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Published: Friday, 2/10/2012

COMMENTARY

HBO changed everything

BY KIRK BAIRD
CULTURE SHOCK

Congrats to HBO on its 40th birthday.

Four decades as a television pioneer is nothing to dismiss.

Think about it: When HBO first launched in late 1972 there was no Fox, no ESPN, no CNN, no TBS. You had your big-three networks, PBS, and whatever low-rent, independent stations that occupied the UHF dial in each market.

And HBO certainly wasn't as ubiquitous as it is now. Where I grew up in Dallas, for example, we didn't have cable until the mid-1980s. HBO was a far-away fantasy that my relatives in East Texas enjoyed. At the time, I referred to it as "rich man's TV," since my relatives were well-to-do in the oil business. (Insert Texas oil baron cliche here.)

My first exposure to the premium channel was in its formative years as well, back when HBO signed off at midnight on weekdays. Subsisting on a diet of network TV-only programing and sitcom reruns on the independent stations, my big television treat came while staying at hotels on a family trip. Forget the actual vacation; I was content sitting in an air-conditioned room watching hours of movies such as Wholly Moses, The Electric Horseman, C.H.O.M.P.S., and Bronco Billy on HBO. And when the vacation was over I would take the mini monthly HBO programming guide from the hotel room home with me so that I could keep up with what I was missing. "If only I was back in the Holiday Inn right now, I could be watching Blues Brothers for the 14th time."

Surely this should have been a warning sign to my parents.

At that point in its history, the premium channel's focus was movies. HBO, as most of you know, is an acronym for Home Box Office, and in the early 1980s watching uncut, commercial-free movies at home was still a novel idea; VCRs were catching on but remained fairly costly, as did the VHS and Betamax movies. (Yes, I said Betamax.)

But it was HBO that introduced me to a pre-Late Night David Letterman and Pee-wee Herman several years before his first movie. The subscription service also offered its viewers major boxing matches and stand-up comedy specials, and in 1983 original programming such as the anthology series The Hitchhiker and current-event satire Not Necessarily the News, as well as educational kids programming, Jim Henson's Fraggle Rock. HBO brass was smart enough even then to know long-term growth necessitated more than repeats of How to Beat the High Cost of Living and Nice Dreams.

The philosophy served it well. In the burgeoning era of streaming films and movies on-demand -- and let's not yet omit DVDs and Blu-rays -- premium channels face fierce competition as conduits for Hollywood blockbusters and bombs. HBO radically changed things for itself and for television as a whole in 1999 with The Sopranos. The series about a New Jersey mobster and his family and henchmen changed the network programming landscape. As much as I loved HBO's The Larry Sander's Show, which ended its six-year run in 1998, it's The Sopranos that made the subscription channel a true contender for network TV viewers.

HBO has only grown bolder and broader with its selection of original offerings: The Wire, Sex and the City, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Six Feet Under, Entourage, and more recently True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, and Game of Thrones, among others.

When's the last time you heard someone say they subscribe to HBO for the films? It's no longer the movies that attract customers, it's the network's unique content.

HBO cut such a successful transformative model that fellow subscription service Showtime followed suit in 1986 with the very funny and painfully forgotten It's Garry Shandling Show and has since expanded to feature an impressive lineup of original programming that includes Dexter, Weeds, Nurse Jackie, and Shameless.

More recently, Netflix, a paid service offering DVDs by mail and online streaming films, has come to the same conclusion that feature films alone aren't enough to survive. Netflix recently began offering its subscribers the original series Lilyhammer. The story of a New York mobster placed in Lillehammer in Norway through the FBI's witness protection program, Lilyhammer stars Steven Van Zandt, himself a costar in The Sopranos. Next year Netflix is also revising a short run of new Arrested Development episodes, as the acclaimed but canceled sitcom continues to find an afterlife beyond the network television graveyard.

Of course, four decades ago the thought of any original programming outside of the Big Three networks would have been crazy. Just like the thought of people paying to watch movies at home.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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