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Fifty Years Later, HBO Keeps Triumphing Through Turmoil

The Home Box Office has come a long way since its humble founding in 1972. Despite corporate upheaval, scandal, and streaming competition, HBO remains one of the most consistent sources of quality entertainment today.

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On November 8, 1972, the Home Box Office was born, and television was changed forever. To celebrate the network’s 50th birthday, The Ringer hereby dubs today “HBO Day.”

This past summer, executives at Warner Bros. Discovery unveiled a slideshow outlining their plans for the newly merged company. Addressing investors, the PowerPoint made the case for combining Discovery+ with HBO Max, a much bigger and buzzier streaming service, in large part due to the namesake cable channel that supplies some of its most popular shows. Before the presentation, the rumor mill buzzed with panic over potential cuts, fueled by drastic moves like pulling the movie Batgirl; weeks later, subscribers were aghast to realize that dozens of titles had been pulled from Max without warning, including HBO series like Vinyl and Mrs. Fletcher.

The fallout from the merger of WarnerMedia with Discovery Inc. is significant and ongoing, but HBO has been here before. In 2018, AT&T acquired HBO’s parent company, Time Warner, an awkward match that came with culture shocks of its own. In 2014, media mogul Rupert Murdoch attempted a takeover of Time Warner for $80 billion, a failed coup straight out of HBO’s own Succession. And in 2000, Time Warner was one half of what The New York Times has called “one of the most ill-fated marriages in the history of the media and technology business” when it sold itself to online upstart AOL.

The entertainment business is prone to upheaval, and as the industry consolidates amid a pivot to streaming, it’s in an especially intense period of change. But for all the anxiety that change creates, especially around the potential impact to a beloved brand like HBO, it can be calming to remember that the brand has survived seismic shifts before. The roller coaster ride of HBO’s parent company stands in contrast to the commendable consistency of HBO itself. As the network celebrates a half century of broadcasting this week, it can attribute its longevity to a steady stream of reliably premium programming—regardless of the surrounding noise.

“HBO was kind of like the kids who had a series of parents constantly yelling and screaming and divorcing each other, and somehow they stayed safe in the house,” says James Andrew Miller, the author of the comprehensive oral history Tinderbox: HBO’s Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers, which was published last fall. “Despite the fact that there was often chaos and stupidity going on at the parent company, HBO was able to still chart their own course.”

Not that HBO has been immune from its own challenges. The network struggled to navigate the localized labyrinth of early cable networks in the 1970s before satellite technology gave it a path to national distribution. One of its most influential executives departed in scandal 15 years ago after assaulting his then-girlfriend in public, underlining HBO’s reputation as a boys’ club hostile to women on and off the screen. Even after the historic success of marquee series like The Sopranos and Sex and the City, HBO faced stiff competition from other cable channels and, increasingly, streaming services. Some of the crunch was inevitable, but also exacerbated by sluggish development and a reluctance to innovate at the potential expense of cable profits, both of which dogged the network throughout the aughts and 2010s.

On the whole, however, these stumbles pale in comparison to HBO’s accomplishments. For half a century, HBO has honed its initial disadvantage into an edge of its own. A fledgling cable network couldn’t outbid the broadcast networks, so HBO specialized in cheap or undervalued formats like concerts, comedy specials, and boxing matches. A paywalled service couldn’t offer the same exposure as the free channels, so HBO offered creative freedom instead—a trade-off many TV veterans deemed worthwhile. Even the “male skew” of HBO’s audience touted in the infamous slideshow is the result of a deliberate choice to zig where others zagged: While networks traditionally programmed with women in mind, former CEO Michael Fuchs made a conscious effort to cater to the male demographic. You can draw a straight line from that decision to the violence and nudity that became HBO’s hallmarks, for better and for worse.

HBO has evolved its approach over the years. The company left boxing behind in 2018, and the difficult men of early breakthroughs like Oz and The Sopranos have given way to a more diverse slate spanning Insecure, I May Destroy You, and Big Little Lies. But the willingness to invest in artists and trust their instincts—to let David Simon tell a slow-motion story about an entire American city; to let Lena Dunham make a show without a formal pitch; to let Game of Thrones reshoot its entire pilot—has stayed the same, from its earliest original productions to the latest season of The White Lotus. That ethos has allowed HBO to help redefine TV as something more inventive, ambitious, and meaningful than mere entertainment, a vision that’s had a cascading effect throughout the industry.

