HBO, when the small screen has big ambitions for its series

Article  by  Marjolaine BOUTET  •  Published 12.02.2014  •  Updated 11.04.2014
HBO à New York
The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones: It’s not TV, it’s HBO. How has this channel raised the prestige of popular culture through its original series?

Summary

From the invention of a television channel…

The creation of Home Box Office (HBO) in the mid-1970s was a precursor to large technical and creative changes in the television world. In 1971, the entrepreneur Charles Dolan and the young New York lawyer Gerald Levin decided to create a pay channel for the cable, which at that time was barely established in the north-east of the country. The Green Channel was quickly renamed Home Box Office to stress the offering of this new channel: films that had never been broadcast on the television before and live showings of sporting events. The channel was funded by viewer subscriptions only and was therefore not dependent on advertisers and audience ratings at a given time. The channels did, however, have to keep its subscribers happy in the long term by providing a global offering, if it wanted to survive financially. Dolan and Levin chose to specialise in films and sport, to attract the urban and male socio-professional categories.
 
 In 1972, when the channel broadcast its first programmes, it only had 365 subscribers. 
The first programmes were broadcast on 8 November 1972: Sometimes a Great Notion by and with Paul Newman, which came out in cinemas on 31 December 1970; and a hockey match. At the time, there were 365 subscribers, and they all lived in Pennsylvania. In three months, HBO lost a million dollars and Dolan was forced to hand over the reins to Levin[+] NoteFrom 1976, the American magazine specialising in the media, Channels, spoke of Gerald Levin as the “man who started a revolution.”X [1]. It wasn’t until the autumn of 1975, with the possibility of broadcasting by satellite, and above all the live showing of the third and last fight between Mohammed Ali and Joe Frazier in Manila on 1st October, that HBO entered the American audiovisual landscape (going from 15,000 to almost 300,000 subscribers), helping to radically change this very landscape.
 
From the mid-1970s, American viewers (70.5 million homes, ie 97 % of the population) had access to an increasing number of new channels thanks to cable (15 % of homes were cabled in 1976, 40 % in 1985 and 63 % in 1995). From 7 channels on average in 1970 (the 3 large networks + a few local channels), the offering went up to 10 channels in 1980, then 27 in 1990. At the end of the 1980s, the three historic networks (ABC, CBS and NBC), which shared almost the entire audience until the 1970s, now only had 67 % of the audience share. In 1980, a very tiny percentage of American households had a video recorder, but the figure was almost 15 % in 1985 and almost 80 % in 1995. At the same time, the remote control became widespread and radically changed Americans’ viewing habits, making them much less passive. The channels then had to adapt and offer programmes that people wanted and that corresponded to the tastes of viewers who were becoming increasingly demanding; they could no longer offer “rallying” programmes of the lowest common denominator, the aim of which was to shock as little as possible.
 
A non-negligible part of the American public was prepared to pay to have more choice: the number of subscribers to HBO went from 600,000 in 1977 to 13 million in 1983, ie twenty times more, considerably boosting the profits, which amounted to tens of millions and then hundreds of millions of dollars. Realising that the public’s appetite for “home television” was increasing, HBO diversified its business activities, going into the production of films and telefilms, the sale of videocassettes and the distribution of programmes internationally. In 1986, HBO was the first American channel to scramble its signal to prevent piracy by non-subscribers. But with the much wider access to video recorders and the increasing number of cable channels, Gerald Levin quickly realised that if he wanted his channel to last and stand up against the competition, he would have to do more than simply “supply films and sporting events on demand”, and would have to develop original programmes and specific content to provide a “brand image” for the channel. He gave this task to Michael Fuchs, one of the rising executives in the company.
 
In 1983, HBO started to make its own comedy programmes (Not Necessarily the News, from 1983 to 1990, which revealed, notably, the writing talent of Conan O’Brien and Greg Daniels), and telefilms (The Terry Fox Story in 1983 with Robert Duvall, inspired by the true story of a marathon runner who had had a leg amputated), documentaries (Down and Out in America, which received an Oscar in 1986 and Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, that received an Emmy Award in 1987), bold mini-series such as Tanner’88 by Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau, which placed a false candidate into the Democrat primary battle, in view of the presidential elections, and televised series such as The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998), a parody of evening talk-shows with a presenter and guests with over-inflated egos played by real stars, which received no fewer than two Peabody Awards and three Emmys. The “trademark” of these programmes, and in particular of the telefilms and documentaries, was to tackle head on “hot” political questions, themes that Hollywood and terrestrial television companies tried to avoid as much as possible at that time.
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... to the reinvention of television

But HBO had to wait until Chris Albrecht was appointed as head of scheduling in 1995 to manage to get away from its image as a “film and sports channel” that people watch every now and again to see a few exceptional programmes or events. Albrecht doubled the budgets for developing prime-time programmes, going from spending two million to four million dollars per hour (the double of the networks’budget), and $ 25 million were dedicated to advertising the channel. On 20 October 1996, the channel’s new slogan was revealed: It’s not TV. It’s HBO; this was considered to be one of the greatest slogans of all time.

