HBO Celebrates 50 Years
James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, Edie Falco as Carmela Soprano and Robert Iler as A.J. Soprano in The Sopranos
Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen and Kit Harington as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones
Wendell Pierce as Detective Moreland and Michael K. Williams as Omar Little in The Wire
Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw, Cynthia Nixon as Miranda Hobbes, Kristin Davis as Charlotte York and Kim Cattrall as Samantha Jones in Sex and the City
Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer in Veep
Yvonne Orji as Molly Carter and Issa Rae as Issa Dee in Insecure
In December of 1992, when this article first appeared in emmy magazine, HBO was only twenty years old — still a relative newcomer on the network block.
The premium cable network had not yet released the dark and broadcast-defying series for which it would become known. Prison drama Oz was still five years away. Sex and the City six years. And it would be seven years before James Gandolfini would cement his role as one of the greatest anti-heroes in television history as mob boss Tony Soprano in The Sopranos.
Even so, the cabler had already established itself as a provider of "provocative" content. And HBO was enjoying a new respect.
In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary on November 8, HBO launched its "Fifty Years of Firsts" campaign. For fifty days leading up to the anniversary, the network shared sneak peeks from upcoming originals, and HBO Max hosted a special page detailing a visual history of HBO's past, present and future.
Read on for more insights into the company's culture during its twentieth year, and early praise of HBO from the network's stars Garry Shandling and George Carlin, among others.
X-ray the brain of an HBO programming executive and the word provocative would likely appear. Bring in another HBO exec, and the same thing would happen with them. Why?
HBO executives have provocative on their minds at all times. In fact it is nearly impossible to chat with any of the cable network's brass and not hear that word repeatedly. They are bent on delivering provocative programming to their audience. Perhaps you don't agree with their assessment of the channel's lineup, but one thing is certain: they're doing something right.
Bridget Potter, senior vice-president of original programming, herself marvels at HBO's coming-of-age. "The growth and evolution is extraordinary," she says, "...that we've grown into this kind of force in the entertainment business. The perception of HBO, for people in the business, is very different from twenty years ago. The company is changing and growing and challenging."
HBO was born in 1972 with the goal of giving viewers greater reason to subscribe to cable than to simply improve their reception. Then, as now, the company was well aware that folks won't pay to watch what they can get elsewhere for free. So in the early days HBO became the first to deliver theatrical releases, uncut, into people's homes. It broadcast musical specials like The Pennsylvania Polka Festival and The Country Music Jamboree, and it televised sporting events ranging from boxing matches and hockey games to track meets and dog shows.
As the years progressed, however, so did technology and competition. The number of cable channels proliferated, VCRs became standard household appliances, and zap-happy remote controllers became synonymous with viewers. Getting people to tune in and stay tuned has turned into a herculean challenge for all those in the business, a challenge that has at various times bested HBO. But the channel always emerged fighting, and that spirit has paid off.
Today HBO brings subscribers a selection including Madonna in concert from Paris and Michael Jackson from Bucharest; James Woods as Roy Cohn, Robert Duvall as Stalin, Diane Keaton as the fiancée of a presidential candidate, and Garry Shandling as an insecure talk-show host; documentaries directed by the likes of Lee Grant; and movies and series helmed by such feature-league talent as producer Gale Anne Hurd and producer-directors Joel Silver and John Landis.
"It's been a spoiling experience," remarks Landis of his tenure at HBO as executive producer of Dream On, the comedy series whose main character has black-and-white flashbacks from old sitcoms. It's been unique — we haven't had a conflict yet.
Shandling, whose Larry Sanders Show has recently been renewed for another twenty-two episodes, offers diplomatic praise. "Network TV primarily attempts to appeal to the masses, and perhaps rightly so. Cable is looking for their slice. I like working with HBO. The people who work there are proud of the programming they put on. They don't need to apologize for their programming choices."
"We're a very humane company, offers Michael Fuchs, the network's forty-six-year-old chairman, CEO, and guiding light. There's not a lot of turnover here. Even alumni keep their ties to HBO. We're very proud of what we do. We knew that pay-TV had to be different, and we very often think of different as better."