“Fundamentally, HBO has stuck with that programming playbook,” says John Koblin, a reporter at The New York Times and the coauthor of It’s Not TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, and Future of HBO with Bloomberg journalist Felix Gillette. One reason it’s been able to stay the course is that HBO’s consistency extends to its personnel. Casey Bloys, who now oversees both HBO and HBO Max as chairman and CEO, has been with the network since 2004; Carolyn Strauss, now an executive producer on Somebody Somewhere, worked her way up from recent college graduate to entertainment president before leaving her staff post in 2008. (One of her first independent projects was Game of Thrones, which she’d previously helped develop.) Such prolonged tenures help build up institutional memory, insulating HBO from tumultuous times. “There is this really elegant baton passing from generation to generation,” Koblin observes.

A first-mover advantage lasts for only so long. The floodgates HBO opened by empowering the likes of Garry Shandling and David Chase soon gave way to buzzy offerings from other cable players like Showtime, FX, and AMC, who all realized the HBO strategy could work outside the halls of Time Warner. The proliferation of shows like Mad Men and Weeds coincided with a perceived lull in HBO’s output with stumbles like John From Cincinnati and Lucky Louie, part of an understandably strained effort to follow up some of the most acclaimed and influential shows ever made. But once HBO got back on track with high-profile hits like Game of Thrones and Veep, it faced an even bigger existential threat: the rise of streaming in general and one streamer in particular.

“Netflix came along and basically did the same thing to HBO that HBO was doing to everybody else,” Gillette says. Netflix, too, endeared itself to talent by doing what other outlets could not, like offering nine figures up front for two seasons of House of Cards. Netflix, too, had an early hit with a drama set in a prison, created by a TV veteran excited to make the most of a blank slate. Netflix, too, positioned itself as a disrupter targeting the mainstream establishment—except this time, that establishment included HBO. To add insult to injury, HBO had briefly entertained the idea of buying Netflix in 2006, and Netflix’s decision to make original series of its own stemmed directly from HBO’s refusal to lease out its own back catalog. “The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us,” Ted Sarandos memorably told GQ in 2013.

HBO had its own reasons for not getting into the streaming game sooner. Going direct to consumer would put HBO directly in competition with cable companies like Comcast, historically the intermediary between the channel and its customers. As a traditional entertainment company, Time Warner wasn’t given the same leeway investors afforded hot tech players to go aggressively in the red. And even after the AT&T regime made streaming an explicit priority, a Department of Justice probe held the merger up for 18 precious months. The result was a rocky, pandemic-era launch for HBO Max plagued by brand confusion, a spare cupboard of originals, and lagging subscriptions, even from customers who just had to convert their existing HBO one. None of it was good news for HBO itself, which faced the possibility of their hard-won reputation being squandered on a gambit beyond its control.

“Look, they came out the gate and fell on their face,” Miller says of the Max debut. But soon enough, the service found its footing, in part by making HBO Max a lot more like HBO. Bloys assumed control over both platforms just a few months after launch, and some of Max’s biggest success stories—critical darlings like Hacks or Station Eleven—feel as distinctive and voice-driven as any HBO show. Most telling was the response to Warner Bros. Discovery chief David Zaslav touting the virtues of a combined service. Just 18 months prior, director Christopher Nolan had taken potshots at HBO Max to widespread glee. Now, fans were as defensive of Max as they were of HBO proper when AT&T executive John Stankey demanded ramped-up production at an introductory meeting in 2018. “I had not seen that Twitter reaction since that town hall, but the theme was the same: ‘Don’t touch my HBO,’” Koblin says.

Ultimately, the streaming conversion became one more obstacle course that HBO navigated with its tried-and-true road map. As the Discovery era brings layoffs and billions in debt, there’s certainly cause for concern—but given the history of its most prestigious asset, a case for optimism as well. “No matter who’s running it, no matter who owns it, they’re going to need content,” Miller says. “I think if HBO can still stay true to its DNA, which is providing unique and quality content that you can’t get in other places, it’s going to have a future.” What that future holds remains to be seen, but in the medium term includes The Last of Us, The Sympathizer, and a new season of Succession. Not bad for a network eternally under siege.