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

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn