Beau Willimon Responds

Re: Narcos

Hey Bob,

Great post. It’s truly an exciting time for television. Always appreciate when you give HOC a shout-out. Loved how you traced back the last 30 years of TV to where this current era began. And you’re right – “Sopranos” was a game-changer. But to give credit where credit is due, Tom Fontana’s “Oz” really got the ball rolling. It was the first one-hour drama that HBO ever produced.

Tom is a friend and mentor of mine, so I have to admit some bias, but I think it’s fair to objectively state that “Oz” – which aired two years before “Sopranos” in 1997 – paved the way for the “Sopranos” and everything to follow. Tom was a big part of the revolution-before-the-revolution – working on shows like “St. Elsewhere” and “Homicide: Life on the Street” – complex, sophisticated network shows that created an appetite for the premium cables dramas that succeeded them. “Oz” showed what was possible. HBO basically said to Tom: “Here’s the resources, make something interesting.” And he did. And television changed as a result.

Yes, “Sopranos” took it all mainstream. Its impact is gargantuan. But let’s not forget David Simon’s “The Wire” either, arguably the best television show in the last half century. Tom Fontana was a mentor to Simon. In Simon’s own words from this Salon interview: (

“(“Homicide: Life on the Street” writer-producer) Tom Fontana took me on when I was looking at television as kind of a lark, as something I might do for a couple of years for money as I finished my second book. I had no intention of making a home in that medium. It was years before I looked up and realized that I had. Tom was incredibly gracious and open about sharing everything he knew about how to make television shows.”

“The Wire” may not have had the viewership of “The Sopranos” when it first aired, but its reputation and impact continues to grow. It’s sort of like the Velvet Underground of 21st Century TV – only a few thousand people saw it when it first aired, but they all started TV shows. Its influence on the mainstream can’t be denied. Tom Fontana and David Simon’s contribution to everything all of us are watching is profound and indelible.

All my best,
Beau Willimon


Are you watching this??

Somehow the TV industry has leveraged the power of the internet to hit a new high in quality. It’s as if after Napster we had the Beatles and the Stones, with Yes and Genesis to follow.

That’s right, forget the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. That’s long after the fact. If you lived in the late sixties and early seventies you were exposed to a cornucopia of experimentation, musicians owned the world and we were whipsawed and whiplashed and we liked it. We couldn’t figure out how they came up with this stuff, only that we needed more.

And the whole world was watching.

The whole world is now watching TV.

So Reed Hastings harnesses the power of the internet to create Netflix. And unlike the music industry, he moves one step ahead of his customers, he goes to streaming before the public even knows it wants it. Hastings sees broadband adoption and licenses content and even the content providers have no idea what’s going on, they’re just happy he’s paying them now that the DVD is cratering.

And then Jeff Bezos moves in. Knowing that if you don’t crash the party right away, you can’t get in later.

Have you watched “Transparent”? Starts off slowly, and then is a weird mish-mash of sitcom and “Seinfeld,” mirroring the American family to the point you want to tell everybody about it.

But the granddaddy was “House of Cards.”

And the reason “House of Cards” was so good was because of Kevin Spacey and Beau Willimon and Netflix’s refusal to meddle. It’s as if Mo Ostin was cloned to run TV, knowing that art is best when you let the creatives run free. You see artists want to pierce the sky and leave their mark, and once unrestrained they’ll surprise you.

Oh, they’ll fail too.

But when they succeed you can only marvel.

Can you say “Sopranos”?

That’s where it all began. When suddenly HBO was not only better than network, but better than movies. Anybody with a brain now wanted to stay home as opposed to go out.

Now we’re enthralled by the flat screen.

But HBO is no longer alone. If you’ve got the bona fides, the track record, it’s a bidding war out there, multiple outlets want to let you make your dream product. And your dream product could be…ANYTHING!

