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The Essential HBO Reader

Gary R. Edgerton
Jeffrey P. Jones
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 372
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  • Book Info
    The Essential HBO Reader
    Book Description:

    The founding of Home Box Office in the early 1970s was a harbinger of the innovations that transformed television as an industry and a technology in the decades that followed. HBO quickly became synonymous with subscription television and became the leading force in cable programming. Having interests in television, motion picture, and home video industries was crucial to its success. HBO diversified into original television and movie production, home video sales, and international distribution as these once-separate entertainment sectors began converging into a global entertainment industry in the mid-1980s. HBO has grown from a domestic movie channel to an international cable-and-satellite network with a presence in over seventy countries. It is now a full-service content provider with a distinctive brand of original programming and landmark shows such as The Sopranos and Sex and the City. The network is widely recognized for its award-winning, innovative and provocative programming, including dramatic series such as Six Feet Under and The Wire, miniseries such as Band of Brothers and Angels in America, comedies such as Curb Your Enthusiasm and Def Comedy Jam, sports shows such as Inside the NFL and Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, documentary series such as Taxi Cab Confessions and Autopsy, and six Oscar-winning documentaries between 1999 and 2004. In The Essential HBO Reader, editors Gary R. Edgerton and Jeffrey P. Jones bring together an accomplished group of scholars to explain how HBO's programming transformed the world of cable television and how the network continues to shape popular culture and the television industry. Now, after more than three and a half decades, HBO has won acclaim in four distinct programming areas -- drama, comedy, sports, and documentaries -- emerging as TV's gold standard for its breakout series and specials. The Essential HBO Reader provides a comprehensive and compelling examination of HBO's development into the prototypical entertainment corporation of the twenty-first century.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4371-2
    Subjects: Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
    G.E. and J.J.
  4. INTRODUCTION: A Brief History of HBO
    (pp. 1-20)
    Gary R. Edgerton

    The founding of Home Box Office Inc. (HBO) was a harbinger of something new and innovative that was happening to television as an industry and a technology during the early to mid-1970s. Cable entrepreneur Charles Dolan first conceived of the network in 1971 as the Green Channel. He was the owner of Sterling Communications, a growing cable concern in the New York metropolitan area that was largely subsidized by Time Inc. Dolan began work on the Green Channel with seed money from Time, hiring the thirty-three-year-old Wall Street lawyer Gerald Levin as part of his start-up team. Dolan and his...

  5. OVERVIEW: Producing an Aristocracy of Culture in American Television
    (pp. 23-41)
    Christopher Anderson

    When did it become permissible to view a drama series produced for American television and think of it as a work of art? We’re used to thinking of television programs as seductive attractions designed to coax viewers into the grasp of advertisers. With the rise of academic television and cultural studies, we’ve learned that television programs can be interpreted as cultural symptoms, expressions of profound, if often obscure, social meanings. We’ve seen television programs serve as the fetish object of worshipful fans, the illicit thrill of guilty-pleasure seekers, and the target of irony-wielding wiseacres. We have even watched television and...

  6. ONE Films
    (pp. 42-51)
    Dana Heller

    Perhaps more than any other recent filmmaking venture in the United States, HBO Films has granted a sense of authenticity to the dwindling aura of the movies. Or to put it another way, HBO Films is a rebuff to Walter Benjamin’s argument that film technology can offer no more than a cheap imitation of the singular and unique presence of the work of art.¹ By exhibiting a restless fascination with the meaning of “originality,” HBO has strategically distanced its films from the formulaic excesses of made-for-TV movies and Hollywood’s obsession with box office receipts. The result is that HBO has...

  7. TWO Oz
    (pp. 52-60)
    Michele Malach

    Thus ends “The Routine,” the first episode of HBO’s first original weekly, hour-long drama series. Dino Ortolani (Prisoner #96C382, played by Jon Seda), the man on the gurney, is introduced as one of the main characters in Oz, only to be gruesomely dispatched at the end of the very first episode. Welcome toOz,and welcome to HBO drama. With the help of Tom Fontana, best known for his work onSt. Elsewhere(NBC, 1982–88) andHomicide: Life on the Street(NBC, 1993–99), HBO quickly established itself as pushing the boundaries of serial television. AlthoughOznever reached...

