A History of HBO
ILYA MARRITZ This is On the Media, I'm Ilya Marritz, in for Brooke Gladstone. This weekend, millions, including me, will tune in to watch the finale of The White Lotus on HBO. The show is the latest critical hit for the network, which picked up nearly 40 Emmy Awards in 2022 — a year that also happens to be HBO's 50th birthday. In those five decades, the network has changed hands between a variety of corporate owners from the publisher Time Inc to AOL and later AT&T and most recently Discovery Plus. Along the way, HBO never had a singular leader, like a Walt Disney. Instead, the network was propelled by generations of risk-embracing tastemakers. From the start, they promised to give audiences a good time with what was then a novel business model: you pay for content. You get no ads. With live boxing matches:
[BOXING COMMENTATORS AND CROWD ROARING]
ILYA MARRITZ Comedy specials piped in from the theater:
CLIP OF GEORGE CARLIN Yes, you're all. You're all going to die. Didn't mean to remind you of it, but it is on your schedule.
ILYA MARRITZ Feature films in your living room:
CLIP OF SAVING PRIVATE RYAN Every man I kill. The farther away from home I feel.
ILYA MARRITZ And let us not neglect sex on screen:
SEX AND THE CITY CLIP I got a big ol' pocket full of Viagra.
SEX AND THE CITY CLIP Why Ed? That's not Viagra.
ILYA MARRITZ HBO pledged to transcend the television format, giving them their tagline.
HBO COMMERCIAL CLIP It's not TV, it's HBO.
ILYA MARRITZ John Koblin is a reporter for The New York Times covering the television industry with his coauthor, Felix Gillette, of Bloomberg. He recently wrote the book It's Not TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, and Future of HBO. Welcome to On the Media, John.
JOHN KOBLIN Thank you.
ILYA MARRITZ HBO really saw itself explicitly as targeting an audience that nobody else was, and that was men. So make sense of that for me, John.
JOHN KOBLIN It was one of the most surprising things while reporting out the book. And I feel a little foolish or naive to even say that because it's just hiding in plain sight. Beginning in the late 1970s and then especially into the 1980s, executives at HBO looked at the broadcast television landscape and they said, ‘This feels like it's mostly slanted toward women.’ And then research executives at the networks started to say things like ‘a man controls the remote control and a woman will watch what he watches.’ When HBO was dabbling in episodic television, there was a show that debuted in 1990 called Dream On, and the producers of that show would get notes back from the network saying it needs more of that cable edge. And cable edge was just explicitly code for “we need more breasts.” And then they proudly advertised it that way. It's a strange part of HBO's history, but it also really did influence HBO programming for decades to come.
ILYA MARRITZ You write about HBO, its close relationship with journalism and media criticism, which is not really visible to the casual HBO viewer. But you write that programmers really read reviews of their work. They tried to make shows that critics would cheer for, and they also drew a lot on journalism and nonfiction, generally, in making fictional shows. One of the ones that you write about that I did not know was a program called Tanner 88, which is a political mockumentary, and I guess it is still seen as influential. What made it so groundbreaking?
JOHN KOBLIN It was about a guy who is running for president in the 1988 election. And how many times has the 1988 election influenced great nonfiction or great fictional works?
TANNER 88 CLIP And while Teen Tanner toasts a promising future. The press curses a doubtful one.
TANNER 88 CLIP Now, the networks have already announced major cutbacks in the election, you know.
JOHN KOBLIN And it was sort of a breakthrough because then it was the first time where you got the attention of Washington, you got the attention of New York. And that's something that HBO has always been uniquely good at. All the Hollywood studios and TV networks were obsessed with the Hollywood trade press — Variety, The Hollywood Reporter. HBO figured out really early on ‘Well, there's a whole press corps in New York. There's a whole press corps in D.C. What if we tried to schmooze with those people?’ By the 1990s, HBO executives referred to it as “the permanent campaign.”
ILYA MARRITZ Like in politics?
JOHN KOBLIN Exactly. Because HBO, even 20 years into its run, it said, you know, ‘if people are going to keep their HBO subscription, we effectively have to be elected every month.’ I mean, HBO would throw these like really glitzy premiere parties, and they used to call them “halo events,” because if you have Maureen Dowd or you have Frank Rich in Rome, if they're not going to write about HBO right now, maybe when you have Angels in America ready to premiere, Frank Rich is going to be ready to dedicate his entire Sunday column to this. And by the way, by 2007, HBO just started explicitly collecting journalists, Frank Rich among them — he signed a consulting contract in 2008. And here we are 14 years later. Frank Rich is no longer a columnist at The New York Times. He's exclusively an HBO producer, and his credits include Veep and Succession.
LOGAN ROY (SUCCESSION) I want the broadcast network. I want to see what other news operations we can sweep up.
KENDALL ROY (SUCCESSION) Local TV?
