16 Things You Probably Didn't Know About HBO

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. 

10 of the Most Popular Portable Bluetooth Speakers on Amazon

Altech/Bose/JBL/Amazon
Altech/Bose/JBL/Amazon

As convenient as smartphones and tablets are, they don’t necessarily offer the best sound quality. But a well-built portable speaker can fill that need. And whether you’re looking for a speaker to use in the shower or a device to take on a long camping trip, these bestselling models from Amazon have you covered.

1. OontZ Angle 3 Bluetooth Portable Speaker; $26-$30 (4.4 stars)

Oontz portable bluetooth speaker
Cambridge Soundworks/Amazon

Of the 57,000-plus reviews that users have left for this speaker on Amazon, 72 percent of them are five stars. So it should come as no surprise that this is currently the best-selling portable Bluetooth speaker on the site. It comes in eight different colors and can play for up to 14 hours straight after a full charge. Plus, it’s splash proof, making it a perfect speaker for the shower, beach, or pool.

Buy it: Amazon

2. JBL Charge 3 Waterproof Portable Bluetooth Speaker; $110 (4.6 stars)

JBL portable bluetooth speaker
JBL/Amazon

This nifty speaker can connect with up to three devices at one time, so you and your friends can take turns sharing your favorite music. Its built-in battery can play music for up to 20 hours, and it can even charge smartphones and tablets via USB.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Anker Soundcore Bluetooth Speaker; $25-$28 (4.6 stars)

Anker portable bluetooth speaker
Anker/Amazon

This speaker boasts 24-hour battery life and a strong Bluetooth connection within a 66-foot radius. It also comes with a built-in microphone so you can easily take calls over speakerphone.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Bose SoundLink Color Bluetooth Speaker; $129 (4.4 stars)

Bose portable bluetooth speaker
Bose/Amazon

Bose is well-known for building user-friendly products that offer excellent sound quality. This portable speaker lets you connect to the Bose app, which makes it easier to switch between devices and personalize your settings. It’s also water-resistant, making it durable enough to handle a day at the pool or beach.

Buy it: Amazon

5. DOSS Soundbox Touch Portable Wireless Bluetooth Speaker; $28-$33 (4.4 stars)

DOSS portable bluetooth speaker
DOSS/Amazon

This portable speaker features an elegant system of touch controls that lets you easily switch between three methods of playing audio—Bluetooth, Micro SD, or auxiliary input. It can play for up to 20 hours after a full charge.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Altec Lansing Mini Wireless Bluetooth Speaker; $15-$20 (4.3 stars)

Altec Lansing portable bluetooth speaker
Altec Lansing/Amazon

This lightweight speaker is built for the outdoors. With its certified IP67 rating—meaning that it’s fully waterproof, shockproof, and dust proof—it’s durable enough to withstand harsh environments. Plus, it comes with a carabiner that can attach to a backpack or belt loop.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Tribit XSound Go Bluetooth Speaker; $33-$38 (4.6 stars)

Tribit portable bluetooth speaker
Tribit/Amazon

Tribit’s portable Bluetooth speaker weighs less than a pound and is fully waterproof and resistant to scratches and drops. It also comes with a tear-resistant strap for easy transportation, and the rechargeable battery can handle up to 24 hours of continuous use after a full charge. In 2020, it was Wirecutter's pick as the best budget portable Bluetooth speaker on the market.

Buy it: Amazon

8. VicTsing SoundHot C6 Portable Bluetooth Speaker; $18 (4.3 stars)

VicTsing portable bluetooth speaker
VicTsing/Amazon

The SoundHot portable Bluetooth speaker is designed for convenience wherever you go. It comes with a detachable suction cup and a carabiner so you can keep it secure while you’re showering, kayaking, or hiking, to name just a few.

Buy it: Amazon

9. AOMAIS Sport II Portable Wireless Bluetooth Speaker; $30 (4.4 stars)

AOMAIS portable bluetooth speaker
AOMAIS/Amazon

This portable speaker is certified to handle deep waters and harsh weather, making it perfect for your next big adventure. It can play for up to 15 hours on a full charge and offers a stable Bluetooth connection within a 100-foot radius.

Buy it: Amazon

10. XLEADER SoundAngel Touch Bluetooth Speaker; $19-$23 (4.4 stars)

XLeader portable bluetooth speaker
XLEADER/Amazon

This stylish device is available in black, silver, gold, and rose gold. Plus, it’s equipped with Bluetooth 5.0, a more powerful technology that can pair with devices up to 800 feet away. The SoundAngel speaker itself isn’t water-resistant, but it comes with a waterproof case for protection in less-than-ideal conditions.

Buy it: Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

11 Songs Inspired by Literature

Jonathan Dore, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Jonathan Dore, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Devo and Thomas Pynchon. Mick Jagger and Charles Baudelaire. Though they seem like rather unlikely pairings, many great rock songs have been the result of a lyricist finding inspiration in the pages of a book. These are just the tip of the iceberg.

