Forty Years of HBO

Earlier this month, HBO turned 40. It’s sobering to think how much television has changed since 1972, but it’s a change HBO can rightly say it played a part in. A channel once best known for boxing matches has led a resurgence in quality TV drama, driving the popularity of box sets and forcing everybody else to raise their game. It’s a story that also involves strippers, so read on.

Home Box Office first aired on 8th November 1972. The first show was Paul Newman’s film Sometimes a Great Notion. The executives understood that quality content was key to any channel’s success: even more so for premium access. Sometimes a Great Notion arrived on TV screens less than two years after it had been in cinemas: a blazingly quick turnaround for the time.

But it was the next show that indicated where much of the channel’s early success would come from: a hockey match broadcast live from Madison Square Gardens. Until relatively recently, the belief of many a TV executive was that you could only get viewers to pay for three things: movies, sport and porn. America may be home to Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley, but it’s also a land where even small local games have a TV audience.

In 1975, HBO made history by broadcasting a boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier live from halfway around the world: the so-called ‘Thrilla in Manilla’. The other networks would have to wait a day for the film reels to make it back to the US, but HBO viewers could watch it live via satellite link-up.

HBO still makes money from broadcasting big boxing matches to pay-per-view clients – it’s one of the reasons the sport is built around single, high profile events – but it’s become best known for its drama series. Its focus on high quality, original programming came to prominence with the launch of The Sopranos in 1999.

HBO capitalised on the mainstream, inoffensive tastes of its rivals to offer series which were unashamedly adult, profane and complex. Any number of critically, academically and (if they’re lucky) commercially successful series have followed: The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Boardwalk Empire, True Blood, Generation Kill, Extras, Deadwood, Band of Brothers, Six Feet Under, Entourage and (if you must) Sex and the City.

Few channels in the world can claim such an astounding hit rate in so short a time. Not only does the high quality of its original content draw new subscribers in, the DVD sales allow HBO to draw further profits from those without subscriptions. Framing box sets as a novelistic approach to television drama, the channel led the way in anticipating consumers’ move towards selective programming.

Showtime, Starz and other premium access channels were quick to copy the model – with series such as Dexter, Homeland and Spartacus: Blood and Sand – but soon basic cable was getting in on the act with shows like Mad Men. If you could excite viewers enough to buy a subscription, you could get them to sit through a few adverts.

We’ve seen the effects on this side of the Atlantic, as well. Alongside HBO, the BBC has the highest international reputation for producing quality original content – and the two broadcasters have collaborated on a number of series – but Aunty has learnt many lessons in branding from her American cousin.

Sky is currently attempting to replicate the US model, capitalising on consumers’ increased awareness of differing satellite packages following the digital switchover. As well as buying up almost every tasty import going – Glee, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire – they’ve been busy commissioning original content.

But HBO has managed to stay ahead of its imitators. The recent success of Game of Thrones – which resurrected the idea of epic fantasy for TV – shows its commissioners still have a good eye for the next big thing and are unafraid to make expensive gambles. For anyone else, a slogan as audacious as “It’s not TV, it’s HBOâ€? might sound crass. Not so here.

TV has changed a lot in 40 years and HBO’s had a big part to play in that. It’s made us love New Jersey gangsters, taught us the meaning of a “re-upâ€?
and painted whole other worlds. On the other hand, it also gave us G-String Divas, so it’s not all class. (I told you there’d be strippers.)