The company's present success is due in great part to Fuchs's leadership. He joined the firm in 1976 as a programmer, and when he became chairman and CEO in 1984, HBO started making its move for TV's upper ranks. Now, from those ranks, the company continues to pursue strategies that will keep it out front. It shepherds and participates in creative financing deals; has a reputation for adhering strictly to budgets; develops ancillary markets world wide; continually works to create original programming for unfulfilled TV appetites; and even produces programming that airs elsewhere.
All this is a far cry from the network's scope in its earliest years or even in its adolescence, if, at age twenty, HBO can be considered to be in the throes of a promising young adulthood. When Fuchs came aboard, HBO was losing money and, he says, "was a rather primitive company at that stage. From an entertainment or programming standpoint, it was a company that had almost no expertise." In fact the company — the first cable service to distribute uninterrupted programs to subscribers via satellite — was in danger of shutting down.
It so happpened that the former corporate entertainment lawyer and Williams Morris Agency business-affairs executive exhibited a knack for problem solving as well as excellent programming instincts. By 1980 Fuchs had become a senior vice-president, assuming primary responsibility for HBO's relationships with motion picture producers and distributors.
Fuchs reduced the fees HBO paid studios for their movies and provided early financing to independent film producers in return for pay-TV rights and profit participation. By 1983 Fuchs was named president of HBO Entertainment Group, heading all programming activities for HBO and sister channel Cinemax, as well as HBO's research and on-air promotion departments. A year later he was promoted again, this time to chairman and CEO. In this position he began to build what would become HBO's cornerstone — original programming — concentrating initially on comedy and telepics. The early comedy lineup included specials such as HBO Comedy Hour and One-Night Stand and series like Not Necessarily the News.
Over the ensuing years the scope of original programming was broadened to include splashy, big-budget productions as well as smaller, human dramas and series, specials, and films for distribution outside HBO, both domestically and internationally. In order to accommodate these varied products, the network created a series of new divisions: HBO Pictures, HBO Showcase, HBO Independent Productions, and HBO International.
Never again, it vowed, would the network suffer the frustration of a missed opportunity, as it did with Roseanne Arnold and Keenen Ivory Wayans. In 1987 Arnold appeared in an HBO special and expressed interest in developing a series for the channel, but no series structure was then in place. Arnold, of course, went on to star in the outrageously successful ABC sitcom Roseanne. History repeated itself with Wayans, who wanted to develop an unusual variety show for HBO. He also received the disappointing news that HBO didn't yet have that production capability, and instead In Living Color landed at Fox.
Though HBO's chairman and CEO is not known for understatement, of his many accomplishments at the network he simply says, "I'm a generalist. I have programming skills, business skills. I got to HBO when a generalist could advance. I'm not sure I would be CEO if I walked into HBO today."
The company has enjoyed success over the years with comedy events like the Fuchs-initiated Comic Relief, which has raised over $20 million to help care for the homeless, and specials showing off — uncensored — talents like George Carlin, Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Eddie Murphy, and Robin Williams. These specials not only launched some notable careers but won HBO some loyal friends now in higher places.
But it is the channel's dramatic original programming that is ringing in a new level of acclaim. And more importantly, it's turning HBO into a place where feature film stars can flex their acting muscle in an unlikely role or project, and where directors and producers can take on projects deemed too risky or uncommercial for theatrical release or network TV. Consider, for example:
Robert Duvall in the title role of Stalin, of which Robert Cooper, senior vice-president of HBO Pictures says, "Who's going to make a story about a foreigner who's been dead for years in a country that doesn't exist anymore? Who else would do this?"
Or Aaron Spelling — probably best known for Charlie's Angels and Beverly Hills 90210 — as the producer of the telepic version of And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts's explosive 1987 book on AIDS and how it reached epidemic proportions.
Or Christopher Lloyd, crazy Jim on Taxi and nutty inventor of Back to the Future fame, playing the president of Exxon Shipping in Dead Ahead: The Exxon Valdez Disaster.
By definition, a project suitable for HBO is unsuitable for anyone else, concur its original programming execs. Divisions such as HBO Pictures and HBO Showcase, known to insiders as "Broadway" and "Off-Broadway," respectively, are producing projects that appeal to adults. And adults want to see interesting subjects presented in all their complexity.
The philosophy from the top is definitely trickling down. But what exactly is that philosophy?
