Home Box Office, or HBO, as most people know it, is one of the most acclaimed channels on television today. Boasting millions of subscribers, it has constantly provided the kinds of television and movies that nobody else would have tried to do. Even now, in what is often called a golden age of television, HBO is the standard for all other channels to match or beat. It would be easy to write out a justification for all the praise HBO gets; you’d just have to sit down and mention all the diverse and celebrated shows they’ve produced before or today. Instead, we at Factinate dug deeper and can now provide you with a list of fascinating details into the history and existence of HBO.
1. Double Records
You might be surprised to know that HBO began operations as far back as November 8, 1972! That makes HBO the oldest and longest-running pay television service in American history.
2. Rebranding and Renaming
HBO was named “The Green Channel” when it was first formed. They changed the name to Home Box Office after Time, Inc. began to invest in them. The name change was done “to better highlight their Hollywood and event programming.”
3. Long Guest List
HBO boasts more than 134 million subscribers to their service—that’s just under half the US population! Their content is also licensed across 150 countries around the world.
4. The Day We’ll Never Forget
It’s debatable when exactly HBO made their breakthrough into the innovative giant that they are today, but a strong case could be made for the 12th of July, 1997. This was when HBO first premiered the brutal prison series Oz, focusing on the prisoners, guards, and administrative staff within a maximum-security prison. Oz broke ground in its depiction of adult themes.
It also happened to be the first hour-long drama which HBO ever released. Safe to say it wasn’t their last either!
5. Wait, What?
Despite what we just said about Oz, it’s worth pointing out that some argue that it wasn’t the first hour-long drama series that HBO produced—nor was it even their first show about prison! In 1984, HBO aired Maximum Security, a series set in a Los Angeles prison. At just six episodes long, you could argue that it was a mini-series rather than a full-length series, but you’d get into a battle over semantics going down that road.
It’s easier to just watch Oz (through your fingers, if you’re faint-hearted).
6. Not Our Brightest Idea…
The first non-sporting event which was aired live by HBO was, strangely, the 1973 Pennsylvania Polka Festival. The event lasted three hours, and it may or may not have contributed to HBO’s drop from 14,000 to just 8,000 subscribers that year!
7. HBO vs. Hollywood
Long before Netflix would come along and terrify the film industry, they were getting their knickers in a twist over HBO’s growing power to air TV shows, movies, and also produce original movies of their own. By 1983, HBO was at 12 million subscribers, which led three film studios (Paramount, MCA, and Warner ) to join forces with Viacom to launch Showtime and The Movie Channel as rivals to HBO.
The film studios tried to use these channels as a threat to HBO, airing their films on those channels if HBO wouldn’t pay higher prices.
8. Winter is Always Coming
It’s safe to say that Game of Thrones is the biggest show that HBO has ever had, but it’s hard to really appreciate that until you see the numbers. Approximately 19.3 million people tuned in to watch the polarizing series finale. Across the entire final season, when delayed viewers are taken into account, each episode averaged over 44 million viewers!
9. Good Old Hockey Game
The first live sporting event which HBO ever presented was a 1972 NHL hockey game between the Vancouver Canucks and the New York Rangers.
10. Sounds Like Work Hours
Originally, HBO only showed content for nine hours per day. The reason this changed is that their rival, Showtime, began airing a 24-hour time schedule in 1981. With competition like that, HBO abandoned the nine-hour plan and matched Showtime’s hours.
11. Living the Life
With the support of HBO, Oz showrunner Tom Fontana went for authenticity when portraying the brutal conditions of a maximum-security prison in the United States. As a result, he hired many ex-cons to work on the show, in front or behind the camera. One of the more prominent examples is Chuck Zito, who was still a member of the Hell’s Angels when he played the character of Chucky Pancamo on Oz.
12. Done in 30 Seconds
When HBO first began airing content, they didn’t enjoy the satellite technology of today. Instead, they were using microwaves to distribute their signals. Satellites were only used out of necessity when the channel couldn’t handle all the subscribers they’d gotten using the inferior microwave technology.
13. How Does it Feel on the Throne?
In 2017, HBO-backed TV shows received no fewer than 111 Primetime Emmy nominations, more than any other network by far. What’s more amazing is that this record of most Emmy nominations is a record that HBO has maintained for 17 years and counting!
14. This Needs a Makeover
Before Game of Thrones became the powerhouse show that it is today, a pilot was filmed and presented to HBO in 2009. Despite seeing the potential of the series, HBO had them reshoot the pilot with significant changes. Characters like Tyrion Lannister and Theon Greyjoy both got different hairstyles, while other characters, like Daenerys Targaryen and Catelyn Stark, got entirely different actors to play them.
Satisfied, the reshot pilot became the first episode of the first season. However, a few scenes of the original pilot were kept in the final episode.