  8. THREE The Sopranos
    (pp. 61-70)
    David Thorburn

    The signature program of the post-broadcast era,The Sopranosdebuted on HBO in January 1999 and became the first cable series to achieve larger audience ratings than its broadcast competition. The series also received unprecedented critical acclaim in both popular and elite circles. Even intellectuals who had previously disdained television hailed the show as a groundbreaking work of art. One measure of the program’s unique status as a cultural icon was the screening of the entire run of its first two seasons at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as the featured item in a retrospective of...

  9. FOUR Six Feet Under
    (pp. 71-81)
    Kim Akass and Janet McCabe

    Six Feet Underdebuted on HBO at 10:00 P.M. on Sunday June 3, 2001. It was the first drama series launched by the channel sinceThe Sopranos(1999–2007), and HBO anticipated success, commissioning a second season before the first had even aired. This confidence appeared justified: the show received the highest ratings of any new HBO series, with a reported 5 million weekly viewers (compared withThe Sopranos’ 3.3 million in its first season). Set in a Los Angeles family-owned funeral parlor,Six Feet Underis another family saga—this time telling the idiosyncratic, darkly humorous, and profoundly moving...

  10. FIVE The Wire
    (pp. 82-91)
    Brian G. Rose

    From the start,The Wire(2002–) was a departure for HBO, the network that had made its reputation departing from traditional television ways. Instead of offering a dramatic alternative to the program formats of its commercial broadcast rivals,The Wirewas a direct assault against that most venerable of TV genres, the cop show, with the goal quite literally to explode the creaky, hidebound world of prime-time crime and law enforcement from within. Gone would be the stalwart cop, able to thwart, sometimes single-handedly, the continuous eruptions of violence and illegal activity from the bowels of the city. Banished...

  11. SIX Deadwood
    (pp. 92-102)
    Horace Newcomb

    It is perhaps indicative of the current state of television at large, and certainly indicative of television series produced for HBO, thatDeadwood(2004–) is most often referred to as “David Milch’sDeadwood.” Just asThe Sopranos(1999–2007) is often linked directly to creator and executive producer David Chase, andThe Wire(2002–) to David Simon,Deadwoodis all but inseparable from the authorial, or auteur, status of Milch.¹ Indeed, most of these series are said to grow from or to be otherwise related to the professional, at times intensely personal, biographical experiences of their creative “fathers.”...

  12. SEVEN Tanner ’88
    (pp. 103-115)
    Joanne Morreale

    Tanner ’88aired on the HBO network during the 1988 presidential primary campaign. At a time when cable was still a novelty, and few cable networks had original programming,Tanner ’88was a mock documentary film that created the presidential campaign of a fictional Democratic candidate, Jack Tanner, whom it ostensibly followed as its subject. It starred Michael Murphy as Tanner; Cynthia Nixon as his college-age daughter, Alex; and Pamela Reed as his campaign manager, T.J. Cavanaugh. The idea for the series came from Bridget Potter, vice president of original programming at HBO. She contactedDoonesburycartoonist Garry Trudeau, who...

  13. EIGHT From the Earth to the Moon
    (pp. 116-124)
    Michael Allen

    Executive-produced by Hollywood A-list star Tom Hanks,From the Earth to the Moonpremiered on HBO on Sunday April 5, 1998. This original twelve-part miniseries, screened in blocks of two episodes over six consecutive Sunday evenings, was HBO’s most prestigious and expensive production to date. It had a dramatic impact, picking up an Emmy for the best miniseries of the year.From the Earth to the Moonchronicles the events of the Apollo program of moon explorations (1961–72) through the personal stories of the astronauts, their families, and the NASA engineers and technicians, set against the turbulent events of...

  14. NINE Band of Brothers
    (pp. 125-134)
    Thomas Schatz

    For more than a half-century, Hollywood has been steadily refining and recasting the “war film,” a genre that coalesced during World War II and that has continued to evolve through successive U.S. military conflicts without ever losing sight of that generative historic event. The genre was born by federal mandate, quite literally, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt in December 1941 ordered Hollywood to document and valorize the war effort. The studios complied, producing hundreds of war-related films from 1942 through 1945—most of them combat films focusing on male initiation and camaraderie, on hyperviolent conflict and selfless sacrifice, and perhaps...