ROMAN ROY (SUCCESSION) Dad, nobody watches TV.
LOGAN ROY (SUCCESSION) Why shouldn't we do all the news?
ROMAN ROY (SUCCESSION) Uh well, Kim Jong Pop, because that's not how things work in this country.
ILYA MARRITZ Let's talk about a totally different show that also had its origins in journalism, and that's Sex and the City.
MR BIG (SEX AND THE CITY) What do you do for work?
CARRIE BRADSHAW (SEX AND THE CITY) I'm sort of a sexual anthropologist. I write a column called “Sex and the City.”
SAMANTHA JONES (SEX AND THE CITY) You can tell a man, “I hate you.” You have the best sex of your life. But tell him “I love you.” You'll probably never see him again.
ILYA MARRITZ It was inspired by the reportage of Candace Bushnell. She wrote a column for the New York Observer, and she met the eventual creator of Sex and the City, Darren Starr, when she was assigned by Vogue to write a profile of him. Darren Starr at the time was known for 90210 and Melrose Place and was kind of a phenom. So how did Sex and the City, the show, get borne out of that profile?
JOHN KOBLIN Melrose Place, Beverly Hills, 90210, those are shows that both took place on the west side of Los Angeles, which is where Darren Starr lived. And then by the time 1995 came around, L.A. was reeling from the O.J. Simpson trial and from the riots in 1992. He just felt like something was about to happen in New York. And as Candace was traveling around with him, he just looked at her as like, ‘you're a show, your columns are a show.’ So he decided to take it out. And there were two really interested parties, ABC and HBO. And the logical choice would be to go to ABC. But, as Candace Bushnell remembered it, Darren was really annoyed with network TV and was just like, ‘Am I even going to be able to call that show Sex and the City over there? I bet they'll make us change the title. HBO — Let's just take a flier on them and let's see what happens.’
CLIP OF AWARDS ANNOUNCER Sarah Jessica Parker has received ten Emmy nominations for her work on Sex and the City…
JOHN KOBLIN And there's even an interesting origin story to how HBO became interested in Sex and the City.
ILYA MARRITZ Well, now you have me curious. So tell me.
JOHN KOBLIN So we were talking about how HBO is a network program to men in 1995, 1996, Demi Moore, who was then at the height of her celebrity, had sort of this passion project that she was producing about abortion.
IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK CLIP It's illegal to terminate a pregnancy.
IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK CLIP But you don't understand. I really need to get this done.
JOHN KOBLIN And it was originally commissioned by Turner Broadcasting. That's the home of TNT and TBS. But then, just like the broadcast networks before them, they started to get skittish. They were like, ‘Ugh, can we really do an abortion movie? And one that is unflinchingly pro-choice? The advertisers might balk.’ So TNT quietly walked away from the project. HBO jumped in only because they're like, ‘It's Demi Moore.’ There was no assumption that its mostly male viewers would be turning on HBO to watch a movie about abortion. And then it premiered, and it was the biggest ratings HBO had ever seen. So at a woefully late date in 1996, HBO executives were like, ‘Oh, maybe there are women viewers out there. Maybe we should find more stories about the female experience.’ And it was only ten weeks after the premiere of If These Walls Could Talk, the name of Demi Moore's project, that they went ahead and bought the rights to Sex and the City.
ILYA MARRITZ As all of that was unfolding. Where were women in the company, especially, like in positions of power? Were there women making these programming decisions?
JOHN KOBLIN They've always had a group of very influential, very powerful women executives. You can look to Sheila Nevins, who ran the documentary department. HBO's programming department had scores of women like Carolyn Strauss. Carolyn Strauss is the one who was sitting in the room with David Chase when he was pitching The Sopranos. She was the one listening to Darren Star when he was pitching Sex and the City. She's the one who went to Alan Ball and said, ‘I want you to do a show that takes place in a funeral home.’ It was her idea. But the thing about all these women executives — the closer they got to the top, it seemed like their careers would just stall out. Either they'd be stuck or they would be shown the door. Carolyn Strauss is among them. Despite coming up with hit after hit for HBO, in 2008 she was shown the door. In her telling, it was because she passed on one show, which was Mad Men. And as a result, months later, she was fired. And on the way out, she's like, ‘There's one show I'm developing that I want to keep my hands on. It's the dragon show.’ And they're like, ‘You want that? Sure. I'm sure we'll make that.’ And they did. And Carolyn Strauss is a top producer of HBO's most successful drama of all time, Game of Thrones. So even after she left, she was supplying HBO with its biggest shows ever.
ILYA MARRITZ There are so many examples of shows inspired by journalism, and I'm not going to go through all of them. But I do want to talk with you about The Wire, because this is a show that was pitched by a former Baltimore Sun reporter, David Simon, and media criticism was actually baked into his pitch to the network, you write.
JOHN KOBLIN Completely by 2000 to HBO was already on a roll. Sex and the City had debuted and become a hit. The Sopranos had debuted and become a hit. So David Simon came around and said, ‘there's one genre that HBO has not put its sort of vicious HBO spin on, and that's a cop show.’
THE WIRE CLIP You follow drugs. You get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don't know where it's going to take you.
ILYA MARRITZ I want to read to you a clip from David Simon's pitch for The Wire. Here goes: “You will not be stealing market share from the networks only by venturing worlds where they can't. You will be stealing it by taking their world and transforming them with honesty and wit and a darker, cynical and more piercing viewpoint than they would undertake.” That, to me, seems to evoke why HBO has been able to survive. They have been unusually perceptive about what other networks don't have, and they have found a way to offer exactly that.
JOHN KOBLIN I mean, consider a few years earlier, before David Simon wrote that letter. David Chase — he had an idea about a mobster who is going to therapy, and he pitched that to each of the four broadcast networks. CBS said, ‘I don't mind this violent mobster, but does he have to be on Prozac? Does he have to be in therapy? It makes him look weak.’
TONY SOPRANO (THE SOPRANOS) All Americans, all they're doing is crying in confession. And now I'm one of them. A patient.
THERAPIST (THE SOPRANOS) Your parents made it impossible for you to experience joy.
TONY SOPRANO (THE SOPRANOS) Yeah. See, there you go again.
JOHN KOBLIN Fox. Initially, they were totally into it until they realized, ‘oh, god, we can't show a violent mobster. The advertisers will revolt.’ And it wasn't until David Chase met with HBO executives and they said to him, ‘Oh, we love this mobster and therapy angle. If anything leaned into it harder.’ And then they actually did get a focus group for it, and they hated it. And then HBO executives looked around at themselves and were like, ‘Nah, we believe in this. Let's give it a full season.’
ILYA MARRITZ It seems like so much of HBO's history was defined by the constraints that it was working under as a no ad premium cable network when that was a really unusual thing, and that enabled them to zig when others were zagging. And now there's just this kind of convergence. Everybody is streaming, everybody's doing the same game. And moreover, it seems like everybody's taken a page from HBO. At this point, is the network as distinctive, as unusual, as groundbreaking? Can it be as it historically has been?
JOHN KOBLIN There's so much competition. With that said HBO, they just cleaned up at this past year's Emmys and they did it on the backs of shows like Succession and the White Lotus. Even to this point, if you put truth serum in the arm of a random Hollywood producer and say, ‘where do you want to take your project first,’ the answer does remain HBO. One thing that Netflix famously said ‘is we have to become HBO faster than they become us,’ which means we have to get really good at quality storytelling faster than they can become a streaming company. But Netflix, they are fundamentally a data science and technology company. They knew everything about their viewers. They knew that if you liked House of Cards, you might go to a documentary next and then you might watch a baking competition show after that. They started to look at their algorithm and made programming decisions based on that and the results the decade later. For Netflix, they're relatively mixed on the programming front. Over the last year, especially as Netflix's share price has taken a nosedive and they've lost subscribers for the first time in a decade, there have been real open questions about the quality of Netflix's programming slate, and though they spend way more money than HBO, HBO continues to have a better batting average because they stick with that same programing philosophy, which is “fundamentally trust the artists.”
ILYA MARRITZ Maybe tastemakers really matter more than raw data in TV at least. You know, HBO is 50 this year, and reading the book is kind of like reading a kind of, you know, biography or midlife appraisal. And I found myself feeling kind of protective of HBO in a way that I didn't expect. Like, here they are. They're making all these, like, groundbreaking shows that need to exist. A lot of them I personally feel really devoted to, but the whole time it feels like this experiment that has gotta crash into reality sooner or later.
JOHN KOBLIN I mean, what's surprising is HBO has survived nearly every fatal blow that has been directed at the network. This goes back to the rise of VCRs, this goes to various corporate takeovers, the rise of DVDs. HBO has survived each and every time, even to the point where, when Felix and I decided we were going to write this book, it was the spring of 2019. And by that point, AT&T, the Dallas-based big telephone company, they had purchased HBO as parent company. And in those early months, scores of senior HBO executives, people who had been there for decades, left the network. And all of a sudden, it felt like this inflection point, like, is HBO going to survive? But even to present day, HBO's new corporate owners Discovery, those are the folks who make unscripted television shows like My Feet Are Killing Me or Naked And Afraid, or Dr. Pimple Popper — they took over the company from AT&T earlier this year. And once again, we are at one of those inflection points where we are going to see how HBO manages to handle that transition. Discovery — they have a debt load of around $50 billion. Will they come around and start to muck with HBO’s programming? The jury is very much still out.
ILYA MARRITZ Thank you, John.
JOHN KOBLIN Thanks for having me.
ILYA MARRITZ John Koblin covers the business of TV for The New York Times. He is the coauthor with Felix Gillette of the book It's Not TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, and Future of HBO.
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