HBO and the TV revolution Tinderbox: HBO’s Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers
Author: James Andrew Miller
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
There’s enough animosity, jealousy, score-settling and killing gossip in Tinderbox, James Andrew Miller’s mountainous new oral history of HBO, to fill an Elizabethan drama. Yet the book’s tone is largely fond.
The people who created HBO made something they’re proud of. They’re glad to have been there, to have had a piece of it, in the early, freewheeling decades. Most know they’ll never have it so good again.
HBO went live on November 8, 1972, broadcasting to a few hundred houses in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. The first thing you saw on the screen was Jerry Levin, sitting on a sofa. He welcomed viewers, then kicked it over to a hockey game from Madison Square Garden, which was followed by Paul Newman in “Sometimes a Great Notion.”
Levin was an ambitious young lawyer who had been brought in by a cable company, Sterling Communications, to run HBO’s start-up programming. Tinderbox explains how Sterling eventually ran wires to all those buildings in Manhattan and elsewhere, sometimes via sub-legal methods.
Levin, of course, would become the architect of the most ill-judged merger in media history. At the height of the dot-com bubble in 2000, he tried to combine Time Warner, of which HBO was a subsidiary, with Steve Case’s already sinking AOL. In the ruinous wake, Levin resembled the proverbial hedgehog, the one who climbs off the hairbrush while sheepishly muttering, “We all make mistakes.”
If you’re going to read Tinderbox, prepare for a landslide of corporate history. Students of power will find much to interest them. HBO had many stepparents over the years. Following these deals is complicated.
In reverse order, Miller describes how HBO has been sequentially consumed from 1972 through today: “Warner Bros. Discovery rescued it from AT&T, which had gobbled it up from Time Warner, which had saved it from Time Warner AOL, which had somehow abducted it from Time Warner, which had shrewdly outplayed Time for it, after Time had outflanked Sterling Communications long ago.”
Miller, who has previously compiled oral histories of “Saturday Night Live,” ESPN and Creative Artists Agency, digs into the machinations and bruised egos behind these deals.
HBO began to make its mark on popular culture in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The channel was so sexy people went to hotels to watch it. The channel had no advertisers, and thus no one to complain about brash or steamy content.
Before HBO, television in the hands of the big three networks was a wasteland — “a vast exercise in condescension,” as Robert Hughes put it, “by quite smart people to millions of others whom they assume to be much dumber than they actually are.”
A Barbra Streisand concert was an early hit. Boxing was vital to the early growth of HBO, as were midweek broadcasts of Wimbledon. The channel launched a million comedy clubs. If you were a comic without an HBO special, you weren’t on the map.
HBO branched out into original movies, some of which I was happy to see recalled: Gia, with Angelina Jolie; Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story, with Ben Kingsley and Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, based on the Walter Mosley novel, with Laurence Fishburne, among others.
Tinderbox slows down and lingers purposefully on the turn of the century, when the so-called golden age of television began to come into view. With shows like Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, Curb Your Enthusiasm and especially The Sopranos, HBO changed notions of what television could be, and pickpocketed the cultural conversation from film.
The Sopranos was not an immediate hit, but it was beloved internally.
“We were putting a husky guy with a hairy back wearing a wife-beater in the lead role,” says Jeff Bewkes, a former Time Warner CEO. “Nobody else would do that.”
HBO had good luck with its early executives. These were the kind of guys who knew what a debenture was yet had a feel for programming and knew enough to hire good people and leave them alone. HBO gave people room to run.
Often the only direction given to directors and producers was: Don’t make anything you’d see anywhere else. Winning awards was more important than ratings. Before HBO, elite actors wouldn’t go near a television show.
Staffers at HBO sometimes found it hard to define what HBO was, but they knew what it wasn’t. HBO’s luck held for a while after The Sopranos signed off. Lena Dunham’s Girls and Game of Thrones were in the wings. But the souk that is the modern television world was growing crowded.
HBO was no longer the brash insurgent. It passed on shows — Mad Men, House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, Breaking Bad, The Crown — that went on to become crucial hits for Netflix and other cable and streaming services.
There are a lot of winning moments in Tinderbox. But wading through its nearly thousand pages I often felt spacey and exhausted, as if it were 4 am on the third night of one of those endurance contests.
HBO has retained much of its magic. Succession: What a treat. But our over-entertained eyeballs have more options, and the channel’s competitors, Miller makes clear, have the long knives sharpened.