Before you watch “Narcos,” pull up Netflix’s show “Chef’s Table,” the very first one, about Massimo Bottura. I need to do a whole piece about it, it’s so riveting. The kind of documentary that used to run in the theatre, before every adult abandoned them.

And loving that so much I pulled up “Narcos”…


How many people are going to become gangsters after watching this series? Yup, those with smarts but no education, who refuse to be held down by society. Like those who revolutionized the music business.

Rules didn’t apply to them. Your heroes not only made it up as they went along, they didn’t take no for an answer. And there’s as much illegality in the history of the music business as there is in “Narcos,” with as much sex and drugs and nearly as much money. But music is legal and cocaine is not.

Don’t believe the press release. You’ve got to be in the room to know what’s going on. And when you are, the stories will make your hair stand on end.

But that music business book will never be written.

But the story of the Medellin Cartel is public.

Yet despite there being so many books, we live in a visual society. And when you watch “Narcos”…

Some of the dialogue is cheesy. But the story and the lessons…they get you thinking.

Suddenly you understand Miami, how the modern city was built upon a sea of coke. And having been to Bogota, getting to know some residents, I learned that the Florida metropolis is nearly a suburb. People buy houses, they live there…

Colombia. Most are clueless and those who know are too scared to go.

But I did. And it was the most exciting place I’ve been to in years.

Everybody had a relative who’d been assassinated. I was driven around in a bulletproof car. It’s safe, but it’s not. And the economy is limited, the currency is challenged, to the point where it’s all about lifestyle.

That’s right, in America you work all day to get ahead.

In Colombia, you’re living your life right away, talking, partying and…

Out of this mix comes people like Pablo Escobar.

Sure, he made it in drugs. But he could have succeeded in real life, in a more regulated country, where it wasn’t a free-for-all. Because he knows when to hold ’em and he knows when to fold ’em.

That’s what they don’t tell you about the winners, that they’re charismatic, that they don’t extract every last ounce, that they’re fun to hang with.

And they’re ruthless.

Most people never figure out how the world works. They’re drones in society who think they are free but are far from it.

But if you’re curious and you want a bit more, you peel back the curtain, you get to know a few people, you put the pieces together, and you realize…

There are two Americas. The one they tell you about, and then the real one, the true underbelly of this country.

And if you watch “House of Cards,” you’ll learn more lessons than in a year of college.

And if you watch “Narcos,” you’ll suddenly become aware of the possibilities. Of not only career and wealth, but life. We’re so inured to the way it is, our creature comforts, our safety, that we’re rarely alive. See the images from the streets of Colombia in “Narcos” and your heart will start to beat, you’ll see that everything is up for grabs, and the truth is the sands are constantly shifting, you feel safe, but you’re not.

But not everybody wants to be part of the action. Many are observers.

Well, it’s never been a better time to watch. Because those in the visual industries are testing limits. Forget the talentless YouTube stars. They’re not where the action is. Look to scripted series. Look to what’s on pay outlets, where there are no commercials but quality product. There you will find insight, stimulation and knowledge.

Want to get everybody to pay for streaming music services?

Create content as good as Netflix’s, cutting edge stuff you can’t live without. That which you did not think you needed, but now hold dear.

It’s an amazing time to be alive.

The VMAs

I asked a powerful music PR man why the press never went negative on Taylor Swift.

He said it was about access. As long as she was available, doing interviews, feeding the press stories, coverage would be positive. It’s when you clam up that the media goes wild on you.

Which kind of explains why Kanye West is getting a pass.

Not completely. But here we have an egomaniac with little national traction, when it comes to music, being given a faux award and then rambling on for ten minutes nearly incoherently, sticking it to the man for giving him this award, any award at all. I’d say it’s hypocritical, but what fascinates me is the press is not full of stories about him being a blowhard. Why?

Because everybody in America is trying to get rich and the young are impressionable and if we can just focus on the antics of the young ‘uns we can get ahead.

