book review

Book Review: Peter Biskind’s “Pandora’s Box”

In 2020, and after eleven seasons on air, ABC ran the last episode of mega-hit Modern Family. A newspaper account indicated that Modern Family was realistically the last show of its kind.

At the time, the last-of-its-kind description read as trite and overdone. Not anymore. With the proliferation of television shows across a growing number of platforms, the days of asking friends and work colleagues if they saw what you saw the night before are largely over with. Assuming we’re watching, it’s increasingly true that friends and work colleagues are watching something else. Same with family members, as smartphones and wildly cheap televisions foster audience segmentation even inside homes.

This and more came to mind while reading Peter Biskind’s new history of the modern television era, Pandora’s Box: How Guts, Guile, and Greed Upended TV. Up front, how interesting that Biskind is the author considering that he wrote what many would agree is the greatest Hollywood history ever, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. The latter chronicled the rise of the rebellious, studio-breaking auteurs of the 1970s. Back then, the talented made movies. No longer. Biskind’s latest sets out to explain why.

Seriously, how far television has come. Biskind references Newton Minow, John F. Kennedy’s FCC chairman, and his 1960s description of television as “a vast wasteland.” No doubt. Long after JFK, and well into the ‘80s and ’90s at least, it was accepted wisdom that televisions were where viewers could find the lowest of low quality. How soon we forget that Love Boat was very popular in the 1970s, as was Fantasy Island. While a strong case can be made that we overate the past in all ways including the bad (The White Shadow was an excellent network show, so were Mary Tyler MooreMASH and Cheers great and literate), the bad well exceeded the good.

While today even the most voracious of television watchers could realistically never see all the excellent shows on the various platforms, decades ago the good pickings were slim. And it showed most notably in where the front/behind the camera talent took their own. Actors aspired to movies. So did directors. Once again, no longer.

Biskind cites late ‘80s auteur Steven Soderbergh’s observation that “the audience for the kind of movies I grew up liking has migrated to television.” It’s hard to argue with. If you’re reading this review you’re likely interested in high quality film and television, in which case you likely first heard of Soderbergh in 1989, and following the release of Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Soderbergh directed movies for independent-film focused movie theaters back then, while now he increasingly does TV. How things change.

Trite as the above comment is, it speaks to a truth that won’t likely ever be uttered about Pandora’s Box beyond this review: it is the ultimate killer of the obnoxious conceit that is antitrust law. The latter of course imagines in shockingly naïve fashion that the future of commerce will resemble the present, and since it will, it’s essential that the powers-that-be of the present be neutered by the FCC, DOJ and other federal entities lest they control the whole market. Biskind’s story of the evolution of television reveals the folly of such conceit, and does so endlessly.

To see why, consider HBO itself. Long viewed as the “Tiffany” cable channel for its high-end and frequently daring shows, it wasn’t always thus. Biskind references Sam Cohen, an agent who once represented the great Mike Nichols, and who told an ambitious television executive with lots of network experience that “If you go to HBO, you’re leaving the business. What they’re doing is disgusting, it’s bad, it’s cheap, forget it.” The executive rejected Cohen’s advice, and did so because she was told she would enjoy maximum creative freedom at the upstart that intended to win subscribers with commercial free movies. They were once novel.

Eventually the freedom to create proved too compelling not just for executives, but also for directors and actors. As Sopranos creator David Chase explained it to Biskind, “On network, everybody says exactly what they’re thinking at all times. I wanted my characters to be telling lies.” Oh well, it’s a good thing Chase didn’t want to work with the all-powerful networks, and that is so because they weren’t interested in him either. Fox, among others, turned down Sopranos pre-pilot, only for the more courageous and tasteful HBO (it could already claim quality shows like The Larry Sanders ShowTanner ’88, and Oz) to eventually pick it up, albeit after leaving Chase hanging for ten months. The future of business is opaque, and television is most certainly not an exception to this truth.

Where it gets interesting is that while HBO’s executives gradually developed a reputation for picking quality hits (think Sopranos yet again, the all-time great The WireSex and the City, etc. etc.), Biskind reports that it rejected Mad MenYellowstone, and House of Cards, among others. Biskind adds that HBO could have purchased Netflix for $2 billion way back when. As this review is being written, Netflix’s market cap is $245 billion

Importantly, it’s not just HBO’s misses that tell a bigger story about the extraordinary folly of antitrust. This story is much better known, but Biskind adds to Blockbuster Video’s ignominy with his line that the former video rental giant “just laughed” a desperate-for-a-buyer Netflix “out of its offices.” Notable here is that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos low-balled Netflix too, but did so when Amazon itself was struggling to survive in an office “filled with desks made of old doors sitting on sawhorses in a second-floor walk-up located in a seedy Seattle neighborhood squeezed between pawn and porn shops.” Would current FCC Chair Lina Khan (who hates “big” more than most) have blocked Amazon’s purchase of Netflix back in the 1990s? It’s worth asking. 

Back to HBO vis-à-vis Netflix, onetime HBO and eventual Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes, when asked about Netflix in 2010, observed that “it’s a little bit like – is the Albanian army going to take over the world? I don’t think so.” Oh well.