 
 
 
 Between 1996 and 2001, the proportion of original creations went from 25 % to 40 % of the programming schedule. 
Between 1996 and 2001, original creations went from 25 % to 40 % of the programming schedule. Original HBO comedy shows such as Curb Your Enthusiasm by Larry David (from 2000) and Real Time With Bill Maher (from 2003) were added to the deadpan and well-known humour of the Larry Sanders Show. The channel also made large-budget mini-series that were applauded by the critics such as From Earth to the Moon in 1998 on the conquest of space, Band of Brothers in 2000 on the liberation of Western Europe by the American army between 1944 and 1945, and even Angels in America in 2003 on the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic. Some telefilms were of such a high quality that they came out in the cinema first before being broadcast on the television, such as American Splendor by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, which was awarded the grand prize at the Sundance Festival in 2003.
 
From 1998, HBO, which had become a large, international media empire, no longer offered just one channel to its subscribers; it offered six additional channels: HBO2, HBO Signature, HBO Family, HBO Comedy, HBO Zone from 1999, and HBO Latino from 2000, then an on-demand video service from 2001 (in 2005, almost a quarter of American viewers no longer watched their favourite shows live). This increase in the offering was to meet the demand from a growing share of 110 million American homes who were watching more television in 2005 (8 hours and 11 minutes per day on average) than in 1995 (7 hours and 15 minutes). The number of accessible channels had more than doubled (43 in 1997 as opposed to 96.4 in 2005). However, of these dozens, even hundreds of channels, viewers only watched 16 on average in 2005, and HBO was among them for a quarter of those. Indeed, this corresponds to the proportion of American homes who were then subscribers to the channels, at a cost of $ 15 per month.
 
Source: Energy Information Administration 2001, study of domestic energy consumption

 
Albrecht also decided that a large proportion of the channel’s original creations would be series, broadcast weekly to create an “appointment” with subscribers. Until that point, subscribers were free to organise their watching schedule thanks to the large number of repeats of films, documentaries and telefilms, shown at different times throughout the entire month. Finally, while asserting that HBO “was not television”, its schedule started to look increasingly like that of the networks, pursuing similar aims, such as creating audience loyalty.

 
The Sopranos
 
Sunday evening was the slot not to be missed for the most innovative series of the moment: Sex and the City by Darren Star from 1998, The Sopranos by David Chase the following year, then Six Feet Under (2001-2005), The Wire by David Simon (2002-2008), Carnivàle by Daniel Knauf (2003-2005) and Deadwood by David Milch (2004-2006). These series, preceded by the very daring Oz by Tom Fontana in 1997[+] NoteOz, a very violent prison series, was broadcast late on Saturday evening, and if it won over a small number of critics, it was not until Sex and the City that “HBO series” gained real notoriety.X [2], established the success of writers who had already been noticed for their creations on the networks; they were able to give full rein to their talent on this pay-channel, and to achieve unprecedented fame thanks to large advertising campaigns.
 The creators had budgets in line with their ambitions: $ 100 million for the first season of Rome. 
In addition to their fame and recognition, these creators had budgets in line with their ambitions: the historical series Rome (2005-2007), for example, had $ 100 million for its first season of 10 episodes, which enabled it to create this capital of the ancient world, paying a level of attention to detail that had never been seen before (solid sets created  at Cinecità, with shoes and clothes for even the lowliest of extras made in natural materials and colours, and with the advice of the best historians and archaeologists etc.).
 
