HBO celebrates forty years of sex, violence and... Fraggles
The grounbreaking cable channel is celebrating four decades of making great TV. So, what were they up to before The Sopranos and Co? Tim Walker finds out
Tim Walker is The Independent’s Los Angeles correspondent, covering entertainment and other concerns from the West Coast of the US. He was previously a features writer and the editor of the paper’s diary column. His first novel, Completion, is being published in January 2014.
Sunday 18 November 2012
HBO became a household name in the UK with the advent of The Sopranos in 1999, which ushered in a golden decade of TV drama. Since then, its Pavlovian, pre-episode fuzzy-screen ident has become a reassuring mark of quality. HBO boasts about 30 million subscribers in the US, and countless more viewers in this country and elsewhere thanks to DVD box-sets, Sky Atlantic and internet piracy. Yet this month the premium cable channel – one of the few in the US able to broadcast with swearing and sex, and without ad breaks – celebrates its 40th birthday, which means there are 27 years of pre-Sopranos unaccounted for.
When the channel first reached screens in 1972, its inaugural broadcast was the film adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel Sometimes A Great Notion, starring Henry Fonda and Paul Newman as members of an Oregon logging clan. That was followed by an ice hockey game, shown live from Madison Square Garden. When Time-Life (later Time Warner) launched HBO, the company envisaged it not as a home for original programming so much as for pay-per-view movies and sports. During the 1970s the cable TV industry grew slowly, due in part to the powerful television networks, which feared competition and encouraged federal regulations to limit its spread.
In 1975, HBO broadcast the so-called "Thrilla in Manila" confrontation between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. The channel turned its first profit two years later, and in 1980 it launched a second, cheaper movie channel, Cinemax, to compete with its own pay-per-view rival, Showtime (which now produces Homeland and Dexter). In 1982, with Columbia Pictures and CBS, it established a new Hollywood movie studio, Tri-Star. Despite its success, however, HBO was still known by some frustrated subscribers for simply showing the same movies over and over again.
In 1983, it broadcast its first made-for-pay-TV movie, The Terry Fox Story: the true story of a Canadian amputee-runner and cancer activist. It also showed its first children's show, Jim Henson's Fraggle Rock, which later moved to the specialist channel, HBO Family, as the broadcaster diversified.
Now HBO is the umbrella name for a collection of channels, and famous for a selection of genres. Among its celebrated documentaries is Spike Lee's four-part epic of Hurricane Katrina, When The Levees Broke (2006). It also cultivated a reputation for comedy, with its one-off stand-up specials, and its annual Young Comedians Show, first broadcast in 1976. From 1992 to 1998, HBO's most ground-breaking programme was The Larry Sanders Show, a super self-aware behind-the-scenes comedy about a late-night talkshow.
In 1997, HBO broadcast the first series of its first hour-long drama serial, the prison-set Oz. The same year, HBO earned 90 Emmy nominations, the first time a cable channel had garnered more nominations than any broadcast network. The rest – The Sopranos; The Wire; Six Feet Under; Deadwood; Sex And The City; Entourage; True Blood; Girls; Boardwalk Empire; Game of Thrones; Curb Your Enthusiasm – is history.
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Cyclist who knocked down three-year-old girl says his life has been 'destroyed'
- 2 Chelsea victory parade mocked on Twitter as 'tens of fans' pack the streets of London
- 3 US warned by Chinese media to stop meddling or 'war will be inevitable'
- 4 Woman, 21, dies after taking contraceptive pill that 'caused fatal blood clot'
- 5 Isis burns woman alive for refusing to engage in 'extreme' sex act, UN says
Stolen Instagram photo sells for $90,000
The New York Times sparks criticism after releasing an all-white reading list
Glastonbury lineup 2015: The Women's Institute to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
Dheepan, film review: Palme d'Or prize goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Game of Thrones, Season 5, Episode 7: Why two of the show's most iconic characters just met
As a white man, I'm surprised more women aren't tweeting the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen
Scotland may have to leave the EU even if it votes to stay in, David Cameron confirms
The day that Britain resigned as a global power
EU referendum: David Cameron's rules are a 'democratic disgrace', says French-born Scottish politician set to be denied a vote
SNP fury as HS2 finds 'no business case' for taking fast train service to Scotland
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people