15. Audiences Love Darkness
As the 21st century dawned, HBO was determined to push the envelope in what was acceptable to show on television and what was allowed to be examined. This attitude helped develop their funeral home drama Six Feet Under into the acclaimed show that it was. According to creator Alan Ball, he was actually told that his pitch felt “a little safe.”
Ball was encouraged “to go a little deeper, go a little darker, go a little more complicated.”
16. Films Trump Families
In 1979, HBO wanted to bring in more viewers, and they decided to launch a spinoff channel with a focus towards family programming. Sadly, this channel, named Take 2, was so unpopular that HBO nixed it in the span of a single year! They bounced back in 1980 when they released the channel Cinemax for movie lovers everywhere (though the family-friendly angle was no longer a concern).
17. Don’t You Remember?
The 1971 film titled Sometimes a Great Notion was the first movie HBO ever screened. Starring Henry Fonda and Paul Newman, the film was about unions in the lumber industry. Sadly, the movie didn’t have much staying power, given that you probably didn’t know this fact before you read it here!
18. Will You Take a Cheque?
At one point, HBO was responsible for the most expensive mini-series ever made—twice. The first time was the WWII mini-series Band of Brothers, produced by the likes of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg (who had done Saving Private Ryan together). Band of Brothers cost around $125 million reportedly.
This was surpassed by the follow-up, The Pacific, which cost $200 million.
19. Familiar Territory for Us!
Before Band of Brothers or The Pacific, HBO had already tackled the subject of WWII with their original filmmaking. In 1998, they released the John Irvin film When Trumpets Fade, which followed a reluctant soldier (Ron Eldard) during the Allies’ campaign in the Hurtgen Forest (which has mostly been overlooked by historians due to the Battle of the Bulge, which occurred soon after).
20. Whose Turn to Serve?
Beginning in 1975, HBO had the rights to cover the Wimbledon tennis tournament, which they kept until TNT took over in 1999.
21. Let’s Have a Laugh!
HBO has a long history of working with famous comedians to produce and air their material, whether it’s their standup shows or other projects. One of the first of these comedians to do so was George Carlin, who appeared in twelve concert specials televised by HBO, the first one being in 1977. Since then, comedians such as Larry David, Chris Rock, and Ricky Gervais have also teamed up with HBO for their own endeavors.
22. HBO’s Famous Flagship
During the 90s, HBO began to expand their original programming, and though they couldn’t compete with network television on a serious level, they did leave a significant mark on pop culture. The show which was most often named as the highlight of HBO’s 90s lineup was The Larry Sanders Show. Starring Garry Shandling, the show was a sitcom set within the world of a fake talk show. This often led to meta humor and cutting satire.
23. You Passed on Mad Men? Who’s Really Mad?
One show which HBO passed on was the business drama Mad Men. While HBO liked the pitch that Matthew Weiner gave, they wanted the show to be produced by David Chase, who had been in charge of The Sopranos. However, when Chase passed on the opportunity, HBO threw the baby out with the bathwater and passed on Mad Men. AMC would later step in and take the show for their own, while HBO was left to watch Mad Men become a hit show.
This wasn’t the first time that HBO would lose a hit show to AMC either, but more on that later.
24. Re-Heating a Souffle
From 2009 to 2014, HBO produced and broadcast a period drama series called Boardwalk Empire. The show was created by Terrence Winter, with acclaimed filmmaker Martin Scorsese directing the pilot and being involved in setting up the show’s appearance and atmosphere. With the wild success of Boardwalk Empire, Scorsese and Winter reunited for a new show which focused on New York’s music scene in the 1970s.
Vinyl was created by Scorsese, Winter, Rich Cohen, and Mick Jagger of all people. Sadly, Vinyl didn’t have the success of Boardwalk Empire; it was canceled after one season.
HBO’s 1999 series The Sopranos was the first drama series produced by a cable channel to be nominated for a Best Drama Series Emmy Award. In fact, the first season of the show alone earned 16 Emmy nominations!
26. This is HBO
HBO’s slogan has changed many times during the course of its existence. Some of the more memorable ones include “HBO People Don’t Miss Out,” “Something Special’s On,” “It’s Not TV. It’s HBO,” and their current slogan, “It’s What Connects Us.”
27. Coming to the Big Screen…
Of all the films produced by HBO Films, 29 of them have received theatrical distribution through other film studios. These include David Lean’s A Passage to India, My Big Fat Greek Wedding and its sequel, Outkast’s Idlewild, Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, and the comedy classic Three Amigos.
28. First Time for Everything
In 2003, Gus Van Sant’s film Elephant was screened at the Cannes Film Festival and became the first film produced by HBO to win the prestigious Palme d’Or award.
29. A Movie to Make You Cry
One of the more successful television films produced and released by HBO is 2014’s The Normal Heart, starring Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, Alfred Molina, and Jim Parsons. It follows the character Ned Weeks (based on LBGTQ writer and activist Larry Kramer) as he and the rest of America’s LGBTQ community are hit by the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s.
