It’s Not TV: HBO, The Company That Changed Television: Golden Age: Part 1

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Every winning streak will have to end sometime.”

Jahinger Khan

In recognition of the job HBO CEO Michael Fuchs had done growing HBO and diversifying its business, he was invited uptown in 1995 to take over Warner Music while still keeping HBO as part of his new, expanded dominion. Assuming Fuchs’ top exec slot at HBO was Jeff Bewkes.

Not long after Fuchs had been given command of HBO in 1984 after the ouster of Frank Biondi, it had been clear that Fuchs’ strengths were not universal.  Programming and long-term strategic vision were his fortes.  Some of the more mundane and, for Fuchs, onerous tasks, such as kissing up to officers of the major cable MSOs, was something for which the often high-handed Fuchs didn’t have much of an affinity.  The solution had been to divvy the company up, putting those non-Fuchsian — but critically important — responsibilities under a newly-created office of President.

Joe Collins was Fuchs’ first president.  Despite a build like an ex-footballer, Collins was a soft-spoken type, not particularly big on public appearances.  HBO’s PR staff found itself in the comic position of having an abrasive CEO they were trying to keep off the media stage, and a President they had to shove onto it.  Collins’ background was cable and he made a perfect bridge between HBO and its affiliates, doing well enough that within four years, Time Inc. had moved him up to take the top job at American Television and Communications (ATC), Time’s cable subsidiary, and, at the time, one of the largest MSOs in the U.S. (after Time’s merger with Warner Communications in 1989, the cable arms of both organizations were merged in 1992 to form Time Warner Cable).

Collins was followed by Thayer Bigelow, a Time Inc. finance veteran.  A sharp, articulate business guy, Bigelow, too, was rewarded with a move back uptown three years later.

Bigelow was followed by Bewkes who, in both skills and temperament, Fuchs would find his perfect counterpart.  Perhaps the smooth meshing had something to do with Bewkes being a veteran HBOer, having been with the company since the early 1980s, rising through the ranks to become the company’s Chief Financial Officer in 1986. The picture that emerged was of Fuchs, The Programming Guy, and Bewkes, The Business Guy, the two halves making an extremely powerful whole.  Curiously, they were worlds apart in personality.

While HBO’s senior execs typically used the company’s private dining rooms, it wasn’t unusual to see Bewkes picking up a quick lunch in the cafeteria, or working up a sweat in the company gym, standing elbow to elbow with the rank and file, striking up a conversation about the crappy jobs he’d had in his younger years.

One story I particularly remember about him is the time he’d left his briefcase in a cab.  By happenstance, the next person in the cab happened to be a friend of one of the executive assistants at HBO to whom she returned the briefcase.

Several days later, the assistant passed on the briefcase rescuer’s regards, and Bewkes remembered he’d never properly thanked her.  He had flowers sent to the woman’s office along with a note not only of thanks, but apologies for not being more prompt in showing his appreciation.

When Fuchs moved up to Warner music, Bewkes was given sole command of the company.  I don’t know what the feeling was at the senior management levels, but I do know some of us staffers were curious about what this would mean for the creative direction of HBO.  Fuchs had been a programmer, had come up from the programming side of the company, had early on seen the strategic value of bolstering the company’s original programming muscle.

But Bewkes was The Business Guy.  Would he “get” the programming vision Fuchs had laid out for the company?

One of the great ironies in the programming evolution of HBO was that while Fuchs had pointed the company in the right direction, it would be under The Business Guy that HBO, as a creative entity, would experience its first Golden Age.

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Bewkes gave the direction Fuchs had set for HBO a slight course correction.  Bewkes saw that the originals that would have the most value to the company would be scripted series.  The popularity of movies and documentaries seemed to be topic-driven.  The right subject would bring a big crowd in one month, but didn’t guarantee good numbers for the next outing.  Movies and docs didn’t cultivate a consistent brand loyalty.

But a series…  When a series clicks, that means a regular audience coming back week after week; it means that certain “anchored” time slots (a regular time slot, or, in the case of HBO’s rotating schedule, slots) could consistently pull predictable numbers.  That means loyalty.

The difficulty for Bewkes’ slight turning of the HBO programming helm was that even by the time he took the CEO’s chair, HBO’s track record in series ranged between “disappointing” and “abysmal,” with stops on the way at “cheap,” “sleazy,” and “junk.”

HBO’s problem with original series was similar to the problems it had getting its movie division off the ground: the company was hardly a first port of call for heavy-hitters in TV program creation. The company had to make do with what it got, and what it got was rarely impressive.

Not-Necessarily-the-News

The same year HBO’s children programming delivered a series coup with Fraggle Rock – 1983 — the adult side of the company turned out the less impressive Not Necessarily the News. Spun off from a 1982 special, NNTN was a left-handed remake of British TV comedy series Not the Nine O’Clock News. The centerpiece was a faux newscast (not too dissimilar to the “Weekend Update” segment of Saturday Night Live) with the rest of the half-hour filled out with parodies of commercials and skits. It was never quite as aggressively topical as SNL, never as astute as SCTV, and, despite a writing staff that included Conan O’Brian on his first TV writing stint, and future The Office producer Greg Daniels, more mildly amusing than funny. Dull-edged as it was, NNTN managed to develop a following that kept the series on the service until 1990.