These original series, The Sopranos in particular, conveyed to the general public the idea that these series required the same level of education, the same preparation and the same state of mind as a visit to a museum. Indeed, in February 2001, the director of the Museum of Modern Art of New York organised the projection of the first two seasons of the series on large screen, and put on a talk by David Chase, who was questioned by the specialist critic from the “intello-chic” media magazine, The New Yorker, Ken Auletta. The actual slogan of HBO at the time stressed its claim to be a channel of “distinction” (dear to Bourdieu[+] Notein La Distinction. Critique sociale du jugement [Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste], the sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, showed, with reference to an idea developed by Edmond Goblot at the start of the 20th century, that in a democratic society, tastes and cultural practices become the markers of belonging to a given social class. By watching HBO - which was “not television” – the American elite could stress the difference in their small screen viewing behaviour, to “stand out” from the television-viewing “masses” and to assert their “good taste” and discernment with regard to audiovisual production.X [3]), a stance taken by this pay channel to attract a new audience. It became acceptable[+] NoteUp to that point, only a few pioneering media critics, like Gilbert Seldes and Horace Newcomb, had dared to highlight the artistic qualities of some popular cultural products.X [4] to establish and discuss the artistic choices of an “author” - until then, series had been considered to be collective, purely commercial works - to evaluate the form and construction beyond the pleasure actually experienced, to identify the many cultural and historical references scattered throughout the storyline etc. In short the aim was to appreciate a television series like a fully-fledged work of art.
 
This new kind of “appreciation” goes hand in hand with and has been made possible by the “digital revolution”, which enables viewers to watch and re-watch a television series on home cinema equipment, on DVD or to view high-definition recordings that allow for real “contemplation” of it. The aesthetic pleasure of the television series is even increased by the authors’ comments in bonus editions of the DVD.
 
It is interesting to note that the appearance of “arthouse” series on HBO or in any case series identified as such, is contemporary to the popular success (but greatly decried by critics and intellectuals) of telereality shows such as Big Brother, Survivor and American Idol, turning American television into the object of dialectic debate, incorporating the complementary lines of reasoning emanating from the distinction put forward by Bourdieu at the start of the 2000s. HBO’s strategy has adjusted wonderfully to the advent of the “hierarchy of taste” for television at that time: intellectuals can both decry telereality as a cultural void while highlighting the quality and the value of HBO series.
 The cultural influence of HBO series extends well beyond their actual audiences. They have become “what everybody is talking about”. 
What is more, massive advertising campaigns for each of these new “works” make them “what everybody is talking about”, including those who haven’t seen them, and give these programmes cultural influence that goes well beyond their actual audience: between 7 and 14 million people watched The Sopranos, the channel’s greatest ratings success, while the other series only attracted around 4 million loyal viewers, which comes to barely 10 % of the population of the United States.
 
 
In 2004 and 2005, HBO beat all profit records with $1.1 billion per year, coming not only from subscriptions, but also from the sale of DVDs of its quality series (The Sopranos totally covered the production costs thanks to DVD sales alone), or from income for re-showings by other channels. Sex and the City brought in $ 350 million from its first re-showing alone in the United States.
 
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Is HBO a model that can’t be taken over?

From the 2000s, HBO redefined what “quality” series were, and had a great influence on productions by other channels, in particular the cable channel FX, run by Peter Liguori,  who formerly worked for HBO, and who offered his viewers The Shield (2002-2008), Nip/Tuck (2003-2010) and Rescue Me (2004-2011). Then AMC produced Mad Men (from 2007) and Breaking Bad (2008-2013). The arrival of these last two series on American screens coincided with a period of decline for HBO. In 2007, its flagship series The Sopranos was stopped, and Chris Albrecht was forced to quit his job following sex scandals. The channel no longer had a “series that everybody is talking about”. The new series John From Cincinnati, Flights of the Concords and Tell me you love me have been bitter failures.  HBO has incontestably contributing to giving legitimacy to television series as quality cultural products.  The scriptwriter strike in 2008 and the departure of the director of the entertainment division, Carolyn Strauss, destabilised the “original creation” division of HBO. However, profits have remained stable since the mid-2000s (around $1 billion per year), mainly thanks to monthly subscriptions that smooth out the channel’s income from one year to the next, and are not immediately affected by a temporary slowing down of creative output.


 Boardwalk Empire promotion in New York
 
 
Today, even if the channel found success once more in 2008 with True Blood by Alan Ball (the creator of Six Feet Under) and since 2011 has been offering the first heroic fantasy series, the Game of Thrones,  The HBO model has been copied by others. Its competitors like FX and AMC are successfully producing demanding, disturbing arthouse series. a global success, both by the public and critics, and since 2012 the hipster comedy, Girls, a certain number of cable pay-channels like Showtime (Dexter, Nurse Jackie, Homeland), and Starz[+] NoteManaged by Chris Albrecht since 2010.X [5] (Boss, Spartacus), and free cable channels like AMC (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead) and FX (Nip/Tuck, Damages, Justified, Sons of Anarchy, American Horror Story) have swept successfully into the demanding, disturbing “arthouse series” niche. But all these channels have simply copied the “model” invented by HBO, and have often found success by producing scripts that were rejected by the premium channel (as with Mad Men and Nurse Jackie, among others).