Fuchs applies that word again. "We do a lot of provocative programming," he states. That philosophy has led to a form of reality programming that is particular to HBO. The channel chooses to treat so-called difficult subjects like abortion, AIDS, Vietnam vets, and the criminal justice system, but in a manner that is less sensational — though every bit as dramatic as — standard network fare. The challenge in such cases, says Potter, is to take "an ordinary idea and do it in an extraordinary way."
And HBO has been known to do projects for little reason other than the belief that they needed to be done.
One such example is Garry Trudeau's Tanner '88: The Dark Horse. The network took on the picture, a biting and humorous look at politics, fully aware that its subject has been known to drive audiences away. The audience did stay away, but critics loved Tanner, and what's more, so did the entertainment community.
After the airing, "people called and said they understood what we were trying to do," says Potter, who championed the show. Producers who had previously offered the channel projects that the networks didn't want now seemed to grasp what HBO was all about. Tanner was a stepping-stone.
Another turning point came in 1990. With the HBO Showcase production of Women & Men: Stories of Seduction, the network demonstrated that it could draw big names in abundance. The anthology series, based on classic short stories by Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, and Mary McCarthy, starred Beau Bridges, Melanie Griffith, Elizabeth McGovern, Molly Ringwald, Peter Weller, and James Woods.
"We're trying to go for the new wave, to excite a younger audience with actors known from their film work," explains Colin Callender, vice-president of original programming for HBO Showcase. "No one is writing provocative, literate, challenging films — for play in cinema. We're trying to do bold and innovative work which also finds an audience." And in so doing, he says, HBO becomes not only "an alternative for viewers, but for talent."
The future of HBO looks bright. Its experiments with multiplexing, that is, offering HBO and Cinemax as multichannel services instead of single-service channels, are promising.
Fuchs himself says with characteristic aplomb, "HBO seems to be one of the smartest and best-run companies. We have very high standards. We think we're the marines here. We're not the biggest, but we think we're the best."
If you can't say something nice, then don't say anything at all, the saying goes. That old maxim always comes to mind when asking entertainment industry insiders to talk about their employers. So here, from those in the know, some words on HBO, which by all indications aren't just kind, but also true.
Joel Silver, coexecutive producer of Tales From the Crypt: "Tales From the Crypt is very macabre, goofy, [and its] sometimes maniacal stories are too racy for network TV and not long enough for feature film. [HBO is] a godsend to us.... [Tales] is one of the things I'm most proud of in my career."
Garry Shandling, cocreator and executive producer of The Larry Sanders Show: "[My experience at HBO] has been nothing short of terrific. I have creative control. They love the show, support the show. They've indicated to me that they're interested in the show being the quality that I want it to be rather than be thrown on the air quickly."
[Note: HBO postponed the debut of Sanders for Shandling when he requested more time.]
John Landis, executive producer of Dream On: "Thirty minutes on network TV means twenty-one minutes. Thirty minutes on cable means thirty minutes."
[Note: Actually sometimes it means more. One Dream On episode ran thirty-six minutes, and Landis felt it was too good to be cut. He pleaded his case to HBO and the episode ran long — thirty-six minutes.]
Gale Anne Hurd, producer of Cast a Deadly Spell: "[HBO executives] have good suggestions. While they're collaborative, they're not interfering with my role as a producer. And I really respect them for strict budgetary adherence. That's how they get to make a wide slate of movies."
[Note: Warner Bros, passed on Spell because it figured that the period piece with all its special effects would run about $25 million. HBO produced the telepic for $6.2 million, and a sequel is being developed.]
Jim Lampley, sportscaster: "It's so different to work in an organization where quality of programming is the central concern, while the networks are concerned with budget-cutting and lean economic approaches."
Lee Grant, director of documentaries, including Academy Award winner Down and Out in America: "I feel very assured that they're doing this kind of work [at HBO], that they're not following the kind of mindless stuff that's being done on TV."
George Carlin, star of comedy specials: "[Being on HBO has been] a way to have my act reach a large audience without being cut. HBO cuts through all that separates people. It represents a real cross section... Twenty years from now everybody will have his own HBO show."
A version of this article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #6, 1992, under the title, "Majority Role."