50 Years Ago: HBO Launches in Just 365 Homes
There was once little that could compare with the strange magic of HBO. The network came into your house through the same television set as the others, but was totally different.
Movies played without commercials. Even when the films were R-rated, they were shown in their original form, with nothing edited out. HBO also broke ground by showing documentary films, comedy specials, steamy content, live concerts and prime-time fights between boxers – including "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler, Thomas "Hitman" Hearns and eventually Mike Tyson – who were becoming pop culture superstars.
Decades later, most viewers take the ability to watch these kinds of things on television for granted, but HBO pioneered it in American culture, beginning on Nov. 8, 1972.
The channel's roots actually go back to the '60s, when Charles Dolan was granted a permit to start a cable television network in New York City. (Dolan later became more famous for his position atop the Madison Square Garden Company, owner of the NBA's Knicks and the NHL's Rangers.) The original company was called Manhattan Cable, and was the first in the United States that used underground lines to transmit its signals. The network secured financial backing from the Time-Life corporation, and was soon broadcasting local news and tourist-oriented information into local televisions.
Watch One of the Earliest Promos for HBO
Unfortunately, an increasingly desperate Dolan was losing money every year. Then he came up with a new idea: a subscription-based national cable channel that would broadcast the kind of movies and sports events that Americans didn't have access to through ABC, NBC and CBS. Dolan originally launched this idea under the moniker the Green Channel, and then tried the Sterling Cable Network – named after his communications company, Sterling Information Services. He finally settled on Home Box Office, in order to put the idea in people's minds that paying for this service would bring the movie theater into their living rooms.
His huge idea had an inauspicious beginning: On the first night of HBO programming in November 1972, viewership consisted of just 365 homes in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., watching a broadcast that included a Rangers hockey game and a mostly forgotten Paul Newman movie called Sometimes a Great Notion.
Still, the idea caught on fast. By the end of 1975, some 1,395 people in Wilkes-Barre were subscribing; by 1975, HBO had 165,000 subscribers and was expanding into the new world of satellite transmission: Their broadcast of the "Thrilla in Manilla" fight between Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier on Oct. 1, 1975 was the first event ever relayed to audiences via the new technology by an American network.
HBO continued to grow fast through the '70s, and was soon spawning competitors like the Movie Channel and Showtime. To keep ahead of them, HBO continued to innovate. The network broadcast its first comedy special (An Evening With Robert Klein) on Dec. 31, 1975, and its first concert special (The Fabulous Bette Midler Show) on June 19, 1976. By 1978, HBO was broadcasting nationwide and had in the vicinity of 2 million subscribers. Broadcasting was expanded to 24 hours a day in 1982, establishing a model soon followed by cable channels everywhere.
Watch an HBO Promo Featuring Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas From 1990
The network's surge continued through the '80s and helped fundamentally shape the landscape of contemporary media culture. The idea that a cable company could make money off of sports paved the way for ESPN, which began broadcasting from Connecticut in 1979. The success of HBO's comedy shows would prove central to the emergence of both stand-up and sketch comedy as major forces in American entertainment. (HBO co-produced the Canadian show Kids in the Hall in the '80s.) Its success in making boxing into a prime-time television event created a foundation for the popularity of MMA.
HBO's most lasting impact, however, has been in the world of movies and television shows. The landscape of what was considered acceptable on TV screens changed as the network showcased uncut R-rated content and promoted its own "adult" material – both through late-night offerings and sister channel Cinemax, which was nicknamed "skinemax" in the '80s because of the amount of nudity it showed. By underscoring the notion that you didn't have to leave your couch to watch quality first-run content, HBO also set the stage for the streaming revolution.
Moreover, HBO began releasing its own TV shows, miniseries, and films from the '80s onward, proving that big studios weren't the only ones who could produce quality entertainment. These included seminal shows like The Ray Bradbury Theatre, Fraggle Rock and Tales From the Crypt, as well as movies like And the Band Played On. By the late '90s, HBO was also taking the lead in creating what's now thought of as prestige television with shows like The Larry Sanders Show and Oz. This trend continued with everything from The Wire to The Sopranos to Game of Thrones, as tiny HBO became a media behemoth along the way.
Watch the Evolution of HBO's Logo