  15. TEN Angels in America
    (pp. 135-148)
    Gary R. Edgerton

    Angels in America(2003) is one of the most ambitious and celebrated productions in the history of HBO. The six-hour adaptation of Tony Kushner’s sweeping seven-and-a-half hour, two-part play (Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika) was shepherded from stage to screen after a thirteen-year gestation process by independent producer Cary Brokaw (whose portfolio includesNobody’s Fool[1986],Drugstore Cowboy[1989], andThe Player[1992]). Brokaw “started a campaign to obtain the rights to adapt it as a film” after reading it in 1989 as a work in progress before...

  16. OVERVIEW: At Home on the Cutting Edge
    (pp. 151-171)
    Bambi Haggins and Amanda D. Lotz

    HBO takes comedy very seriously. Former network chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht—a key architect of HBO’s brand and identity—notably stated that HBO considers itself “a patron [and] celebrates standup,” and this attitude arguably has been integrated into the network’s comedy series as well.¹ Before coming to the premium cable channel in 1985, Albrecht spent years spotting and nurturing comic talent, as an agent involved in signing Jim Carrey, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg and as a co-owner of The Improv in New York, where he was known to do a set or two. The comedy...

  17. ELEVEN Comedy Talk Shows
    (pp. 172-182)
    Jeffrey P. Jones

    HBO’s executives have always recognized that, as a subscription television network, its programming must be similar enough to network fare to seem familiar and inviting to audiences, yet different enough to be worth paying for. HBO’s approach to comedy is no different. As Chris Albrecht, then HBO’s president of original programming, noted in 1996, “there are not a lot of places like us and we have to continue to explore and expand the boundaries of comedy content-wise and form-wise” to be successful.¹ Two years earlier, HBO had embarked on its own approach to reinventing that mainstay of late night network...

  18. TWELVE The Larry Sanders Show
    (pp. 183-192)
    George Plasketes

    Before HBO’s prestigious programming proclamation, “It’s Not TV . . . ”; before its Emmy Award dominance and critical acclaim; before its cast of colorful characters, from Carrie and the city gals to Tony and the Jersey boys to the dysfunctional Fisher funeral family; before the narcissistic entourage of Hollywood wannabes and the improvisational enthusiasm of Larry David, there was another neurotic, self-absorbed “Larry”— Larry Sanders.The Larry Sanders Showlies at the forefront of HBO’s impressive string of “appointment” and “watercooler talk” groundbreaking original series. Premiering in August 1992, and running through May 1998—a total of eighty-nine thirty-minute...

  19. THIRTEEN Sex and the City
    (pp. 193-203)
    Ron Simon

    From its debut in June 1998,Sex and the Citybecame a comic epicenter of vigorous debate on such issues as gender, lifestyle, materialism, and orgasms. Unlike previous landmark situation comedies, many of which seemed retrograde in either form or content, this HBO series engaged the contemporary world wholeheartedly, infusing the mise-en-scène and narrative with an up-to-the-minute trendiness.Sex and the Citynot only satirized social mores, but also engendered a framework to understand postmodern romantic predicaments. As theNew York Timesnoted in 2004, its comedy “so perfectly captures the mood of a culture that it becomes more than...

  20. FOURTEEN Curb Your Enthusiasm
    (pp. 204-214)
    David Lavery

    WhenCurb Your Enthusiasmdebuted on HBO in October 2000, HBO was in its halcyon days. The first two seasons of its flagship seriesThe Sopranos(1999–2007) had aired (season three would begin the following March);Sex and the City(1998–2004) was ending season three that same night;Oz(1997–2003) was on hiatus in the middle of its fourth season; andSix Feet Under, debuting in June 2001, was still months away. It was not the first sitcom on HBO (Dream On[1990–96], for example, had preceded it), nor the last (Lucky Louiedebuted in 2006)....

  21. OVERVIEW: It Isn’t TV, It’s the “Real King of the Ring”
    (pp. 217-236)
    Toby Miller and Linda J. Kim

    Sport has always been at the core of HBO.¹ A National Hockey League (NHL) fixture was among its first programming at the time of the channel’s launch in Pennsylvania in 1972. By 1974, HBO typically showed two films each evening, or a film and a sporting event, often live from Madison Square Garden.² Movies, then as now a key programming component, initially proved a somewhat unreliable means of capturing and retaining viewers, because they were replayed so regularly. During the 1970s, HBO took a catholic attitude to sport, featuring gymnastics, boxing, college hoops, figure skating, surfing and so on alongside...