1. “Pigs (Three Different Ones)" // Pink Floyd

The Novel: Animal Farm // George Orwell

Pink Floyd felt so strongly about Orwell’s barnyard take on revolution that they made a mascot from the book’s dictator pigs. The first incarnation of the famous Pink Floyd pigs popped up in 1976 for the photo shoot for 1977’s Animals album, which is based loosely around Animal Farm themes. "Pigs (Three Different Ones)" is about people in society with wealth and power.

2. “My Ántonia” // Emmylou Harris

The Novel: My Ántonia // Willa Cather

It's somehow not surprising that Emmylou Harris is a fan of Willa Cather. Written from the perspective of Jim, the man who loved Cather’s title character in My Ántonia, the song was actually composed several years prior to its release on the 2000 album Red Dirt Girl. Harris hung on to it for a while, not sure what she wanted to do with it since she had written it from a man’s perspective.

“One day I got the idea to make it a conversation and the song just seemed to write itself. Well, then I had to pick a 'leading man,'" Harris said when the album was released. "I had just done a show with Dave Matthews and I loved the way we sounded together. And he did a simply beautiful job.”

3. “Whip It” // Devo

The Novel: Gravity’s Rainbow // Thomas Pynchon

Devo's singer/bassist Jerry Casale told the website Songfacts that his band's monster hit was based on Pynchon's postmodern novel:

"'Whip It,' like many Devo songs, had a long gestation, a long process. The lyrics were written by me as an imitation of Thomas Pynchon's parodies in his book Gravity's Rainbow. He had parodied limericks and poems of kind of all-American, obsessive, cult of personality ideas like Horatio Alger and 'You're #1, there's nobody else like you' kind of poems that were very funny and very clever. I thought, 'I'd like to do one like Thomas Pynchon,' so I wrote down 'Whip It' one night."

4. “Wuthering Heights” // Kate Bush

The Novel: Wuthering Heights // Emily Brontë

An 18-year-old Kate Bush wrote her breakout song after seeing just 10 minutes of Wuthering Heights on TV in 1977. In 1980, she told an interviewer on the Canadian show Profiles in Rock that she was inspired by the novel's heroine:

“I am sure one of the reasons it stuck so heavily in my mind was because of the spirit of Cathy, and as a child I was called Cathy. It later changed to Kate. It was just a matter of exaggerating all my bad areas, because she's a really vile person, she's just so headstrong and passionate and ... crazy, you know?”

5. “The Ghost of Tom Joad” // Bruce Springsteen

The Novel: The Grapes of Wrath // John Steinbeck

Springsteen was inspired by John Ford’s big-screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Great Depression saga. “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is a 1990s version of The Grapes of Wrath, meant to serve as a reminder that modern times are just as difficult for some. Rage Against the Machine covered the song in 1997.

6. “Sympathy for the Devil” // The Rolling Stones

The Novel: The Master and Margarita // Mikhail Bulgakov

In 1968, Mick Jagger’s then-girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, passed along a little book she thought he might enjoy. Jagger ended up writing “Sympathy for the Devil” after reading the novel, which starts when Satan, disguised as a professor, walks up and introduces himself to a pair of men discussing Jesus.

Jagger later suggested that some of the lyrics may have been inspired by the works of Charles Baudelaire as well, which makes “Sympathy” the product of a pretty well-read rock star.

7. “Holden Caulfield” // Guns N' Roses

The Novel: The Catcher in the Rye // J.D. Salinger

Guns n' Roses' much-awaited 2008 album Chinese Democracy contained a song called “The Catcher in the Rye” after the J.D. Salinger classic. Some surmised that the song is really about another culture-changing event that Holden Caulfield was involved in: the assassination of John Lennon in 1980. Lennon’s murderer was carrying a copy of the book when he pulled the trigger.

8. “Tales of Brave Ulysses” // Cream

The Poem: The Odyssey // Homer

Even Eric Clapton couldn’t resist the Sirens from The Odyssey; this classic Cream song references the mythological enticing beauties (Clapton sure knew his share of those). Though it’s Clapton singing, the lyrics were written by Martin Sharp, who had just returned from vacation in Ibiza and was inspired by the exotic scenery—beaches and women alike, presumably.

9. “Breathe” // U2

The Novel: Ulysses // James Joyce

Speaking of The Odyssey, it’s no surprise that The Edge and Bono would want to pay homage to their fellow Irishman James Joyce by setting “Breathe” on June 16. That’s the day Leopold Bloom embarks throughout the pages of Joyce’s Ulysses, and it’s also the day that Joyce fans everywhere honor his work by celebrating Bloomsday.

10. “Ramble On” // Led Zeppelin

The Novel: The Lord of the Rings // J.R.R. Tolkien

If you’ve ever listened to the lyrics of “Ramble On,” this is not going to come as a surprise to you. For example:

“'Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor
I met a girl so fair.
But Gollum, and the evil one crept up
And slipped away with her.”

11. “Scentless Apprentice” // Nirvana

The Novel: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer // Patrick Süskind

This horror book was a modest hit thanks in part to Kurt Cobain, who frequently mentioned that it was one of his favorite reads. He liked it so much, in fact, he wrote a song about it and put it on his band's 1993 album In Utero. The book is about a man who kills young women and captures their scents in order to make the perfect perfume. I won’t spoil the ending for you—and neither does “Scentless Apprentice.”