Once upon a time, there was little that could match the strange magic of HBO. The network came into your house through the same television set as the others, but it was completely different.
Movies played without commercials. Even when the films were R-rated, they were shown in their original form without any editing. HBO also broke ground by showing documentaries, comedy specials, steamy content, live concerts and prime-time fights between boxers—including “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler, Thomas “Hitman” Hearns, and eventually Mike Tyson—who were becoming pop culture superstars.
Decades later, most viewers take the ability to watch this kind of thing on TV for granted, but HBO pioneered American culture, starting in November. 8, 1972.
The channel’s roots actually go back to the 60s, when Charles Dolan got permission to start a cable television network in New York City. (Dolan later became more famous for his position at the top of the Madison Square Garden Company, owner of the NBA’s Knicks and the NHL’s Rangers.) The original company was called Manhattan Cable and was the first in the United States to use underground lines to send its signals. The network secured financial support from the Time-Life company and soon broadcast local news and tourist-oriented information to local television stations.
Watch one of the earliest promos for HBO
Unfortunately, an increasingly desperate Dolan was Loose money annual. Then he came up with a new idea: a subscription-based national cable channel that would broadcast the kinds of movies and sports that Americans didn’t have access to through ABC, NBC, and CBS. Dolan initially launched this idea under the name Green Channel, then tried the Sterling Cable Network – named after his communications company, Sterling Information Services. He finally settled on Home Box Office to put people in the mind that paying for this service would bring cinema into their living rooms.
His big idea had an inauspicious beginning: The first night of HBO programming in November 1972, ratings consisted of only 365 dwellings in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., and saw a broadcast that included a Rangers hockey game and a largely forgotten Paul Newman movie called Sometimes a big show.
Still, the idea quickly caught on. By the end of 1975 around 1,395 people in Wilkes-Barre subscribed; in 1975 HBO had 165,000 subscribers and was expanding into the new world of satellite transmission: Their broadcast of the “Thrilla in Manilla” fight between Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier on Oct. 1, 1975 it was first event ever relayed to the audience via the new technology of an American network.
HBO continued to grow rapidly throughout the 70s, soon spawning competitors such as the Movie Channel and Showtime. To stay ahead of them, HBO continued to innovate. The network aired its first comedy special (An evening with Robert Klein) on Dec. 31, 1975, and its first concert special (The Amazing Bette Midler Show) on June 19, 1976. In 1978, HBO broadcast nationwide and had close to 2 million subscribers. Broadcasting was extended to 24 hours a day in 1982 and established a model soon followed by cable channels everywhere.
Watch a 1990 HBO promo featuring Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas
The network’s rise continued through the 80s and fundamentally helped shape the landscape of modern media culture. The idea that a cable company could make money from sports paved the way for ESPN, which began broadcasting from Connecticut in 1979. The success of HBO’s comedy shows would prove central to the rise of both stand-up and sketch comedy as major forces in American entertainment. (HBO co-produced the Canadian show Children in the hall in the 80s.) Its success in making boxing a prime-time television event created the basis for MMA’s popularity.
However, HBO’s most lasting impact has been in the world of movies and TV shows. The landscape of what was considered acceptable on television screens changed as the network aired uncut R-rated content and promoted its own “adult” material – both through late-night specials and sister channel Cinemax, which was nicknamed “skinemax” in the 80s because of the amount of nudity it showed. By emphasizing the notion that you didn’t have to leave your couch to watch high-quality first-time content, HBO also set the stage for the streaming revolution.
Also, HBO started releasing its own TV shows, miniseries and movies from the 80s onwards, proving that big studios weren’t the only ones who could produce quality entertainment. These included groundbreaking shows like Ray Bradbury Theatre, Fraggle Rock and Tales from the Cryptas well as movies like And the band played on. In the late 90s, HBO also took the lead in creating what is now considered prestige television with programs such as The Larry Sanders Show and Oz. This trend continued with everything from The thread to The sopranos to Game of Throneswhen little HBO became a media behemoth along the way.
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