I can’t remember the last movie I watched in an actual movie theater. Some of that is because I find the dramatic TV serial so much more powerful these days in its ability to develop rich characters and subtle storylines over dozens and dozens of hours (instead of just two or three of them).
Once established film directors started taking television seriously as a venue for telling their stories, it got much more difficult for me to justify leaving the house for anything but the most frivolous and improbable of superhero franchises. HBO really led the way in efforts to make TV more respectable, but when HBO first launched in the early 1970s, there were so many reasons to bet against it.
For one thing, experts weren’t totally sure if the technology that the entire business plan was to be built on—distant satellites beaming signals from outer space to television sets in cities and suburbs all across the country—would actually work. Underground cables were one thing, but few people seemed willing or able to guarantee that those satellites would even stay in orbit, which meant taking out insurance policies specifically for the damage that might be done to unsuspecting people and their property if any of the metallic contraptions came careening back down to earth.
Even if satellites didn’t tumble out of the sky, there were still serious political and economic forces lined up against this fledgling endeavor. In fact, all of the institutional supporters that HBO’s executives would have needed in their corner seemed hell-bent on thwarting them. The movie studios wouldn’t license them enough films. The major broadcast networks fought them tooth and nail. The Federal Communication Commission just about outlawed their programming model in 1975. And as if all that weren’t enough, HBO was being run by a magazine outfit, Time-Life, with no real television experience to speak of.
With that as backdrop, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that HBO would ever turn a profit, let alone become the media juggernaut it is today, but the company’s early execs didn’t let long odds stop them. Since the studios weren’t supplying enough movies, HBO started making its own shows and relying on sports, especially boxing, to build the brand. Ali and Frazier’s “Thrilla in Manila” was the first program they ever transmitted via satellite—though only two years before, in 1973, they were still airing polka festivals out of Pennsylvania. The FCC’s “anti-siphoning” decision, which limited the kind of programming HBO could offer, was declared unconstitutional by 1977.
And those satellites didn’t rain down on people’s heads!
HBO is in on my mind as we gear up for the broadcast of this year’s Oscar ceremony because it just so happens that a group of graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania have been working on a documentary film about how the founding of HBO transformed television. But that isn’t the end of the story. The satellite giant finds itself in danger of potentially being HBO’d by other innovators today. That 1970s upstart is now the big kid on the block with streaming media services like Netflix and Amazon Prime threatening to make its conventional subscription model obsolete. (Though HBO would also claim that they were streaming shows as early in the game as just about anyone else.)
I might not be able to predict what the future of American televisual viewing will entail, but I do know that the ascendency of all these in-home venues for watching powerful stories helps to explain why I almost never see any of the Oscar-nominated films before they eventually make it to my iPad.
John L. Jackson, Jr is the Richard Perry University Professor and Dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.