The show was called “Scraper,” but it was clearly about Gawker Media, the network of aggressive, transgressive blogs that created mischief and headaches for America’s powerful until its targets sued the company into oblivion in 2016.
Two Gawker veterans sold the idea to Apple TV+, the new streaming service: Cord Jefferson, who left the site for a career writing for TV, and Max Read, Gawker’s former editor in chief. Apple hired two more former Gawker editors, Emma Carmichael and Leah Beckmann, as writers, and they had completed several episodes, people close to the production said.
Then, an Apple executive got an email from the company’s chief executive, Tim Cook.
Mr. Cook, according to two people briefed on the email, was surprised to learn that his company was making a show about Gawker, which had humiliated the company at various times and famously outed him, back in 2008, as gay. He expressed a distinctly negative view toward Gawker, the people said. Apple proceeded to kill the project. And now, the show is back on the market and the executive who brought it in, Layne Eskridge, has left the company. Gawker, it seems, is making trouble again.
Cord Jefferson, with his Writers Guild awards for the television shows “Succession” and “Watchmen” last February.Credit…Charley Gallay/Getty Images
Gawker was always a canary in the cultural coal mine, mostly because of its mission of heading farther along the coal face than others wanted or dared to. It crossed lines that needed to be crossed — pushing stories about sexually abusive figures like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby — and ones that didn’t, exposing the personal lives and frailties of minor figures. And its ethos put the company, which published the tech blog Gizmodo and the pioneering feminist blog Jezebel, among others, into America’s new culture wars. It became a target of Gamergate in 2014, when the backlash to calls for diversity in gaming offered an early glimpse of what would become the new online right wing. It ignited intense debates over privacy, with its gleeful publishing of sex shop tapes and explicit photographs. And when it emerged in 2016 that the tech mogul Peter Thiel had secretly financed the lawsuit that brought down the company, it seemed the final truth Gawker had exposed was the power and determination of Silicon Valley to bring the media to heel.
But now, from beyond the grave, Gawker is revealing another reality in this era of media consolidation: that the chief executive of one of the biggest companies in the world, who testifies before Congress and negotiates with China, also decides what television shows get made. A spokesman for Apple, Tom Neumayr, declined to comment on the show’s demise.
But Hollywood is now firmly in the grip of giant companies with singular leaders — Mr. Cook and Apple; Amazon and its chief executive, Jeff Bezos; the Netflix C.E.O. Reed Hastings; and AT&T’s top executive, John Stankey — with big consumer brands and other pressing priorities, like their lucrative other businesses and their access to international markets.
So far, Apple TV+ is the only streaming studio to bluntly explain its corporate red lines to creators — though Disney, with its giant theme park business in China, shares Apple’s allergy to antagonizing China’s leader, Xi Jinping.
Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president for internet software and services, who has been at the company since 1989, has told partners that “the two things we will never do are hard-core nudity and China,” one creative figure who has worked with Apple told me. (BuzzFeed News first reported last year that Mr. Cue had instructed creators to “avoid portraying China in a poor light.”)
The Wall Street Journal also reported in 2018 that Mr. Cook personally killed a Dr. Dre biopic because there was too much violence and nudity, and that the company had asked the director M. Night Shyamalan to keep crucifixes off the walls in his thriller “Servant.”
And then, there are the phones: A person involved in another recent Apple show recalled instructions to avoid a scene in which a phone would be damaged.
The logic of these rules is obvious: Apple TV+ is a minor sideline in a sprawling, deliberate, top-down company that uses a pristine brand to sell some 200 million iPhones a year. Creative executives aren’t alone in tiptoeing around anything that could dent the brand.
And you can understand why Mr. Cook was surprised to learn that his company was making a show about Gawker. The site represented a particular irritant to Apple. The most famous incident came in 2010, when Gizmodo got its hands on a prototype of the iPhone 4. Steve Jobs pleaded to get it back, police close to the company raided an editor’s house, and Gawker reveled in the chaos.
But Mr. Cook also has a personal grievance with the site, which in 2008 responded to a glowing article about the low-profile executive by floating the rumor that he was gay. (Other coverage had used euphemistic expressions like “intensely private” lifelong bachelor.) When Apple named Mr. Cook to lead the company in 2011, it made no mention of his sexual orientation, but Gawker’s Ryan Tate introduced him as “The Most Powerful Gay Man in America.”
Mr. Cook later wrote proudly of his identity, and said he’d long been open with people in his personal life. But Mr. Tate said he thought frequently about the story afterward, and even wondered whether Mr. Cook’s parents had known about his identity before the report.
“It’s something that gave me pause and that I thought about, but I would do it the same way again,” he said. “There is a broader good in knowing more about the private lives of the people who run this society. If writing about the C.E.O. of Apple isn’t within bounds — then who would be?” (An Apple spokesman didn’t answer any questions about how Mr. Cook felt about the coverage at the time.)
Apple, a company whose corporate culture is firmly controlled by the same small group of men who have run it for two decades, and whose value to consumers is focused on protecting their privacy, doesn’t quite see the world the same way.
So now “Scraper” is heading back to the market, and could still see daylight with a different producer. Another company, Anonymous Content, bought the option to develop a New Yorker article about Gawker, a person familiar with the deal said. (The New Yorker article was written by Jeffrey Toobin, a frequent target of Gawker.)
Apple TV+, which started a year ago, has struggled to find its feet in a climate in which its top creative executives, Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, appear to be constantly trying to guess what Mr. Cook and Mr. Cue might like, or might object to. That has mostly ruled out the sort of prestige drama that defined other breakout streaming services. The service is currently experiencing modest success with a show that would be at home on broadcast TV, the sweetly funny “Ted Lasso.” (The branding can be a little conspicuous: There are as many as three Apple devices in some “Ted Lasso” scenes, and Siri makes a cameo.)
The company is in no hurry, though, and its strategy with other media projects has been to edge them from failure to, if not blowout success, a strong enough position that you’ll sign up if the thing is preinstalled on your phone — Apple’s true commercial advantage in the media business. That’s true of Apple Music, now the world’s second-largest streaming service; and of Apple News, a well-curated, if unexciting, app that is reportedly where President-elect Joe Biden gets his information. Apple’s greatest streaming coup of the pandemic was to pick up the film “Greyhound,” the World War II drama starring — who else? — Tom Hanks.
And Apple’s willingness to sacrifice creative freedom for corporate risk management is still an outlier. None of my reporting suggests that Mr. Bezos is reaching into Amazon’s studio (or The Washington Post) to kill negative depictions of either e-commerce or the police, or that Mr. Stankey is ostentatiously slipping AT&T routers into “Lovecraft Country.” The question, of course, is how long, even at those companies, the old law will be suspended — that he who pays the piper calls the tune.
But it is worth noting that, at a time when more American audiences are turning to streaming for their understanding of culture, history and even reality, the men running these companies have made their priorities plain. At Netflix, Mr. Hastings gave ground to the Saudi monarchy, taking an episode of Hasan Minhaj’s comedy talk show “Patriot Act” off the streaming service in that country, after the show criticized Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“We’re not trying to do truth-to-power,” Mr. Hastings said last year. “We’re trying to entertain.”