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2017-08-15 11:42:03
‘Game of Thrones’ Success Can’t Ease Headaches for HBO

HBO should be riding high.

It just aired the fifth episode of the penultimate season of “Game of Thrones” on Sunday night, a week after the previous episode delivered the series’ highest ratings ever. The Emmy Awards are a month away, and HBO is primed for another big night after leading all competitors in nominations for a 17th consecutive year.

And yet, the premium cable channel is confronting two major headaches that have turned what should be a triumphant summer into an exhausting one.

Roughly two weeks ago, a hacker began releasing material stolen from HBO in a cyberattack. On Sunday, another wave of material was released, including unaired episodes of two anticipated fall series, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Deuce.” Though the material that has come out so far has not been damaging to HBO — there have been no embarrassing emails like there were in the attack that hit Sony in 2014 — it has certainly been an irritant that has shown no sign of fading.

And this weekend’s deadly rallies in Charlottesville, Va., also served to remind HBO that the public outcry over its recent announcement of a new alternate-history drama called “Confederate” may linger for some time.

All of this is happening as HBO’s parent company, Time Warner, is on the brink of a merger with AT&T.

The storm surrounding “Confederate” started shortly after HBO announced in mid-July that the next project from the “Game of Thrones” creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff would be an alternate history drama in which the South successfully seceded during the Civil War, and government-sanctioned slavery was still a reality.

A backlash emerged, with some accusing HBO of being cavalier with the topic of slavery and the contemporary plight of black life in the United States. A social media campaign built around the hashtag #NoConfederate began trending on Twitter.

Several prominent writers denounced the series, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote in The Atlantic this month: “African Americans do not need science-fiction, or really any fiction, to tell them that that ‘history is still with us.’ It’s right outside our door. It’s in our politics. It’s on our networks.”

Then came this weekend’s events in Charlottesville, where a rally of white nationalists turned into a series a melees and a 32-year-old woman was killed when a car sped into a crowd of counterprotestors.

One of the creators of the #NoConfederate campaign, April Reign, who also created the #OscarsSoWhite social media campaign, said that the events over the weekend were a reminder that “we have not fully reconciled what the Confederacy means.”

“How is this an alt-history when we have things like Charlottesville playing out?” she said in a telephone interview.

HBO defended the series in a statement on Monday.

“We support everybody’s right to express an opinion but the suggestion of irresponsibility on our part is simply undeserved,” the network said. “HBO has a long history of championing intelligent storytelling and we will approach this project with the same level of thoughtfulness that has always defined our programming. We recognize the sensitivity of this project and will treat it with the respect that it deserves. Our creative partners should be given time to develop the series rather than face prejudgment.”

The backlash to the show has also spurred a debate about whether the #NoConfederate campaign constituted a form of censorship, because the criticism of the show developed before a script was even written. Judd Apatow, the television and movie producer, said on Twitter that “to criticize work before it exists is dangerous to all expression.”

HBO said that “Confederate” would not go into production until “Game of Thrones” was finished next year, meaning that it will probably be at least two years before the show is ready to air.

The network has dealt with pre-emptive furor before. In the months before the release of the science fiction drama “Westworld,” the network faced criticism that it was once again relying on sexual violence against women as a plot point in a prominent show. (“Game of Thrones” has also been subject to this criticism during its run, another reason that some thought Mr. Weiss and Mr. Benioff, who are both white, were less-than-ideal creators of a show that dealt with slavery.) But by time “Westworld” debuted, much of that had died down, and the first-year drama was showered with good reviews, strong ratings and numerous Emmy nominations.

In the meantime came the release on Sunday of more hacked episodes from upcoming series, including a new episode of “Insecure,” and several unaired episodes from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and the new series “The Deuce,” which will form the backbone of HBO’s fall lineup. (To complicate matters further for HBO, a producer of “The Deuce” will be sentenced Tuesday for his role in the fatal cocaine overdose of a 38-year old dermatologist).

The hacker, who refers to himself as Mr. Smith, described this as the “third wave” of material. So far, the attack has remained relatively contained compared with the one involving Sony, which included a trove of embarrassing and racially insensitive emails that forced the studio’s executives to publicly apologize and meet with civil rights activists. HBO has said that it did not believe its email system “as a whole” had been breached, though the hacker has had access to some emails and released a number from the account of one network executive.

The information released from the Sony theft was also eventually made available on WikiLeaks, making private emails easily searchable by the public.

In contrast, the HBO hacker has primarily released the material to members of the news media, and it is not clear how widely some of the hacked episodes have actually spread online. Further, the hacker has not released any upcoming episodes of “Game of Thrones,” HBO’s crown jewel, which has two episodes left this season.

Mr. Smith has said that he wants HBO to pay him a ransom for the rest of the material. On Monday, the hacker provided a copy of a letter that he had purportedly sent to HBO. “You disappointed us, so we will bring down your nasty empire,” it read.

HBO said in a statement that it was no longer in communication with the hacker, and that it would not comment on every bit of material that was released.

“The hacker may continue to drop bits and pieces of stolen information in an attempt to generate media attention,” the network said. “That’s a game we’re not going to participate in. Obviously, no company wants their proprietary information stolen and released on the internet. Transparency with our employees, partners, and the creative talent that works with us has been our focus throughout this incident and will remain our focus as we move forward. This incident has not deterred us from ensuring HBO continues to do what we do best.”

But it has contributed to an unexpectedly anxious summer.