When It Was Home Box Office
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you can’t jump from 365 subscribers in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to 114 million across the globe without shooting for the stars.
By Sean Braswell
A father turns on his family’s cable box as the camera drops back and lifts off, swooping over the city streets as a Superman-esque score begins to swell. The viewer soars over a bustling metropolis, into the suburbs and rolling hills until she is finally catapulted into the sky, where the letters “HBO” hover like the Starship Enterprise, dominating interstellar space and ushering you into television heaven.
And your HBO Feature Presentation hasn’t even started yet.
HBO’s stunning “Starship Intro” from 1983 captured the spirit of the upstart company that created it. Like the viewer it swept into the stars, Home Box Office had risen from the terrestrial local television landscape to the expanses of satellite broadcasting — a perch that the cable network would retain for decades precisely because, as the intro demonstrates, it was willing to devote millions of dollars and three months of painstaking labor to take its audience on a one-minute ride it would never forget.
But HBO’s own made-for-TV story did not start on land, or in the sky. It started aboard the Queen Elizabeth II as it left New York in the summer of 1971. Lounging on its deck was a 35-year-old college dropout from Cleveland named Charles Dolan, who had just started the struggling Sterling Manhattan Cable, the nation’s first metropolitan cable TV provider.
Dolan’s vision for a sea change in television seems rather obvious today.
When Dolan embarked on his trans-Atlantic voyage, the American television landscape was dominated by a three-headed network oligopoly, and no one had yet figured out how to make a pay-television channel profitable. But by the time the QEII reached the English Channel, Dolan had sketched out a plan for the future of television known as “The Green Channel.”
Dolan’s vision for a sea change in television might appear obvious today: Create a cable channel with premium, commercial-free content — first-run movies, sporting events and original programming — that prioritized satisfying its subscribers, not selling them to advertising sponsors.
When he returned home, Dolan convinced Time Inc., an investor in Sterling, to back his Green Channel startup and brought on a 33-year-old Wall Street lawyer named Gerald Levin to help. Facing a printer’s deadline, they hastily named the cable network “Home Box Office,” certain they would eventually come up with something better.
On November 8, 1972, Home Box Office welcomed a whopping 365 subscribers in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., with Paul Newman’s film Sometimes a Great Notion, followed by a live National Hockey League game. Wilkes-Barre — a coal town and home to Planters Peanuts — may seem an unlikely spot for the birthplace of premium television, but it had two major advantages: an existing cable network and a location outside the blackout radius for Philadelphia’s pro sports teams.
That landmark day in television history was a resounding bust. Local media failed to cover the launch and Time’s own president and CEO, J. Richard Munro, phoned from a White Tower burger palace to tell organizers he was stuck in traffic and would be unable to attend. Three months and $1 million in losses later, Time fired Dolan and elevated Levin to take his place.
By the end of 1973, HBO had still only attracted 8,000 subscribers, all in Pennsylvania, and Levin knew it was time to shoot for the stars, literally. So he bet the network’s future on Satcom 1, an object in geostationary orbit 22,300 miles above the Earth. HBO’s inaugural satellite TV offering on October 1, 1975, courtesy of RCA’s new communications satellite, was no less than the “Thrilla in Manila,” the epic heavyweight boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, live from the Philippines.
The historic bout, which Ali won in 14 rounds, sounded the death knell for Smokin’ Joe’s career and network television’s heyday. In 1976, HBO’s paid subscriptions leapt from 15,000 to over 287,000 — rising to 13 million by 1983 and making HBO more profitable than Time magazine.
Even in 1983, HBO was well aware that the future of TV rested not on transmitting others’ content, but in developing original, markedly superior programming.
Even in 1983, as evidenced by the Starship Intro, HBO was well aware that the future of television rested not on transmitting others’ content but in developing original, markedly superior programming. And for the next few decades, HBO was off to the races, re-imagining and re-popularizing television in the process, with original hit shows ranging from Sex in the City to The Sopranos to Game of Thrones.
The irony, of course, is that the competitive TV meritocracy that HBO helped launch may ultimately prove the agent of its own demise. With a subscriber churn rate of about 36 percent and Netflix, Amazon and others nipping at its heels, even a giant like HBO may only be as big as its last hit.
Still, for anyone wondering what’s next for television and who will be responsible for permanently disrupting cable TV, the answer may just lay in the stars.