An even less memorable early effort was the sitcom 1st & 10, a supposedly comic half-hour starring Delta Burke as a divorcee who gains ownership of the fictional California Bulls football team in a settlement with her ex-husband (Burke left the show in its third season for the CBS hit, Designing Women). In the second season, O.J. Simpson joined the cast bolstering the show’s jock bonafides. Many was the reviewer who commented that the most imaginative element of the series was the way the writers managed to get the team’s cheerleaders (or some other available female) naked. The combination of football and gratuitous nudity was enough to carry the show for seven forgettable seasons with few brag-worthy moments among them.

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Instead of sports and boobs, The Hitchhiker held its audience with the equally potent mix of grotesque blood-spillage and boobs. A poor man’s Twilight Zone, each episode of the thriller anthology began with The Hitchhiker (Nicholas Campbell in early episodes, then Page Fletcher) thumbing his way along a highway delivering some portentous commentary as that episode’s guest star whizzed by (I don’t recall they ever picked up The Hitchhiker, but then who’s going to stop to pick up some scruffy guy talking to himself in a Canadian accent?). Most episodes involved a totally unnecessary injection of T & A and some karmic justice usually delivered in grotesque fashion. It was a workable enough formula to carry the series from 1983-1987 (the USA Network picked up the series in 1989 and produced new episodes through 1991), although, like 1st & 10, it’s not one of those shows that has people years later going, “Hey, remember the episode where…”.

HBO shows could use nasty words and show naked ladies and spray blood and exercise various combinations thereof, which the broadcast networks couldn’t, but the channel didn’t seem to be offering much else…although they did try.

From 1983 through 1986, the network produced 11 one-hour episodes of Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, starring Powers Boothe in adaptations of Raymond Chandler short stories featuring the eponymous detective. More of a limited series rather than a true series, they were classy-looking pieces (the show was shot in England where it was easier to find settings that looked more like 1930s Los Angeles – go figure) and well-reviewed, though never a breakout success.

And there was The Ray Bradbury Theatre, which was something of an attempt to find a more upscale sci fi/fantasy vehicle than The Hitchhiker. Hosted by the sci fi maestro himself, who also adapted his own stories for the series, Bradbury – lacking Hitchhiker’s per-episode quota of sex and mayhem – lasted only six 1984-85 episodes (this was another series USA picked up, turning out new episodes from 1988-1992).

Maximum Security, debuting in 1984, was a precursor to HBO’s later hit Oz, being another one-hour drama set in a prison. But Maximum… was another series that didn’t make much of an impression and lasted only six episodes.

At the same time HBO was finding its series-making feet with middling successes like NTNN and flops like Ray Bradbury, there were subs who didn’t like where this was going.

“I signed on for movies!” was a common complaint. Whenever the monthly slate of feature flicks was weak, it was – so some of HBO’s subs said – because we were blowing money on TV shows instead of movies (rather than the fact that so many movies sucked). A rather widely shared paranoia was that HBO seemed to be taking the first steps into turning itself into something that looked an awfully lot like the kind of TV these people were subscribing to HBO to get away from.

Which was not what the company was trying to do at all. What it was trying to do, with little success (at least on the original series front) was create a brand of TV distinctive to HBO. It’s just nobody knew quite what that was.

Then, in 1988, the company finally got a sense of what that kind of programming might be with Tanner ’88, a faux documentary following the efforts of one-time House of Representatives member Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy) to secure the Democratic nomination for president. The 11-part series, filmed against the background of the real-life ’88 campaign, had a creative pedigree then unmatched among HBO’s originals. The series had been created and written by Gary Trudeau, the man behind the Doonesbury comic strip, and was directed by filmmaker Robert Altman, whose list of credits at the time included M*A*S*H (1970) and Academy Award Best Picture nominee Nashville (1975; Altman had also been nominated for Best Director).

Statistically, Tanner was a flop. It’s acidic, insightful skewering of national politics was not exactly mass audience stuff and viewership never climbed out of six figures, but Bridget Potter, then HBO’s original programming chief, would look back and consider the series a turning point in the company’s creative development. Tanner was a smart show, a format-buster with its fake doc style, and, perhaps most importantly, according to Potter, “…attracted a new kind of critical attention to HBO.”

That’s another way of saying the company was, as a series programmer, finally being taken seriously by both those who wrote about the media…and those who wrote for it.

Next week: Golden Age: part 2

Click here to read every article in this series!

Preface

Introduction 

Towards Felix The Cat

Baby Steps

In The Beginning Was The Word: Radio

The Numbers Racket

Wasteland 

Greener Grass

Walson’s Mountain

The Green Channel 

Into The Skies, Junior Birdmen!

 Title Fights: The King of Pay-TV

The Movie Duels

The Wall

An Original Voice

Expanding the Brand Part 1

Expanding the Brand Part 2




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