An old advertising catchline for America’s leading premium cable network declared: “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” — an assertion that has endured long after the slogan was retired.
No other television channel can lay claim to being as influential or as having played such a key role in redefining what television is or means, than HBO. No other network has had the cultural impact or swept the Emmy awards for excellence in television on such a consistent basis.
For more than 40 years the Time Warner-owned network has broken new ground in television production and distribution. It has unleashed a string of memorable characters on the world and pioneered groundbreaking series, from The Sopranos and Sex and the City to The Wire and True Detective. It has 130m subscribers internationally and this year will expand its reach further when it launches an online streaming service in the US, which will free it from the ties of cable and satellite television and, potentially, turbocharge its subscriber base.
The announcement last year that the digital service was in the works sent shares in Time Warner sharply up weeks after the company had rejected a $71bn takeover offer from Rupert Murdoch. The rise offered proof, if any were needed, of HBO’s importance to its parent.
The network is a standard bearer for creative excellence and, almost single-handedly, ushered in an era commonly referred to as television’s golden age, characterised by fine writing and genre-defying stories.
The quality of US television across the board has increased in no small part because of HBO. Rival US cable networks such as AMC, Showtime and FX have risen to the challenge with shows such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men, impressed that HBO was able to carve out a hugely profitable niche without compromising on the artistic vision of its writers and directors.
The challenges HBO faces in 2015 are very different to those when it started life as a cable network in 1972 broadcasting a National Hockey League game. Its early years were all about sport and it broke boundaries in 1975 with the broadcast of the “Thrilla in Manilla” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Over the decades that followed it also became a home for new movies fresh from cinemas.
The network was slow to realise its future lay in original production, but in 1992 it got a taste of what was to come when it launched The Larry Sanders Show, a documentary-style comedy series starring Garry Shandling as an insecure late-night chat show host.
“It was the tipping point,” Richard Plepler, HBO’s chief executive once told the FT. “That was the show that made people notice we were doing something original and distinctive. Garry sent a flare up to the creative community, which said: ‘You can paint here, and you will be seen.’”
In those days, building a sufficiently large subscriber base was the key. Today, seeing off competitors, maintaining creative excellence and reaching viewers on new platforms - it recently struck an exclusive deal with Apple to carry its new HBO Now service, for example - are the pressing demands.
HBO has consistently risen to the challenge. It produces several movies a year alongside its television series, showing it has as capable a hand in short-form drama as it does in the long-form variety. Steven Soderbergh’s critically acclaimed 2013 film Behind the Candelabra, about the life of pianist Liberace, and Game Change from 2012, starring Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin, the Republican party’s vice-presidential candidate in 2008, are among its recent hits.
The rise of subscription services such as Netflix and Amazon Instant Video has made the market more competitive, driving up the price of the best material. A decade ago, the natural home for series such as Netflix’s House of Cards and Amazon’s Transparent would have been HBO. Today, there are multiple outlets in the mix for the best and most challenging ideas.
Great artists want to be with a gallery owner with whom they have a shared vision
These new competitors have not hurt HBO’s growth. It has more subscribers than ever — an indication that its blend of original series, documentaries and new-release movies from studios such as Warner Brothers and Universal Studios represent a sufficiently compelling mix.
The network has proved it can replace much loved and enduring series. There was a great deal of hand-wringing in 2007 when The Sopranos came to an end, but after a fallow year or two the network bounced back. In Game of Thrones it has the most lucrative show it has ever produced, with acolytes and fans the world over. True Detective, which lured two big-screen stars, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson to HBO, received a similarly favourable critical reaction; a second series is in the works and will be released this year.
“We don’t think, ‘Is this going to be a hit?’, because no one knows the answer to that question,” said Plepler recently. “If anyone tells you they knew Game of Thrones was going to be Game of Thrones or that Veep or Silicon Valley were going to break through in the way they did, they would be lying.
“Arthur Miller had a great line,” he continues. “Artists do what they do. ‘The rest is up to the zeitgeist.’ I think there’s a lot of truth to that.”
We don’t think, ‘Is this going to be a hit?’, because no one knows the answer to that
Chief executive since 2013 and a veteran of more than 20 years at the company, Plepler talks about letting talent “stretch” and giving the most talented individuals a “canvas”. He is wary of the concept of corporate strategy. “Culture,” he says, “eats strategy for breakfast.”
Plepler has compared HBO to a gallery owner. “Great artists want to be with a gallery owner who gets them and with whom they have a shared vision.” When the late art dealer Leo Castelli showcased the likes of contemporary artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg at his New York gallery, “he recognised their talent”, Plepler notes. “But they also wanted to be with him because they knew he got them. We are only as good as the painters.”
Among the artists in HBO’s gallery is John Oliver. The British comedian, who earned his spurs standing in for Jon Stewart on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, was hired last year to produce Last Week Tonight, a weekly satirical look at the news. The programme has a campaigning edge: a segment last year about possible changes to internet regulation led thousands of people to contact the US communications regulator to voice opposition to the proposals, almost crashing its website.
Martin Scorsese has a burgeoning relationship with HBO, having produced its Prohibition drama Boardwalk Empire, and is developing a series about the music industry, with Mick Jagger as a producer.
With its diverse shows and a concerted effort to expand the brand and its reach using digital distribution, HBO is a rare success story in a media landscape littered with companies that are struggling to adapt to audience fragmentation and technological disruption.
HBO was among the first television companies to build a network around quality without compromise — a strategy that continues to serve it well.