 
Damian Lewis and Clare Danes (Homeland)
 
In around fifteen years, HBO has managed to adapt more quickly than others to the changes in the public’s tastes and expectations in America and around the world for audiovisual fiction and has helped in a decisive and incontestable way to “legitimise” television series as quality cultural products, and even as works of art. The “qualitative leap” made by television series since the end of the 1990s owes much to this “creative space” opened up by the managers of HBO, and Chris Albrecht in particular.
 
Internationally, the “HBO model” has been inspiring the number one French pay-channel for a long time, namely Canal Plus (created in 1984): scrambling and set-top box, specialisation in sport and film, multichannel packages and an international offering, video on demand, etc. Since the appointment of Fabrice de la Patellière as fiction director in 2002, Canal Plus has been producing more and more original series that are presented to the public as “quality series”: darker, more demanding and often more violent, with significant budgets (€ 45 million in 2012 compared with € 6 million in 2004). Once again, success has been achieved: some of its original creations (Engrenages, Braquo, Les Revenants) have achieved public and critical acclaim both in France and abroad, including in the United States.
 
Finally, the profitability of HBO has not really suffered from its model being copied by other channels, but there are challenges ahead for the channel over the next ten years from changes in digital technology, and the advent of new audiovisual producers of quality content. This time they are not television channels; they are services that provide content via the Internet only, such as Netflix. Indeed, it was by deliberately walking on the preserve of HBO that the new player attracted attention: the entire season of 13 episodes of House of Cards - a dark, cynical political series produced by David Fincher with well-known actors such as Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright - was made available to its subscribers on the same day, on 1st February 2013, achieving enormous critical acclaim. This success was confirmed several months later when it brought out another original series, Orange is the new Black; once again the entire season was made available on the same day. But besides the method of broadcasting, these series are exactly like those that can be found on the premium cable since HBO invented arthouse series at the end of the 1990s. So far, the profitability of this new audiovisual model of production and distribution via the Internet has not been measured, and the managers of HBO are pretending not to be worried by it, but the pioneer of Quality TV is undoubtedly already thinking about its next metamorphosis…
 
Translated from French by Peter Moss
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References

The website Television History – The First 75 Years

Gary R. EDGERTON, Jeffrey P., JONES, (eds.), The Essential HBO Reader, Lexington (Ky.), The University Press of Kentucky, 2008
 
Brett MARTIN, Difficult Men. Behind the Scences of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, New York, Penguin Press, 2013
 
Alan SEPINWALL, The Revolution Was Televised : The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever, New York, Touchstone, 2012
 
 
Benjamin CAMPION, « Retour sur une décennie de HBO », Le monde des séries / Blogs Le Monde, 8 juillet 2011
 
Pierre LANGLAIS, « Entretien avec Richard Plepler, président de HBO », Télérama, 22 septembre 2013

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Photo credits:
Main illustration: HBO in New York (Thomas Hawk / Flickr)
The Sopranos (mali mish / Flickr)
Boardwalk Empire (Wally Gobetz / Flickr)
Homeland (starbright31 / Flickr)

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  • 1. From 1976, the American magazine specialising in the media, Channels, spoke of Gerald Levin as the “man who started a revolution.”
  • 2. Oz, a very violent prison series, was broadcast late on Saturday evening, and if it won over a small number of critics, it was not until Sex and the City that “HBO series” gained real notoriety.
  • 3. in La Distinction. Critique sociale du jugement [Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste], the sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, showed, with reference to an idea developed by Edmond Goblot at the start of the 20th century, that in a democratic society, tastes and cultural practices become the markers of belonging to a given social class. By watching HBO - which was “not television” – the American elite could stress the difference in their small screen viewing behaviour, to “stand out” from the television-viewing “masses” and to assert their “good taste” and discernment with regard to audiovisual production.
  • 4. Up to that point, only a few pioneering media critics, like Gilbert Seldes and Horace Newcomb, had dared to highlight the artistic qualities of some popular cultural products.
  • 5. Managed by Chris Albrecht since 2010.
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