Opening Up A Tinderbox

If you haven’t yet read an oral history book by James Andrew Miller you really can’t consider yourself an expert on any subject he has written about.  Miller is a consummate researcher and expert organizer of timelines that produce exhaustive recounts of media history through the words of those that produced them.  After previously tackling Saturday Night Live and ESPN, among others, his latest book TINDERBOX: HBO’s RUTHLESS PURSUIT OF NEW FRONTIERS, dropped just in time for the extended holiday weekend and in line with the upcoming golden anniversary of the network.

For as frequently as we’ve previously mused that there is no Netflix, and therefore no streaming war and glut of scripted content had FX not succeeded with THE SHIELD, there is no FX and THE SHIELD without HBO.  Initially developed as a way for disenfranchised New York sports fans  in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania to see home games from Madison Square Garden, HBO made its debut in the fall of 1972 as the first cable-originated television channel to broadcast sporting events outside its home market. For perspective, the Philadelphia 76ers, whose games were otherwise being broadcast in Wilkes-Barre. went 9-73 that season, while the New York Knicks won what is to date their most recent NBA championship.  Never was there a more opportune time for a network to fill a void than among disenfranchised hoops fans during a cold Northeast winter.

In order to fill out the schedule during the nights where no games were played, HBO licensed the rights to run movies, which at the time plenty of independent television stations were doing.  But inasmuch that HBO was not a BROADCAST channel, they had two advantages in the kinds of movies they could run.  For one, they could run movies that had not yet been sold to broadcasters, creating an incremental revenue opportunity for studios.  For another, they weren’t bound by FCC regulations on content.  You could see movies the way they were released in theatres–with nudity and with organic language.  There wasn’t a baby boomer, myself included, that wasn’t stunned the first time we saw a pair of breasts other than our parents’ in our living rooms.

As time went on, competitors like Showtime (with its own array of unedited movies) and TBS (with live sports from Ted Turner’s Braves and Hawks) emerged. and HBO had to differentiate itself.  Original, unedited content was the solution.  At first, costs made unscripted programming a priority, and comedy specials and taped concerts were an efficient way to attract big name talent.  Other live sports, particularly live boxing and midweek Wimbledon tennis, also provided unique content and at one point arguably made HBO a more impactful sports network than ESPN.

That success made HBO into a machine and allowed its eventual expansion intoscripted content.  Initial efforts like Dream On and a football comedy (FIRST AND 10) with O.J. Simpson as a lead were bland.  Finally in the early ’90s THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW, featuring an unleashed Garry Shandling brilliantly satirizing late night talk shows, broke through both the fourth wall and established true popularity.  The next wave included THE SOPRANOS and SEX and THE CITY, and subsequent ones included GAME OF THRONES and now SUCCESSION.  I think you know how this story evolves.

Peter Liguori, my consigliere at FX, marketed those 90s shows for HBO and brought the blueprint of unapologetic, authentic content to basic cable, and indeed the foundation for Leblanguage. I may not have worked for HBO myself but I got to experience the same mentality and dedication that those in this book did, and therefore my relatability is strong.  In more than 1000 pages Peter’s contemporaries, predecessors and successors relate how and why they were able to reshape the very concept of television, and why they have concerns that its future, and that of HBO, may be suspect.

I for one am far more bullish.  It is ironic that the platform that effectively begat Netflix is now chasing it, but under David Zaslav the same kind of savvy that Peter had deployed at FX and FOX is back in the saddle, and entertainment czar Casey Bloys has proven to be a shrewd judge of talent who basically lets creatives be creative and has so far navigated a landscape of self-destructive AT&T lackeys who almost single-handedly underminded those creatives’ efforts.  HBO Max has its challenges, to be sure, but it seems to have enough oars in the water to stabilize and set a course for its next fifty years.

I don’t read a lot of books these days but I’ve just started this one and I can’t put it down.  It’s not just a book about television.  It’s a book about HBO.  Enjoy it.

Until next time….




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