Almost 30 years ago, not long after I graduated from college, I sold cable TV subscriptions door to door for Theta Cable Television in Los Angeles. I was paid 100 percent on commission, and it’s a job I had for seven years.
Being on commission, it was important to me to sell the customer the most cable services possible. In those days the package was pretty simple. Pay TV at Theta Cable back in those days was not HBO; it was a home-grown Hollywood product called the Z Channel.
The Z Channel was a great service. It comprised almost entirely movies, uncut and without commercials. Theta’s service area included most of West Los Angeles, where many in the movie industry live. The biggest coup for the channel was the cablecasting of Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.” Being the local Hollywood service, the Z Channel was able to snare the film and show it after it had been nominated for a number of Academy Awards, but before the final Oscar ballots were due. Since this was before VCRs, when “Annie Hall” won the Best Picture award, its win was widely attributed to its exposure to Oscar voters on the Z Channel.
This was, of course, a salesman’s delight. How great that I could include this in my pitch!
Alas, it didn’t always help. Here’s a typical conversation I’d have with a potential customer back then:
Me: … And then there’s all those great Hollywood movies you can see, right here in your living room, uncut and without commercials. Can you imagine being able to see `Annie Hall’?
Customer: Yeah, yeah, but what about Robert Klein?
Customer: Or George Carlin.
Me: The comics?
Customer: They’re on HBO. You have HBO?
Customer: I want HBO. They have fights.
Me: “Annie Hall” won best movie. We had it before-
Customer: I’m not a Woody Allen fan. I can’t believe that won Best Picture, anyhow. You don’t have HBO?
Me: Soon. Soon. But if you sign up for the Z-
Inevitably, the door would be shut in my face at that point. And I was actually one of the better salespeople at Theta.
In fact, Theta froze out HBO for a number of years, insisting on offering only the Z Channel. When we finally did get HBO, the response from customers was overwhelmingly positive.
And it still is.
The success story that is cable TV is really the success story that is HBO.
It started 30 years ago, after cable pioneer and visionary Chuck Dolan won the franchise to build a cable system in lower Manhattan. Calling it Sterling Manhattan Cable, Mr. Dolan came up with the idea of the “Green” channel to show movies and sports uncut and without commercials. He got Time Inc. to back him, and soon the name became Home Box Office.
And on Nov. 8, 1972, HBO became a reality.
What HBO has always had going for it are great people and great programming. Or, I guess, more accurately, the right people, on both the creative and business ends, who have made great programming and a great business.
Michael Fuchs, the former HBO executive who guided the network’s programming vision for the better part of the past three decades, tells us that one of the network’s primary principles for original programming is that it should be grounded in reality.
Here’s a wonderful example of that philosophy, from one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, whether made for TV or theatrical distribution. It’s “Barbarians at the Gate,” written by Larry Gelbart. It won the Emmy in 1993 for outstanding TV movie.
Who would have ever thought a movie based on a best-selling nonfiction book about a subject as dry as the takeover of RJR Nabisco Co. by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts would be any good, let alone terrifically entertaining and funny as all get out?
This scene is quintessential HBO. It’s very, very smart. And yes, it uses profanity, but not just for profanity’s sake to shock us. It uses it as it’s used naturally, in life. Thus, we get a scene-and a film-that resonates.
In this scene, Nabisco CEO Ross Johnson (James Garner) gets a report from his executives about a smokeless cigarette, called the Premier, that the company is developing.
Gaines: Their reaction to Premiers was almost uniform.
Horrigan: They all said it tasted like shit.
Ross: Like shit?!
Horrigan: Like shit.
Ross: They all said that? Nobody liked them?
Gaines: Fewer than 5 percent.
Ross: You said you heard the results were terrific.
Horrigan: Nothing wrong with 5 percent. I’ll take 5 percent of the smoking market any day of the week.
Ross: Jesus Christ! How much are we in for?
Horrigan: To date?
Ross: To date. To here. To now.
Horrigan: Upward of 750.
Ross: We’ve spent 750 million dollars and we’ve come up with a turd with a tip? God almighty, Ed. We poured enough technology into this project to send a cigarette to the moon, and all we got out of it is one that tastes like it took a dump.
Horrigan: You want to talk about the smell?
Ross: What’d they say that was like?
Horrigan: What’s first cousin to shit?
Ross: What does that mean? A fart? Is that what we’re saying?
First Scientist: We’ve got an awful lot of fart figures, sir.
Ross: Tastes like shit and smells like a fart. It’s one goddamn unique advertising slogan. I’ll give you that. I don’t believe this! (Using his lighter on one.) What the hell’s wrong with that. I don’t smell anything.
First Scientist: That’s not the way to find out. If you light a Premier with a match instead of a lighter the sulfur reacts badly with the carbon in the tip.
Ross: Do we have to have the carbon?
First Scientist: That’s what makes it smokeless.
Ross: Well, how do we get it shitless?
First Scientist: Hard to say. Given enough time-
Ross: We haven’t got any time! We’ve announced it’s coming out this year! (to Horrigan) You insisted on it!
Horrigan: Because you did!
Ross: Because you said it would be ready!
Horrigan: They are ready! We just need some adjustments.
Ross: Jesus, Ed, I don’t have to tell you what’s riding on this-(taking a drag) And what the hell’s wrong with the draw? You need an extra set of lungs just to take a drag.
First Scientist: It’s a little difficult.
Ross: A little difficult?
Second Scientist: It’s what we call the “hernia effect.”
Ross: Oh, is that what we call it? There’s another great billboard.
Classic Gelbart and yes, classic HBO. Programming that is smart, funny (or serious) and with that ring of truth. And clearly fare that you’ll not find on any other network.
In our special section that starts on Page 18 you’ll hear from many in Hollywood about what makes HBO special. And you’ll gain special insight from a number of present and former HBO executives who are also interviewed. (Unfortunately, Jeff Bewkes, who just recently left the top spot at HBO to join parent AOL Time Warner, was too busy with his new duties to speak to us by our deadline.) And because it’s HBO, we bring it to you with limited commercial interruption.
Chuck Ross is publisher and editorial director of Electronic Media.