HBO And The Film Industry: A Love Story

Popular HBO Shows

The first time that I watched an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, I couldn’t stop laughing for the entire half hour. It was like watching an episode of Seinfeld with no restrictions on the writing or the characters’ actions. Never before had I seen a T.V. show that was so creatively free, and I would soon learn that this is the case with most of the programming that airs on HBO.

HBO (Home Box Office) is a premium cable network that is probably most renowned for its blockbuster series Game of Thrones, which is probably the most talked about T.V. show of all time. Other notable and very popular shows that HBO has produced include: The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and Girls. Over the years HBO has won numerous Emmys and its shows have received vast amounts of critical acclaim. What is perhaps most interesting about HBO is the threat that it has presented to the film industry over time; which can be seen both in its rise to prominence during the early 1980s and its current period of success.

HBO 1980s Logo

In her book Empires of Entertainment, Jennifer Holt describes how HBO’s early success was born out of its open challenge to the film industry. HBO began paving the way for pay cable in 1975 by becoming the first T.V. network to be distributed via SATCOM 1 and in 1977 by winning a lawsuit against the FCC that struck down many of the rules that the broadcast networks had used to restrict the growth of the cable industry (Holt, 26). By 1980, HBO was clearly the leading premium cable channel: “HBO had about 6 million subscribers, accounting for 69 percent of the pay-cable market at the time.” (Holt, 27)

HBO’s rapid rise to market dominance in the early 1980s was extremely worrisome to film studio executives. The network’s uniquely advantageous position in the premium cable industry allowed it to get favorable contracts for Hollywood films at what industry executives saw as “artificially low prices.” (Holt, 28) In addition to licensing pretty much every Hollywood film available, HBO also became involved with financing new film production. Holt says that during this time HBO was spending $250 million to finance Hollywood movies (28). HBO’s film financing changed the balance of power between Hollywood film studios and the premium cable industry.

The Sopranos Cast

The disruptive force of HBO, towards the film industry, can be seen today in its original programming and streaming service. Since the late 1990s HBO has been churning out increasingly successful original T.V. series that have gained both critical acclaim and large numbers of Emmy nominations. This trend took off with the renowned series The Sopranos, which focussed on New Jersey gangster Tony Soprano and his family. Due to the fact that HBO is not beholden to FCC censorship rules and a broadcast time slot schedule; its programming is far more cinematic than content from the three major networks. In addition, because HBO is subscription based, it doesn’t interrupt programming to run commercials.

Today HBO offers a bundle of subscription cable channels and a streaming service called HBO Now. As of 2016, HBO collectively had 134 million subscribers worldwide and brought in $5 billion in subscription revenues for the first time ever. The success of HBO’s cinematic style series’ since the 1990s, in many ways laid the groundwork for the rise of Netflix and other streaming services that produce original content.

HBO led the pack in mixing film production values with the episodic format of T.V., a concept that is often referred to as the “eight hour movie.” Eventually the content produced by HBO and its contemporaries could permanently mix the formats of film and T.V. and bring an end to Hollywood as we know it.



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