  22. OVERVIEW: Form and Function
    (pp. 239-261)
    Thomas A. Mascaro

    HBO paid little attention to documentaries in the network’s early days. But beginning in the late 1970s, HBO executives began to look to documentary programming to expand its schedule. Slowly, HBO became a destination for both documentary viewers seeking original works from different producers and a valued collaborator for documentary filmmakers. Seasoned pioneers and emerging novices have found a nurturing environment as well as ample funding for documentary expressions at HBO. Thanks to this eclectic cadre of creative talent, HBO viewers enjoy diverse nonfiction offerings. And documentary aficionados have an entirely new body of works available for viewing, purchase, and...

  23. FIFTEEN America Undercover
    (pp. 262-273)
    Susan Murray

    HBO’s documentary seriesAmerica Undercoverhas been on the air since 1983; in that time it has not only showcased the work of some of the finest documentarians in the world, but has also come under some critical fire for its tendency to focus on the sensational and the titillating. Most documentaries made for and shown on HBO come under theAmerica Undercoverheading, with the exception of a few special presentations and those films that have already had a theatrical release, so the identity of the series really represents the identity of HBO documentaries writ large. With documentaries such...

  24. SIXTEEN Erotica
    (pp. 274-287)
    Jeffrey P. Jones

    From HBO’s early days as a nascent satellite channel to its current status as the most profitable network in television history, the one form of programming that has seemingly fulfilled the promise inherent in the network’s popular branding campaign, “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO,” is erotica. As a subscription channel, HBO has taken advantage of its ability to show nudity and sexual situations without fear of censorship. Initially airing uncut R-rated Hollywood movies but quickly offering spicier fare, the network has routinely banked on sexually oriented programming as an inexpensive yet enormously popular form of programming that contributes to the...

  25. SEVENTEEN Theatricals
    (pp. 288-300)
    Carolyn Anderson

    HBO’s branding slogan—“It’s Not TV, It’s HBO”—is never more fulfilled than through its production and distribution of documentary and narrative films exhibited on big screens nationwide. Building on a general environment of robust independent feature production, a developed network of high-profile festivals that serve as launching pads for indie films and filmmakers, an unparalleled resurgence of interest in featurelength documentaries, and a concomitant increase in recent commercial possibilities for theatrical distribution of documentaries, HBO has extended its already impressive reach across media types into theatrical film production and distribution. Because it need not operate under the censorship restraints...

  26. EIGHTEEN What Has HBO Ever Done for Women?
    (pp. 303-314)
    Janet McCabe and Kim Akass

    Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco), Ruth Fisher (Frances Conroy), Brenda Chenowith (Rachel Griffiths), Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), Alma Garrett (Molly Parker), Barbara Dutton Henrickson (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicolette Grant (Chloë Sevigny), and Atia of the Julii (Polly Walker) are some of the most compelling women on our television screens—and they all come courtesy of HBO. Strong, complex women have, of course, long been part of the television landscape, from Lucille Ball to Roseanne, from Christine Cagney (Sharon Gless) and Mary Beth Lacey (Tyne Daly) to Alexis Carrington (Joan Collins). But this recent crop of truly troubling yet always mesmerizing women...

  27. NINETEEN HBO’s Ongoing Legacy
    (pp. 315-330)
    Gary R. Edgerton and Jeffrey P. Jones

    The expectations game is an essential part of how television works. Each new season brings a fresh batch of original programs that are tested by networks, handicapped by critics, and sampled by audiences. Viewers are bombarded with a seemingly endless stream of promos and ads that are all intended to get them to watch what is supposedly the next sure-fire hit. Most of these shows fall rapidly by the wayside: an estimated three-quarters never make it beyond their first seasons. Still, breakout series do occasionally transform a few select networks into the hottest destinations on TV. Given their longevity, NBC,...

  28. List of Contributors
    (pp. 331-336)
    (pp. 337-344)
    (pp. 345-357)