It’s Not TV: HBO, the company that changed television (Preface)

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  1. Preface:

 

When the pay-TV service Home Box Office debuted on a stormy night in the fall of 1972, its future hardly looked promising…or even assured. On the service’s opening night, HBO had less than 400 subscribers on a single cable system in Pennsylvania. They were treated to a hockey game and a two-year-old movie that had been a box office stiff. Due to technical difficulties caused by the storm, the opening night almost didn’t open at all, and nobody in the fledgling company even liked the name: Home Box Office.

Nor were there any particularly auspicatory signs of future success. By 1972, there was already a rather tall scrap heap of failed attempts at pay-TV dating back decades, and much of HBO’s own research confirmed the then oft-repeated adage that trying to get people to buy TV (after almost a quarter of a century of free broadcast programming) would be like trying to get people to buy air.

Flash forward forty-odd years and HBO is the largest pay-TV service in the world – that’s right, not just America, but the world, with a truly global subscribership of over 114 million here in the U.S., in Europe, Latin America, and the Pacific Rim; over $3 billion in annual sales; and a name – that same name even the company’s founders didn’t much care for – that’s one of the most recognized brands on the planet, right up there with Coca-Cola.

Between that rainy night in 1972 and today there have been a half-dozen predictions that the company had had its day, and, indeed, HBO has had its bad times, its missteps, its flat-out failures. And, certainly, it’s no longer as unique and novel as it was in its early years.

Yet…

HBO is still here, showing a remarkable resilience and ability to re-think itself and adapt to changing environments. And, it still produces some of the most acclaimed and provocative programming on the ever-expanding cable spectrum: shows like True Blood, Girls, and Game of Thrones.

But the most notable thing HBO did – and the thing that probably gets most overlooked – is that it changed…everything.

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HBO has, in its four decades, become such an institution, it’s hard to remember what the entertainment landscape looked like pre-HBO. An entire generation has grown up with cable TV as the norm, and, if those kids were brought up in the areas where HBO first started, there’s a reasonable chance their parents grew up with HBO, too. Nineteen-seventy-two was a different world, and offered a media universe anybody under 30 might view as so monumentally different from today as to be alien. Nearly all of the changes that followed owe something – either directly or indirectly – to the success of HBO.

The service changed television, was largely responsible for the birth of the modern cable era, reconfigured the motion picture industry, and stoked an appetite for home entertainment and alternatives to Old Media pipelines sparking everything from home video to Internet TV.

Yet, despite numerous articles, references in other works, and even a collection of scholarly essays, there’s not a single public, published, full history of the company. The biggest thing to happen to television entertainment since the launching of the commercial broadcast era in the late 1940s has been remarkably undocumented.

It’s time to tell that story. Long past the time, actually.

HBO is worth the look for succeeding where so many others failed, for its ability to survive and remain relevant through its talent for reinvention, and for being such an integral factor in shaping what we watch and hear for entertainment, and how we watch and listen to it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit I’m biased. I worked there for 27 years. While HBO’s track record is hardly immaculate, I was impressed from my first day as an employee – and remain impressed even as an ex-employee – at the sheer tonnage of smarts contained in that cube of green glass on the corner of 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. Even after being shown the door, I still think it’s a story not only worth telling, but one that deserves to be told.

In the coming weeks we’re going to take a journey and retrace how the world’s first and most successful subscription television service came to be, how it does what it does and why. Actually, we’re going to go back even further, before the beginning, because to appreciate the revolutionary quality HBO had in 1972, you have to understand what the service was rebelling against. HBO didn’t spontaneously combust in a vacuum; it was then the latest chapter in the history of a medium that had yet to discover its full potential. And to understand that, you have to understand how the status quo got to be the status quo.

So, stay tuned…

-Bill Mesce

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