Meanwhile, ratings for the show go down and one wonders what can be done next, live executions? George Carlin suggested that a while back, that ratings would be killer, but in our short attention span theatre, where everything is plowed under and history is irrelevant, no one seems to know, or get the joke.

Not that you can have a sense of humor these days. Because someone might be offended.

And the way you make hay on the VMAs is to offend. But that concept is so long in the tooth that we laugh when the oldsters get their knickers in a twist, because we know it’s just about attention.

Attention…it’s hard to get in the internet era.

You could make a record, but even that has a hard time triumphing. Happens every once in a while, with “Blurred Lines,” “Royals” and “Uptown Funk,” but what the industry thinks is important most of America does not so the way to get ahead is to be featured on this show, which resembles nothing so much as Halloween. That’s right, you put on a costume and have a night out and then you forget about the whole enterprise until twelve months hence.

The reason the VMAs are irrelevant is because the station no longer airs videos. I’m not saying they should, I’m just saying that in the heyday of the channel what was hyped on the night was exposed thereafter ad infinitum on the channel, and we were all paying attention. It’s a paradigm Beats 1 is trying to resurrect, by banging Halsey. Will it work?

That’s not the issue. We know there are anomalies. But the truth is we all don’t pay attention to anything other than the Super Bowl, which is why an appearance there is so meaningful and powerful. Prince resurrected his career, he can bloviate ignorantly about the internet but we all still care, because we saw him knock them dead at the game, whose contestants and score elude our memory.

That’s the power of music.

But we haven’t had “Little Red Corvette” in such a long time. A track that was indelible and so infectious that it didn’t matter who made it, what the video was like, we needed more.

So, if we were living in the old days, Miley’s manager would have brokered a deal wherein her new tunes would be featured on the outlet, ensuring they were hits. We’d all know them and we’d all talk about them. I give Ms. Cyrus props for dropping her LP right after the show, that’s how you do it, strike when the iron is hot, when the eyes are upon you, in a flash, but no one cares.

That’s the issue in America today.

It’s not that people have a short attention span, it’s just that they’re overwhelmed with product to the point they don’t care about much at all, percentage-wise, and those left out haven’t stopped bitching. Hell, it’s happening in television, read today’s “New York Times.”

But what the “Times” has that those appearing on the VMAs do not is a new paper, they’re in the public eye every day. Whereas you get your shot on the VMAs and if you don’t catch fire, you’re done.

So what have we learned?

If live shows were so important, a gathering of the tribes, ratings would soar, but they don’t. We’ve seen the trick, the antics, the train-wrecks, and it’s no longer new.

But if you’re not featured on one of these shows it’s even harder to get traction.

And everybody who puts money first plays by the rules. Developing acts that fit the paradigm are hyped this way to the point only the ignorant care.

So what’s next?

What I’ve been telling you all along, a whittling of the culture, a reduction of the offerings. Even fewer tracks are going to be hits. And you may not like what is selected, but popularity is everything in today’s culture.

And popularity can be manipulated, but victory truly occurs when the machine melds with quality such that we all care.

We can argue all day long whether “Blurred Lines” rips off Marvin Gaye, but we all agree it’s an infectious track.

As was Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” If only Kanye kut one that good.

But he’s so busy pursuing his power dream of ubiquity that he’s lost focus, he expects us to care, but most don’t.

But no one in the game will admit that.

What the internet has taught us is the consumer is king. It’s happened over and over again. The consumer gave us file-trading then streaming. Don’t blame Spotify, that’s long after the fact.

The consumer wants instant access. The consumer wants a low price.

And most consumers don’t want what the music industry is giving them. And rather than adjust, the players are just doubling-down. Becoming even more crass.

So, the VMAs are irrelevant unless you were on them. Most people didn’t watch them and didn’t care. If you say you hate the tracks, join the club. If you wonder what is going on, the media and powers-that-be believe youth drive the culture.