As always, the stories of misses are endless. While F/X green lit successes like The ShieldNip/Tuck and Justified (WAY too many holes in season one’s stories for me to watch beyond it), it passed on Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad in favor of Courtney Cox’s impressively awful Dirt. F/X did green light The Americans, only for Biskind to report that no less than Steven Spielberg removed his name as producer of same given his deeply held view that Matthew Rhys was wrong for the role of Philip Jennings.

Back to Breaking Bad, it should be said in defense of F/X’s pass that the show wasn’t initially a hit. Indeed, further evidence of just how unpredictable the future is comes care of Netflix yet again. Biskind reports that by 2010 “AMC was ready to call it quits” on Breaking Bad after three seasons, but to its everlasting luck Sony stepped in with outside financing for two more. In 2013, the season finale of the show could claim over 10 million viewers. What happened? Why was a well-regarded but not-so-popular show suddenly heavily watched by 21st century standards? Think Netflix and the relentless streaming of shows by subscribers. The proverbial Albanian army made Breaking Bad, and eventually many more shows. That few to no one could predict Breaking Bad’s fortunes just speaks yet again to the utter foolishness of antitrust: the simple truth is that few other than Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph could see ahead to what a powerful impact streaming would have on television. Notable here is that even Hastings and Randolph were more than a bit blind as evidenced by how willing they were to sell their once ridiculed service to Amazon, Blockbuster, and HBO.

Considering Hollywood and its shows through the prism of the wealth and inequality they generate, there’s an economic lesson here too. Longtime HBO exec Carolyn Strauss makes appearances throughout Pandora’s Box, but her most important line to this economics writer was the one about “pilots,” the shows that would-be television producers create in the hope of their concept being made into a series. In Strauss’s words, “the percentage of shows that make it from pitch to screen are so tiny.” 140 pages later, Biskind notes that “in 2013 a script that went to pilot stood no more than a 2.1 percent chance of success.” It’s a long or short way of saying that with businesses, hedge funds, movies and television shows, we generally only hear about the successes. And when the intrepid grow rich off the rare successes, braindead members of the left whine about inequality, while almost as braindead members of the right insult the inequality that results from courageous creativity by utilizing statistics to “prove” we’re not as unequal as left-wingers think. Actually, the freer the people, the more creative the free are allowed to be, the more inequality there is. Let’s celebrate it! As Biskind makes plain, Hollywood’s elites become that way with the odds heavily stacked against them. 

More on pilots, Biskind notes that Netflix, the former minnow, upended the whole notion. While pitches followed by pilots followed by interminable waits that most often resulted in rejection were formerly the norm, Ted Sarandos and other Netflix executives concluded that “We don’t really understand the whole pilot business.” That’s why HBO missed out on House of Cards. While HBO (“It’s Not TV. It’s HBO”) required pilots ahead of making decisions about whether or not to proceed, “Netflix bet $100 million on two full seasons” of House of Cards. Amen to that.

At the same time, Biskind’s explanation of how Netflix upended the old ways of doing things brings up quibbles. Indeed, while Biskind reported exuberantly about how Netflix proved wildly pro artist by ordering multiple seasons of various series, while he wrote exuberantly of how the eventual streamer was generously throwing substantial amounts of money around Hollywood such that “the cost of doing business is going up” (HBO head Casey Bloys) as actor, director, and producer salaries rose (Biskind notes that Apple and Amazon have played a substantial role here too), he ends Chapter Ten of Pandora’s Box with the suggestion that Netflix has a bad reputation, that it’s terrible to negotiate with, and it’s terrible to negotiate with because it can be terrible to negotiate with. Ok, which is it?

The above wasn’t the only oddity in the book. About the presumed oddities, Biskind is trying to squeeze decades of eventful and entertaining history into a little over 300 pages. Not an easy feat. This leads to scenarios whereby we’re reading about HBO legend Michael Fuchs and the early, 1970s days of the channel on p. 5, but on p. 6 we’re reading about a documentary produced about Osama Bin-Laden. On p. 11 Biskind quotes Fuchs talking about how “our original programming gave us leverage against the studios,” only for the author to pivot to what he deems were lousy acquisitions like Band of Brothers and The Pacific. On p. 13 the reader will learn about the misogynistic atmosphere in the writers’ room of the late Garry Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show, but the very next paragraph pivots to longtime exec Kevin Reilly, and how his “boyish good looks” have protected him over the years. About these errors or misreads (it’s possible I read the book too fast), I’ll chalk them up to the sad truth that they’re increasingly the norm in every book, and regardless of publisher. The book business sucks, and it shows up in slimmed-down editing.

There were corny passages like “canned laugh tracks that, like flat stones skipping across the surface of a pond” that I could have done without, and then I similarly could have done without all the political references. Biskind swings left. No insight there. It’s possible Biskind is very politically informed, but at least in my case I was reading the book to learn about the television business. Everyone’s so political nowadays. Biskind did, however, correctly describe John Malone as a libertarian. He’s not a conservative. That, among other things, is why Malone’s so wise. Biskind also happily exposed how Ron DeSantis’s mindless critiques of Disney were formerly those of the left. Both sides are awful. I wrote a book making just that case

Alas, Pandora’s Box is a book about television. And a very good one at that! Readers will find it much more than a joy, fans of entertainment in particular.


  • John Tamny

    John Tamny is a popular speaker and author in the U.S. and around the world. His speech topics include "Government Barriers to Economic Growth," "Why Washington and Wall Street are Better Off Living Apart," and more.

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