By Amy Longsdorf
There are only a handful of people in the world who know exactly how “Game of Thrones” will wind up its wildly successful eight-season run on HBO. Bethlehem native Casey Bloys is one of them.
As the cable network’s president of programming, Bloys is involved in every big decision HBO makes, from the greenlighting of the controversial “Confederate” and the surprise comeback of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” later this year to the ways that “Veep” will be tailored to reflect today’s political climate.
It’s a big, powerful job that allows the Freedom High School graduate (class of 1989) to help shape the viewing habits of millions of Americans.
“I oversee all aspects of HBO original’s programming, including drama and comedy series, documentaries, mini-series, movies and sports,” Bloys said. “I deal with all of the creative aspects.”
Bloys will be back in the Valley on Wednesday at Moravian College to discuss his job and today’s evolving TV landscape. The program, spearheaded by his old friend — the college’s Director of Marketing and Communications Michael Corr — has been dubbed “Inside the Moravian Studio.”
Bloys has a lot to talk about. He oversees series such as “Game of Thrones,” “Westworld,” “Big Little Lies” and “The Night Of,” which have drawn high ratings and attracted A-list talent. This month, when he attends the Emmys, he can take pride in HBO receiving 111 nominations, more than any other network.
Bloys lives in Los Angeles with his husband, First Amendment attorney Alonzo Wickers, and their 10-year-old twins. The 46-year-old has had a steady rise since he joined HBO in 2004.
He made his reputation by developing successful comedy series including “Veep,” “Silicon Valley,” “Girls,” “Flight of the Conchords” and “Ballers.” He got a big promotion to his current job last year, replacing HBO’s longtime programming chief, Michael Lombardo.
The Hollywood Reporter wrote about the well-liked Bloys, “In assessing his tastes, insiders suggest he’s open to younger voices and worlds and is said to covet smart, sophisticated dramas with ‘pop.’”
A lot has changed in entertainment since Bloys began his 13-year run at HBO. Now the cable station must compete with streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulufor creative talent and viewers’ time.
There are 530 scripted series available to TV fans, more than double the number available five years ago, Bloys said.
“Even with all of the competition, we just had our biggest quarter,” Bloys said. “And with ‘Westworld,’ we had the launch of our biggest freshman drama. … I’d say 90 percent of [creative people] still choose to come to HBO first.”
While Bloys is keenly aware of what streaming giants such as Amazon and Netflix are cooking up, his main focus is programming what he hopes will be popular with HBO subscribers.
“You have to know what your brand stands for,” Bloys said. “Of course, you can’t ignore what else is going on but the HBO brand is our North Star. You can only play your game. The competition has, if anything sharpened us. And we continue to do what we do best.”
A quick look at HBO’s highest-profile offerings seems to prove that Bloys has been able to go from strength to strength. Larry David’s popular “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is back after a long hiatus, new series “Insecure” has drawn rave reviews and “Ballers” seems to get better with each season.
Speaking of “Ballers,” the star of the show is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who graduated from Freedom High School in 1990, one year after Bloys.
“[Johnson] and I talk about Bethlehem and Freedom High School all the time,” Bloys said. “I didn’t know him when we were at Freedom. I was aware of him because his dad and uncle were professional wrestlers and, in Bethlehem, that made him a celebrity. But I didn’t know him personally.”
Bloys and Johnson have gabbed about Bethlehem so much on set that the show’s creator and writer, Stephen Levinson, decided to throw in a reference to the town in the recent third season premiere of “Ballers.”
Of all the shows that Bloys oversees, none compares in popularity to “Game of Thrones,” a series that has become a cultural phenomenon and HBO’s higest-rated show of all time.
“I think there are a number of reasons why it’s so popular,” Bloys said. “It’s such an immersive experience; it gives you an escape into another world. It’s so beautifully shot that it is a cinematic experience.
“But, in the midst of this mythical world, people are dealing with dysfunctional family dynamics. And everyone can relate to rivalries with siblings or problems with our parents.”
“Game of Thrones” has something of a local connection as well. Series creator David Benioff (who adapted the show from George R. R. Martin books along with D.B. Weiss) used to spend many summers in the Lehigh Valley visiting his grandparents, who owned an Allentown fur store.
“David told me his mom grew up in Allentown and that his grandparents ran Benioff Furs,” Bloys said. “And I actually met his mom at a ‘Game of Thrones’ premiere and told her that I grew up in the Valley, too, and that my mom still lives in Emmaus. So, that was nice.”
