, HBO’s senior vice president of drama programming. “Maybe a Twitter user should tweet that that’s a pretty blithe response to what soldiers legitimately go through on [the] battlefield,” he texted. “Do you have a secret handle? Couldn’t we say especially given that it’s D-Day to dismiss a soldier’s experience like that seems pretty disrespectful… this must be answered!”
Bloys was serious. “Who can go on a mission,” he asked McCaffrey, according to the messages, adding they needed to find a “mole” at “arms length” from the HBO executive team. “We just need a random to make the point and make her feel bad.” Eventually, Bloys landed on a rebuttal to VanArendonk, according to the messages: “A somewhat elitist take. Is there anything more traumatic for men (and now women) than fighting in a war. Sorry if that seems too convenient for you.”
The exchange was one of at least six instances between June 2020 and April 2021 in which Bloys and McCaffrey discussed using what they called a “secret army” to fire back at several TV critics on Twitter as well as anonymous commenters on articles about HBO programming, according to text exchanges reviewed by Rolling Stone. In this case, the two decided not to hit back at VanArendonk online. But in numerous instances, the HBO execs did just that, trolling the television critics with snarky responses from a fake Twitter account — and dropping pro-HBO comments on trade publication stories.
(Rolling Stone reviewed the metadata associated with the messages, and verified their authenticity by linking the sender of the messages to a phone number registered to McCaffrey. What’s more, in four of the six cases, the language of the texts is an exact match for the language from the anonymous accounts.)
HBO did not dispute the legitimacy of the messages when approached for comment by Rolling Stone. In a statement, a HBO spokesperson said it would not “comment on select exchanges between programmers and errant tweets.” VanArendonk confirmed she wrote the tweet but declined to comment further.
The messages are part of a trove of material being prepared for a previously unreported wrongful termination lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in July by former HBO staffer Sully Temori against HBO, McCaffrey, HBO’s head of drama Francesca Orsi, as well as Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye and two producers for The Idol.
[From Rolling Stone]
I love that people are all up in arms about this! Please, this is the tip of the iceberg, and I guarantee that Netflix already has a fake-user army of paid PR people hyping their projects and pouring scorn on the haters. In fact, I’m shocked by how low-fi this HBO operation was – surely Casey Bloys should have contacted HBO’s communications/publicity department rather than his VP. I’m sure HBO’s comms people would have covered it very easily. As for the argument that HBO executives shouldn’t hide behind a fake user name to yell at critics or hype their projects in the comment sections of trade papers… lol. I mean, I live in the real world. This story is so funny and hilariously childish. “A TV critic said something I didn’t like, we must send a haughty tweet about it, but we shouldn’t leave our fingerprints on it!”
It’s also stupid because Bloys actually had a solid point, and if he had made it himself – by tweeting at the critic openly or leaving a comment at Vulture – his point would have helped hype the show. The lesson here: if you’re a TV executive who wants to make a petty point against a TV critic, do it openly so everyone can enjoy the beef.
Photos courtesy of Avalon Red, HBO/Max.
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