Charles Dolan was a cable TV pioneer who received a license to build a cable television system in lower Manhattan. Due to New York City restrictions, cables needed to run underground, vastly increasing the cost of the infrastructure. New Yorkers lacked enthusiasm. By 1971, Dolan only had 400 subscribers.
To increase sales, Dolan eventually decided to create a paid channel available only to cable subscribers. Working with Time-Life, they developed the concept under the codename Home Box Office. Straightaway, focus groups and customer surveys overwhelmingly rejected the idea but Dolan moved forward anyway.
Dolan’s HBO launched Nov. 8, 1972, and carried hockey game unavailable over broadcast TV. It was channel 21 on the tiny Teleservice cable system in Pennsylvania. Subsequently, the film Sometimes a Great Notion was broadcast after the game.
HBO is now known as the home of The Sopranos, Sex in the City, and Game of Thrones but it took a while to find its legs. Earlier, in Feb. 1973, the next HBO special broadcast, a three-hour event called the Pennsylvania Polka Festival.
Dolan’s cable system continued bleeding money. In 1973, seeing a long-term opportunity to own a cable-TV system in Manhattan, Time-Life purchased 20% of Dolan’s struggling company. However, not long after, they fired him. Soon after that, they acquired HBO.
In Sept. 1973, HBO struggled with 8,000 subscribers across 14 cable systems, all in Pennsylvania. By April 1975, there were 100,000 subscribers in Pennsylvania and New York State. The young channel turned profitable.
In Sept. 1975, HBO became the first television network to broadcast to cable providers via satellite. The strategy is common now but, at the time, was an enormous risk. They expanded their footprint and, by 1980, operating in all 50 states.
By the 1990s, there were countless television stations. To differentiate, HBO began to create their own programming rather than relying solely on content available to others. The Larry Sanders Show was popular. In 1998, HBO launched the $68 million From Earth to the Moon miniseries and the comedy Sex in the City. The Sopranos, launched in 1999, cemented the channel’s reputation for movie-quality entertainment delivered on television.
It’s difficult to describe how terrible television was before the influence of HBO. Slate’s Peter Aspden described a season of the broadcast mid-1980’s TV show Dallas as “Borgesian surrealism (that) gave every impression of having been scribed on the back of a spent cocaine packet in a Los Angeles traffic jam.”
Indeed, countless social commentators note we’re in a rebirth of television, with a plethora of high-quality content. As of 2019, Hollywood is fighting against admitting Made-For-TV movies to be eligible for Academy Awards. It’s only a matter of time until old-guard Hollywood will loses that fight. Dolan’s HBO is largely to thank.