As for any spoilers about the upcoming final season of “Game of Thrones,” which is likely to air in early 2019, Bloys said he can’t reveal a thing.
“All I can say is that it will be absolutely amazing. … It will be spectacular. David and Dan know how to make amazing shows.”
While Benioff and Weiss are responsible for HBO’s most popular series, they are also at the heart of the network’s biggest controversy. The duo’s proposed follow-up to “Game of Thrones” is “Confederate,” a series that speculates what the world would be like if the Rebels had won the Civil War and slavery persisted as “a modern-day institution.”
The series hasn’t begun filming yet but it has drawn criticism and inspired a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #NoConfederate, which was started by the activist April Reign, who also was behind #OscarsSoWhite crusade.
What inspired Bloys to greenlight the drama?
“I had the benefit of sitting down with Dan and David and I heard their pitch about what they want to do with the show,” he said. “They want to explore the thin line between civility and chaos in society, in a divided country.”
Bloys defends “Confederate” by stressing that he hopes the series advances a serious discussion of race in America.
“If you can draw a line between what we’re seeing in the country today with voter suppression, mass incarceration, lack of access to public education and health care ... to our past and shared history, that’s an important line to draw and a conversation worth having,” he said. “[The producers] acknowledge this has a high degree of difficulty. It’s a risk worth taking.”
Bloys said that the series, which will be co-written and co-produced by African-American couple Nichelle and Malcolm Spellman, is aiming to treat race in a thoughtful manner.
“[The creators’] approach is not glib,” Bloys said. “They know this is a very sensitive subject. Malcolm said to me, ‘This is weapons-grade material.’ … So, they are approaching it in a very careful way.”
If anything, the protests have made Bloys and company even more aware of how much Americans are still conflicted by race 150 years after the end of the Civil War.
“If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the backlash has been helpful as [Benioff, Weiss and the Spellmans] go off to write the show,” Bloys said.
Bloys has always been a big fan of HBO. Growing up in Bethlehem, he and his folks watched the network solely for its movies since, in that era, HBO didn’t produce original programming.
As a youngster, Bloys was an avid viewer of such sitcoms as “Gilligan’s Island,” “Happy Days,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons” as well as dramas such as “Hill Street Blues” and “L.A. Law.”
After Freedom, Bloys graduated from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and studied economics before landing a job in advertising. He eventually wound up working as an assistant to Laurie Zaks, then vice president of series programs at CBS.
Bloys next landed a job at HBO and, since then, he’s worked himself up the ladder to his current position. Just back from the Television Critics Association event, Bloys is excited to talk about HBO’s upcoming lineup that includes the ninth season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Larry David’s first in six years.
“The nice thing about Larry is that he doesn’t come back until he knows he has enough for a series,” Bloys said. “He doesn’t need to do the show but he wants to do the best version of it.
“So he lets us know when he’s ready to come back. He’s a unique guy.”
Another big deal for HBO this fall will be “The Deuce,” the latest from David Simon, who also created “The Wire” and “Treme.” The series, which was co-created by novelist George Pelecanos and stars James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal, delves into the history of pornography.
“David and George are taking an almost anthropological approach to pornography,” Bloys said. “Porn has become a multibillion dollar industry, but it is an industry that nobody ever talks about.
“This show examines the beginnings of this persuasive cultural force. That might sound like a documentary. But David and George humanize the people responsible for creating the industry.”
And then there’s “Veep,” which will return in the spring to a much different political landscape than it left thanks to the election of President Donald Trump. The series, which has racked up countless Emmys including Outstanding Comedy Series for two years running, revolves around a ridiculously self-absorbed politician named Selina Meyer (Julia-Louis Dreyfus) and her crazily inept staff.
“I was just talking to Julia yesterday and we were saying that ‘Veep’ seemed so outlandish when we started [seven years ago] with Selina and her dysfunctional staff. And now ...
“Online some people have cut together Trump’s real press conferences and then, at the end, there’s the credits to “Veep,” and it feels right.
“So, with this wild political environment we’re seeing now, ‘Veep’ doesn’t seem so outlandish anymore but they’re going to continue doing their show, and continue finding ways to comment on current events.”
At Moravian College on Wednesday, Bloys will answer questions from Joel Rosen, who is part of Moravian’s Communication and Media Studies program. Rosen will ask Bloys about a wide range of topics and also solicit questions from students ahead of time and at the end of the session.
“I like doing Q-&-As because they allow you to hear what people are thinking about and what they want to know about,” Bloys said.