The film was nominated for three Golden Globes (winning one of them for actor Matt Bomer), six Emmy Awards (winning for Outstanding Television Movie) and holds a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
30. Cleaning House
In 2016, 20% of Time Warner’s entire revenue came directly from HBO!
32. Third Time Wasn’t the Charm
One of the regular people with whom HBO has worked is Alan Ball. In 2001, HBO began airing the show Six Feet Under which Alan Ball had created. It was critically acclaimed and ran for five seasons. Ball later became the showrunner for the first five seasons of HBO’s hit vampire series True Blood. After serving as an executive producer for their show Banshee, HBO aired the show Here and Now, which was the third HBO show where Ball was credited as the creator.
However, Here and Now was canceled in 2018 with just one season to its name.
33. Interesting Subject Matter
In the early 1980s, HBO decided it was going to make original films to give audiences something they couldn’t get anywhere else. Interestingly, their first ever film, Right of Way, was actually the second film they aired, because of its rather morbid subject matter. Starring James Stewart and Bette Davis, the 1983 film depicted an aging couple who are planning to take their own lives in a suicide pact.
34. Go Terry Go!
HBO decided that their second film, The Terry Fox Story, should air first. For those of you (outside Canada) who don’t know that name, Terry Fox was a young man who lost his leg to cancer, only to use a prosthetic leg on a grand marathon across Canada to raise awareness and money for cancer research. Although the return of cancer in his body meant he was unable to live long enough to complete his epic run, Fox was immediately embraced as a hero, leading HBO to make a movie about him just two years after he passed.
Sadly, the film was harshly criticized by Fox’s family for the depiction of Fox having a nasty temper while on the run.
When it comes to HBO’s shows, especially when they work with David Simon, there’s a tendency to reuse great actors and crew members on various productions. The Wire, for example, featured a cast which boasted many alumni from the HBO series Oz, and a crew which included many people who’d also worked with Simon and HBO on The Corner. Many of The Wire’s actors would go on to appear in Treme and The Deuce, two other shows which Simon made for HBO.
HBO has long been criticized for its shows’ lack of diversity. Series like Girls and Game of Thrones have come under fire for their homogeneity in the casting department, with some even saying the shows promote racist imagery (one prime example is the end of the third season of Game of Thrones when the character Daenerys is praised by a crowd of freed slaves in which she, the only white woman, is hailed as a savior).
37. Don’t Mess with Omar!
Of course, on the other hand, HBO has had its share of shows (such as The Wire, Oz, Treme, and The Deuce) with incredibly diverse casts whose characters are not limited to stereotypes and occupy all sorts of positions in society. The Wire, in particular, has been praised for its portrayal of Omar Little and Kima Greggs, two black members of the LGBTQ community who are also complex and three-dimensional characters.
38. Let’s Talk Some Football
From 1977 to 2008, HBO aired a documentary/analysis series Inside the NFL as part of its sports division. The series focused on reviews of NFL games and interviews with key figures within the NFL, whether they were players, coaches, or managers. It was HBO’s longest-running series before it was canceled and picked up by Showtime.
39. Making a Difference
In 2004, a documentary was produced for HBO’s Real Sports which uncovered the shocking truth about camel racing in the United Arab Emirates. Working together with human rights activists, documentarians found evidence of “slavery and [torment] in secret desert camps where boys under the age of five were trained to race camels.”
40. Not Cool, Dudes
In July 2017, it was reported that D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, the showrunners of Game of Thrones, would be working on a new show for HBO: the tv series would be called Confederate and follow an alternative timeline where the Confederacy was victorious in the Civil War and retained the practice of slavery into the modern age. When the show idea was announced, HBO received a huge backlash online.
Despite the defense offered by the showrunners, many found fault with the premise of the series, saying it would amount to slavery fan fiction.
41. Curb Your Innocence
One of HBO’s shows ended up saving an innocent man from being wrongfully imprisoned! In 2003, Juan Catalan was accused of murder, but he claimed that he was inside Dodger Stadium with his daughter at the time of the murder. No footage could be found to back up Catalan’s story—until he was spotted in footage filmed for the HBO comedy show Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Catalan hadn’t even made the final cut of the episode, but the footage existed, and he was exonerated!
42. We Missed Out on That?
Nobody can deny that HBO has made some of the greatest TV shows of all time (looking at you, The Wire), but one series it didn’t have anything to do with was Breaking Bad. The series was wildly popular and produced an equally liked spinoff series, Better Call Saul. Amazingly, HBO had the chance to take on Breaking Bad rather than AMC. However, according to the showrunner, Vince Gilligan, his meeting with HBO went horribly. The woman speaking with him was so reportedly so disinterested that she couldn’t even be reached to say “no” after the meeting. Gilligan described it as the “worst meeting I’ve ever had.”