It’s Not TV: HBO, The Company That Changed Television (Introduction)


2) Introduction

“Television is going to be the test of the modern world…we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television — of that I am quite sure.”

E. B. White

Perhaps it began with a puff of smoke.

Some early brand of homo sapiens had something he wanted to say, and felt compelled to have a lot of his prehistoric colleagues hear it. So, he grabbed himself his mastodon pelt blanket in one hand, his sparking flints in the other, trudged up the nearest high hill, made himself a fire and started flapping the blanket making smoke signals visible for miles around.

And here, a few milennia later, are his somewhat better postured and less hairy kin still working from the same agenda. Instead of a blanket and flint, though, they have TV studios and uplink facilities. Instead of a high hill, they have transmission towers or — the highest “hill” there is — satellite transponders. Instead of smoke, they have electronic signals. Instead of a range of a few miles, they can reach entire continents simultaneously.

Then again, perhaps it didn’t start that way at all. Who knows? Cable television only arose less than 70 years ago and no one’s quite sure how, where, and by whom that started!

The point is that since members of humankind first began communicating with each other, they had been looking for ways to speak to larger and larger numbers of their kind at the same time either because of some compelling need to widely share their thoughts, or because it’s a more cost efficient way of selling soap. In either case, you can only shout so loud and then you have to start looking for a more far-reaching vehicle. Say smoke signals, or satellite transmission. Or Facebook.

There was a philosopher who said that when you look back over the course of your life, it looks like a smooth progression of events with one thing leading naturally to the next in a neat line that ends at the present, although when you were going through those same events they seemed chaotic, random, unplanned. The progression from our hairy little ancestor beating out a message in puffs of smoke to satellite transmissions that can blanket entire continents may similarly look connected by a series of gradual and logical steps. However, that smooth technological evolution only exists in retrospect. Backtracking from the advent of HBO, the pay service seems like an inevitability. It was anything but. Television technology — like any other technology — progressed in fits and starts, often through technological three-cushion bank shots, with developments that were often directed towards one goal but wound up somewhere else. The launch and eventual success of HBO was no different.

Back in the early 1800s, when the Baron Jons Berzelius isolated selenium, he didn’t do it because he had envisioned television as an end product. There was no great concerted plan to “discovering” television any more than there was a plan for what to do with it when it finally did find its way into being. With deceptive simplicity, radio and TV personality Gene Klavan succinctly put it this way in his book, Turn That Damned Thing Off: “…there never was a game plan for TV; it grew as it grew.”

However television started, and however it grew, it’s here. In fact, it’s everywhere.

Its images transcend the limitations of literacy and its signals respect no national or cultural barriers. Satellite carriage and portable receiving dishes make television reception possible anywhere on the surface of the earth; on any continent, any island, from pole to pole, and mobile uplinks mean that signals can be transmitted to a global audience from anywhere with equal ease. During the Gulf War of 1990, Saddam Hussein regularly tuned in to satellite transmissions of CNN to find out what was going on outside of Iraq. Michael Fuchs, one-time Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Home Box Office, believed views of a comparatively opulent West that East Europeans saw in bootleg videotapes and pirated satellite signals during Cold War days helped fuel their discontent with their lot under Communist regimes. TV knows no walls.

Up until the rise of the Internet, television was the dominant carriage of information from one place to another throughout the world for a good 40-50 years. More than film, radio, or the printed word, television had become, during the post-WW II era, the global population’s principal source of information and entertainment (and, for older demographics, it’s still a first choice over the Internet). It’s still the best way to reach a mass audience in one, fell swoop.

In the United States, a hardcover book can reach the best-seller list of the New York Times with sales measuring in the tens of thousands. A top rock album goes gold with sales of a hundred thousand. A motion picture hits the all-time box office hit list with ticket sales of over $200 million which translates into maybe 20-30 million ticket buyers — many of them repeat viewers — over a period of 1-4 months.

But, with at least one television set in 98% of all American homes (believe it or not, there are still people who either can’t afford a set, or — having decided TV is a brain-draining, soul-sapping, addictive, corrupting distraction and a fundamental evil — voluntarily elect not to have one), a Number One prime time television show will be viewed by 20-30 million or more families in the space of one evening!

Prior to an era of Wikileaks and YouTube-worthy faux pas, TV was usually the instrument that made — and just as often broke — political reputations, entertainment careers, fashion trends, sometimes through one season of a hit show, sometimes through televising a single event. In some judgments, Richard Nixon lost the presidential election to John Kennedy because young, vibrant JFK looked so damned good on TV during their 1960 televised debates…and sweaty, jowly Nixon and his persistent five o’clock shadow looked so damned bad. To others, Oliver North’s earnest appearance during the 1987 televised Iran/Contra hearings transformed him from lawbreaker into a patriotic hero.

For all its impact on society, television itself has never been immutable. If television has changed the kind of people we are, television itself has also been changed…and continues to change. The medium has evolved through the HBO-sparked ascendance of cable-carried television and along with it has evolved both the public and the industry’s concept of what television can and should do.

Somewhere around 95% of American homes are within reach of a cable hook-up, with, according to website Advanced Television, a little over 60% of homes actually subscribing (the Television Bureau of Advertising estimates another 30%, give or take, get pay TV through satellite subscription). Where the typical urban TV viewer might have previously received a half-dozen broadcast channels 30 years ago, the average — mind you, this is only the average — cable system offers over 100 channels carrying programming ranging from the latest Kardashian spin-off to live coverage of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In many ways, Home Box Office — which launched the modern cable era — has been a refutation of what had been the driving philosophy behind television since the late 1940s. It didn’t attempt to reach the largest audience, it didn’t try to please the largest numbers of people as much of the time as possible, and most critically, it asked people to pay for something they’d been getting for free. It was everything that television — so the mindset of its early years went — was not supposed to be. And in that, it created a niche audience programming template still followed today all across the cable spectrum.

Next week, we’ll have a look at what came before HBO, and how that pre-pay-TV world came to be.

– Bill Mesce

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