A few weeks ago, HBO announced the upcoming drama Confederate, an alternative-history imagining of a United States where the South won the Civil War and slavery survived. For a network that’s normally meticulous about manicuring its development slate, something about the rollout — which inspired a hashtag campaign against the show’s existence and forced president Casey Bloys to go on the defensive at the Television Critics Association press tour — seemed … odd. As Confederate (and Game of Thrones) cocreators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, along with their co-executive producers, Malcolm Spellman and Nichelle Tramble Spellman, told Vulture in a damage-control interview, the show is in its earliest stages of development, without so much as a script or even character names.
This baffling PR strategy now at least has a plausible explanation. Today, Amazon announced Black America, yet another “what if?” drama set in a version of the country where the Civil War played out very differently. Here’s the synopsis from Deadline:
Held up against Confederate, as its creators (or, rather, their publicists) clearly intended, Black America has a less controversial premise with an equally formidable pedigree: It’s the previously announced collaboration between producer Will Packer, most recently of Girls Trip, and Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder. Back in February, Black America was simply an untitled “alternate universe drama.” Now, it’s being positioned as a corrective to a premise that’s already faced heavy criticism — and as one prestige network’s attempt to outdo another.
Until either Confederate, Black America, or both become actual shows on our actual televisions, the differences between them will inevitably be filtered through the lens of media strategy. It’s worth pulling back and considering that public perception has become a battleground not just for two competing ideas of how to approach a delicate subject, but for two giants of prestige television — one an established veteran, the other a relative upstart with the backing of one of the richest men in the world — going head to head in an effort to position themselves as ideally situated storytellers. And early reactions on social media suggest that Amazon’s strategy is working. The narrative, for the foreseeable future, is now “See, this is how it’s done.”
It cannot be stated enough that neither Confederate nor Black America is an actual series yet. There are infinite factors in the success or failure of a TV show, with the initial abstract and creators representing just a couple. But for the moment, HBO and Amazon’s face-off represents a fascinating chapter in the ongoing prestige wars, in which deep-pocketed contenders like Netflix and FX fight for big names and ever-more-elusive buzz. What makes this flare-up so interesting is that the contrast between two networks is rarely so direct, nor the victor this decisive — for now. Amazon wins this round of publicity, but the fight for Peak TV supremacy rages on.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.