Despite being widely considered one of the best TV shows of all time, The Wire's creator
David Simon doesn't believe HBO would have kept the show if he had pitched it today
due to the industry's deeper knowledge on audience metrics.
"I'm not sure if the Wire could survive now," the former Baltimore Sun journalist admitted
during Tribecca Film Festival’s Story by Numbers panel. "HBO will be the first to say we
only have (so many) hours to program for drama if the show is dragging wind, even if it is
a show that critics say you should watch because of X, Y and Z."
Simon joined House of Cards creator Beau Willimon, numbers wiz Nate Silver and film
journalist Anne Thompson on stage to discuss how stats have influenced the entertainment
and news media worlds during the Future of Film talk, which is part of Tribeca Innovation Week.
The Takeway radio host John Hockenberry moderated the panel.
While epic storytelling about Baltimore's drug and gang underbelly may have nurtured a critical
darling, it notoriously had poor Nielsen ratings during its five-year run. Simon said the additional
data on who exactly is watching and where they are consuming the media has made networks
more conscious about their metrics and more conservative about their decisions.
"HBO said we’re never giving away content, but just yesterday (they signed the Amazon deal).
Chord cutting is real. It costs money to make content on a different level," Simon elucidated.
The writer explained his current struggles with a new series he is developing with Ed Burns about
the history of the CIA. While HBO forked over $24 million to let him make The Wire, he believes it
won't buy his new project because of how it thinks it will perform. "They're looking at plausible
revenue streams, downloads," he pointed out.
Both show creators shared a high five over the idea that knowing metrics on their shows could only
hinder the creative process. Willimon admitted that Netflix won't share how well or poorly House of
Cards is doing. However, he said he sneeks peeks at the one to two star reviews of his show.
For example, Simon found that many people were angered that he killed a dog in the first 30 seconds
of the series and refused to watch House of Cards thereafter. Those viewers he could let go of because
they were never "meant to watch the show." However, opinions on what was unclear on the show
were constructive feedback.
"You're servicing the story," Simon said about being a writer. "You bring a world on. You feel responsible
to the character, and if you look over your shoulder and say the character wants more Omar, more Stringer,
that's why TV was a juvenile medium for the most part."
However, data could be useful for journalistic endeavors, The Wire creator remarked.
On that note, Silver said it helps 538 decide what content does well on their website. He's discovered
that stories that are very timely or not timely at all (meaning there has been a long distance from the
event that allows for perspective) are popular. Everything else—for example, a larger story pegged to
a recent event—falls in between.
But, Simon also warned about relying too much on audience stats or else everything would be about
"porn and blowing [expletive] up." He admitted that if he was asked to adapt a Web video that had 75
million views into a TV series, he would decline.