16 Things You Probably Didn't Know About HBO

Stephen Lam, Getty Images
Stephen Lam, Getty Images / Stephen Lam, Getty Images

With rough 130 million subscribers worldwide and a presence in a third of American homes, Home Box Office (HBO) has come a long way from the 365 Pennsylvania-area households it originally signed up during its debut in 1972. The channel’s reputation for innovative programming (Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, Oz, etc.) has helped raise expectations for quality content. As the Game of Thrones era ends and the channel prepares for a 2020 slate including His Dark Materials and more Barry, get dialed in for some facts about one of the small screen’s biggest players.

1. HBO was originally named the Green Channel. 

Charles Dolan, a cable television advocate at a time when cable television was poorly understood, thought there could be a market for a premium station offering movies and sporting events. After getting an investment from Time, Inc., Dolan and his staff renamed their project Home Box Office to better highlight their Hollywood and event programming.

2. The first HBO film broadcast is largely forgotten. 

Before HBO beamed their first live sporting event in 1972—a New York Rangers/Vancouver Canucks hockey game—the channel screened their first film: Sometimes a Great Notion, a little-seen 1971 drama about lumber unions starring Paul Newman and Henry Fonda. (Newman directed the film after firing Richard Colla just weeks into shooting.)

3. HBO used microwaves to get their signal out. 

With satellite technology largely unreliable in the early 1970s, HBO initially distributed its signal via microwaves. But satellite offered a far greater reach at less of an expense, and as the channel hit a ceiling of subscribers, they began using the technology out of necessity. By 1977, the service had over 600,000 households signed up.

4. HBO was initially on the air for just nine hours at a time. 

For the first near-decade of its existence, HBO provided programming for roughly nine hours out of the day. It wasn’t until competitor Showtime offered a 24-hour schedule in 1981 that the channel decided to match it.

5. HBO's first spinoff channel bombed. 

Trying to complement their schedule, HBO launched a more family-oriented channel dubbed Take 2 in 1979. Audiences were less than impressed, and it disappeared within the year. In 1980, HBO decided to offer a stronger brand sibling and debuted Cinemax, which blended both new and classic movies and promised cinephiles uninterrupted features. (HBO’s original schedule also included comedy and sports.)

6. The first HBO original movie was actually the second to air.

Eager to separate themselves from other premium channels, HBO delved into original movies early—with mixed results. 1983’s Right of Way, starring Jimmy Stewart and Bette Davis as a married couple planning a dual suicide, was the first film produced but the second to air. Executives felt they were on stronger footing with The Terry Fox Story, a biopic about a runner who lost a leg to cancer.

7. HBO cheated a little to get Star Wars

When Fox sold off the premium television rights to Star Wars in 1983, they were non-exclusive: all the channels were expected to premiere it no earlier than 6 a.m. on February 1. But some lucky viewers noticed that HBO had managed to air the movie at midnight that same day. They had paid Fox for permission to broadcast six hours ahead of the competition. Without advertising their coup to attract an audience other than night owls, it was essentially for bragging rights.

8. HBO's first event programming was polka. 

Not counting sports, HBO’s first live event was coverage of the 1973 Pennsylvania Polka Festival, a self-explanatory three-hour endurance test of one’s admiration for the genre. Coincidence or not, subscribership fell from 14,000 that year down to 8,000.

9. HBO scared movie studios. 

With 12 million subscribers by 1983, the pay service was increasingly becoming a destination for filmgoers. Frightened that HBO could be wielding too much power, three major studios—Paramount, Warner, and MCA—teamed with Viacom to launch two competing pay-television services, Showtime and The Movie Channel. Their strategy was to force HBO to pay more for the rights to their films, or make them exclusive to their own channels. As it turns out, neither rival really lost. In 1987, HBO got a library of Paramount titles for their viewers and paid the studio a half-billion dollars for the privilege.

10. HBO may have paid $40 million for Ghostbusters

Having major hit films was a priority in the 1980s, a time when VHS was slowly gaining market share for home movie viewing. At the time, pay services obtained movie rights based on their first-run performance—the bigger the hit, the more it would cost them. When 1984’s Ghostbusters became a smash, HBO had an existing and exclusive deal with Columbia Pictures. Without a cap in place, former HBO employee Bill Mesce allege they paid the studio a staggering $40 million for broadcast rights.

11. HBO made Emmy history with The Sopranos.

Prior to 1999’s debut of HBO’s most notable series, no cable drama had ever been nominated for a Best Drama Series Emmy. That changed with the mob show’s first season: it racked up 16 nominations in all. Throughout the show's entire run through 2007, it was nominated 112 times and won 21 times.

12. HBO got hacked.

When HBO began scrambling its satellite signal in 1986, disgruntled dish owners—who felt buying the expensive, over-sized equipment entitled them to free programming—were irate. A dish dealer named John MacDougall was agitated enough to interrupt HBO’s presentation of The Falcon and the Snowman and put up a message: “$12.95/month? No way!” The FBI investigated and MacDougall received probation and a $5,000 fine.

13. Oz was not HBO's first prison drama.

While 1997’s Oz is regarded as both the channel’s first scripted hour-long narrative drama and their first series about a prison, it’s more a matter of semantics. Maximum Security, filmed in a downtown Los Angeles jail, first aired in 1984. Though the six-episode run had some people assuming it was a miniseries, producer Ron Howard told The New York Times in 1985 that he was frustrated HBO was non-committal about the possibility of extending it.

14. HBO dumped the original Game of Thrones pilot. 

After viewing footage of a 2009 pilot adapted from George R.R. Martin’s fantasy saga, executives were unhappy with the result. Before nearly scrapping the series altogether, they decided to re-shoot the episode, including a partial re-cast. (Emilia Clarke, who portrays Daenerys, was among those who came in for the revised pilot.)

15. HBO turned down Mad Men

Kind of. While considering Matthew Weiner’s pilot, the network wanted Sopranos creator David Chase to produce the series (Weiner had been a writer on that show). When Chase indicated he wanted to move away from television, HBO passed on the show altogether.

16. The average HBO subscriber hangs in there for about 18 months.

Signing up for HBO and then canceling after you've inhaled Game of Thrones or any of their other shows is a common occurrence, but not everyone drops out after a week or two of binge-watching. According to NBC and research firm Parks Associates, subscribers to their HBO Now streaming service usually keep the subscription for about 18 months.