How HBO’s creatives survived corporate chaos
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HBO started as an experiment. It was a way to get people to switch from getting TV over broadcast antennas to cable by offering events you’d otherwise need tickets to see: boxing, plays, movies. That’s where the name Home Box Office comes from.
But it grew from there in surprising ways: HBO was a major innovator in satellite distribution, in working with cable operators around the country, and of course in programming. The company’s taste and style has influenced and shaped culture for a generation now. And importantly, HBO did it without any real data: the cable companies owned all the subscribers, so HBO made decisions through instinct and experience.
The amazing thing about HBO is that it has stayed true to itself through an absolutely tumultuous set of ownership changes and strategy shifts. If you’re a Decoder listener you know about the chaos of AT&T and HBO Max and the sale to Discovery to create Warner Brothers Discovery, but it’s so much twistier than that.
I talked through all of those twists with Felix Gillette and John Koblin, authors of the terrific book It’s Not TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, and Future of HBO. Felix and John also peeled back the curtain on your favorite HBO shows from Sex and the City to Game of Thrones.
Before we get into the episode, I have to do our usual set of disclosures: I’m a Netflix executive producer. We made a Netflix show called The Future Of. You should watch it. I’m hopelessly biased in favor of the show we made. Also, Vox Media has a minority investment from Comcast. They don’t like me very much. And I worked at AOL Time Warner. I quit to start The Verge.
Ok that’s that. Let’s get into the interview—it’s a good one.
Decoder is a production of The Verge and part of the Vox Media Podcast Network.
It was produced by Creighton DeSimone and Jackie McDermott and it was edited by Callie Wright.
The Decoder music is by Breakmaster Cylinder. Our Editorial Director is Brooke Minters and our Executive Director is Eleanor Donovan.
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