But we’ve learned the oldsters have the money.

And we all have smartphones.

And we all think we’re hip.

And the way you win is by appealing to everybody.

Don’t expect people to pay attention if you’re niche.

But if you’ve got a great voice, write melodic material with good changes, employ hooky choruses and a bridge, the world is your oyster.

Start there.

“Soul-Searching in TV Land Over the Challenges of a New Golden Age”

Keith Richards Solo Album

Just put out the damn album.

Do we have to endure a month-long run-up to an LP that’ll be over in a week? Testimony to the history of rock’s greatest living cockroach who is ultimately irrelevant in today’s world?

Yes, Keef surprised us with a successful tome. Supposedly, I found the bio impossible going. Nuggets are irrelevant if they’re not told in a comprehensible fashion.

And now he’s putting out an album with expectations so low, only the press seems to care.

That’s right, that’s how far we’ve sunk, give access and they’ll go for it. As Keith trots out some old tales and we all wince as we realize once again that rock and roll is dead.

Maybe if he moved to Nashville and cut a record with someone who could actually sing, with someone who knows how to make hits.

And yes, it is all about hits today. A hit is something that grabs you right away and spreads like wildfire. And if you think otherwise, you probably don’t have cable, a smartphone or access to the internet. You’re thrilled if someone gives you free music. But even five year olds don’t care.

Kind of like the buzz about Wilco giving away its LP for free. Do you believe that was a news story? Music hasn’t been inaccessible in this CENTURY! To expect us to salivate over something in the pipeline…is to be a member of the media that believes windowing and previewing matters. The late great Freddie Mercury had it right… I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it NOW!

Well, not all of it, just access to all of it.

Look at Keith’s track record, without Mick. It’s even worse than Jagger’s output. Half-baked riffs with scratchy vocals that unlike the work of hero Robert Johnson is far from memorable. Give Keith credit for taking the X-Pensive Winos on tour, decades ago, but to lead with his music in 2015 is utterly laughable.

Just put the damn thing out. What kind of crazy world do we live in where Beyonce does no hype and puts her music out, years ago, and Keith wants us to get excited in advance.

Creeps me out. Give us a catchy single. Entice us.

But he can’t do this. Because the music sucks.

And today everything that is not great sucks. That’s what the players don’t understand, we don’t live in 1975, where mediocre stuff on the radio garners traction and a career. Now it’s about the toppermost and then there’s everything else. Just check the movie grosses if you doubt me.

While you’re complaining about streaming revenue, superstars are rolling in dough. YouTube and Spotify and even Apple Music are gonna pay FOREVER! If you create the desire, we’re now able to fill it. Why are musicians so short-sighted? They’re not executives. When Lucian Grainge is long gone from Universal, today’s hit artists will still be paid by streaming services, and this is a GOOD THING!

But I don’t want to waste my time interacting with ignorant people who have little audience to begin with.

And I don’t want to waste my time getting excited for a Keith Richards solo album.

Once again, the media masters are out of the loop. That’s this year’s story, not has-been rocker drops an album nobody cares about, but how the press could get it so wrong, believing we actually care. Donald Trump wipes away convention, shows that the people have a brain, but in entertainment coverage it’s the same as it ever was. But now there’s even more of it. Over and over again I hear Keith Richards has a new album… AND I DON’T CARE!

And no one else does either.

Check second week streaming numbers.


Last I looked it was called the MUSIC business! Not the hype business.

You want us to have eager anticipation, have a track record. And Keith Richards’s in solo music is close to terrible.

He has to do something to earn our attention. Everybody starts from the same line. Data tells us who wins and loses.

So Keith, stop the interviews, just put out the record. Let us judge. Let us be surprised. Prove us wrong.

But you won’t do that.

Because your thinking is just as old as your age. You’re surrounded by those who refuse to take a risk.

But the joke is on you.

No one cares.

Your album’s a stiff.