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Fri Nov 8, 2019, 06:13 AM

47 Years Ago Today; HBO is launched, starting in Wilkes-Barre


Original HBO logo, used from 1972 to 1975.

HBO (Home Box Office) is an American premium cable and satellite television network owned by Home Box Office, Inc., a subsidiary of WarnerMedia Entertainment. The programming featured on the network consists primarily of theatrically released motion pictures and original television shows, along with made-for-cable movies, documentaries and occasional comedy and concert specials.

HBO is the oldest and longest continuously operating pay television service (basic or premium) in the United States, having been in operation since November 8, 1972. In 2016, HBO had an adjusted operating income of US$1.93 billion, compared to the US$1.88 billion it accrued in 2015. HBO has 140 million subscribers worldwide as of 2018. The network provides seven 24-hour multiplex channels, including HBO Comedy, HBO Latino, HBO Signature, and HBO Family. It launched the streaming service HBO Now in April 2015 and has over 5 million subscribers in the United States as of February 2018.


Development and launch

In 1965, Charles Dolan—who had already done pioneering work in the commercial use of cables and had developed Teleguide, a closed-circuit tourist information television system distributed to hotels in the New York metropolitan area—won a franchise to build a cable television system in the Lower Manhattan section of New York City. The new system, which Dolan named "Sterling Information Services" (later to be known as Sterling Manhattan Cable, and eventually becoming the then Time Warner Cable which merged into Charter Communications in 2016), became the first urban underground cable television system in the United States.

Rather than stringing cable on telephone poles or using microwave antennas to receive the signals, Sterling laid cable beneath the streets. This was partly because the tall buildings in the city blocked television signals, and partly because the New York City Council had required that all electrical and telecommunication wiring be laid underground to limit service disruptions during bad weather—an ordinance that was passed after a blizzard in 1888 damaged telephone and telegraph lines in the area. In 1973, Time-Life, Inc. purchased a 20% stake in Dolan's company.

Sterling Manhattan consistently lost money during its first six years of operation, because of both the expense of running cable underground and into buildings throughout Manhattan (as much as $300,000 per mile), and a limited subscriber base—by 1971, subscribers numbered 400. In the summer of that year, while on a family vacation in France, Charles Dolan began to think of ideas to make Sterling Manhattan profitable. He came up with the concept for a cable-originated television service, called "The Green Channel". Dolan later presented his idea to Time-Life management; though satellite distribution seemed only a distant possibility at the time, he persuaded Time-Life to back him on the project.

To gauge whether consumers would be interested in subscribing to a pay television service, Time-Life sent out a direct-mail research brochure to residents in six U.S. cities. An overwhelming majority of those surveyed (approximately 99%) opposed the idea; 4% of those polled in a second survey, conducted by an independent consultant, said they were "almost certain" to subscribe to such a service. Time-Life later conducted a test in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in which salesmen presented the concept of a pay cable channel to residents by offering free service for the first month and a refundable installation fee; half of residents surveyed in the test expressed interest in purchasing the conceptual service. In a meeting of Dolan and some Time-Life executives who were working on the project, various other names were discussed for the new service. They ultimately settled on calling it "Home Box Office", although the name was originally intended as a working title in order to meet deadlines to publish research brochures for the new service, with the belief that management would come up with a different name later.

Originally, Home Box Office was to debut on a Teleservice (now Service Electric) cable television system in Allentown; in order to avoid blackouts for NBA games that it was set to televise (Allentown was within the NBA's designated blackout radius for the Philadelphia 76ers' market area, under rules that the league had in effect at the time to protect ticket sales), Time-Life agreed to an offer by Service Electric president John Walson to launch the channel on its system in Wilkes-Barre (outside of the 76ers' DMA, in northeastern Pennsylvania).

Home Box Office launched at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time on November 8, 1972. However, HBO's launch came without fanfare in the press, as it was not covered by any local or national media outlets, other than through advertisements featured in the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader promoting the launch. In addition, the city manager of Wilkes-Barre declined an offer to attend the launch ceremony, while Time Inc. president and chief executive officer J. Richard Munro was unable to attend as he was stranded in traffic while trying to exit Manhattan on the George Washington Bridge on his way to Wilkes-Barre. The first program and event telecast distributed on the channel, an NHL hockey game between the New York Rangers and the Vancouver Canucks from Madison Square Garden, was transmitted over channel 21—its original assigned channel on the Teleservice system—that evening to 325 Teleservice subscribers in Wilkes-Barre (a plaque commemorating this event is located at Public Square in downtown Wilkes-Barre). Home Box Office distributed its first film immediately after the sports event: the 1971 film Sometimes a Great Notion, starring Paul Newman and Henry Fonda.

Four months after the channel launched, in February 1973, Home Box Office aired its first non-sports entertainment special, the Pennsylvania Polka Festival, a three-hour-long event broadcast from the Allentown Fairgrounds in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Home Box Office would use a network of microwave relay towers to distribute its programming to cable systems throughout its service area.

Sterling Manhattan Cable continued to lose money because the company had only a small subscriber base of 20,000 customers in Manhattan. Dolan's media partner, Time-Life, Inc., gained control of Sterling when it acquired an additional 60% equity interest, increasing its stake in the company to 80%; Time-Life then decided to close the Sterling Manhattan operation. Time-Life dropped the "Sterling" name and the company was renamed "Manhattan Cable Television" under Time-Life's control in March 1973. Gerald Levin, who had been with Home Box Office since it began operations as its vice president of programming, replaced Dolan as the company's president and chief executive officer.

In September 1973, Time-Life, Inc. completed its acquisition of the pay service. At the time, Home Box Office's future looked dim: it only had 8,000 subscribers across 14 cable systems, all of which were located in Pennsylvania, and it was suffering from a significant subscriber churn rate. HBO would eventually increase its fortunes within two years: by April 1975, the service had around 100,000 subscribers in Pennsylvania and New York state, and had begun to turn a limited profit.


One of the first things I saw on HBO when we got it in 1977 was George Carlin's "On Location" special.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Fri Nov 8, 2019, 06:29 AM

1. I remember my grandfather having HBO (West Virginia) in the mid to late '70's

Actual cable too not "the West Virginia State flower" satellite dish.

Holiday dinner at the grandparents. The entire family was there. We watched "A Bridge Too Far". All the cousins laying on the floor while dinner was being made in the kitchen. Pappaw sitting in his chair by the window. WWII vet who spent 2 years at The Greenbrier healing from wounds. Worked in a heavy industrial nickel plant. Read constantly. He probably had "Ulysses" or "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire" or something like that beside his chair as we watched the movie.

Man, those were the days.

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Response to underpants (Reply #1)

Fri Nov 8, 2019, 07:55 AM

4. Awww. I can totally visualize that, old buddy.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Fri Nov 8, 2019, 07:53 AM

3. One of my longtime friends directed the George Carlin special.

He was at the forefront in the industry, developing HBO Comedy and Concert specials, which brought younger people into the audience. In recent years he developed Hard Knocks.

Marty is one of the true creative souls of the industry.

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Response to blm (Reply #3)

Fri Nov 8, 2019, 11:41 AM

8. Carlin, Buddy Hackett and Redd Foxx.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Fri Nov 8, 2019, 11:01 AM

5. I was the tech who ran the movie channel for our local cable company.

I'd put big 3/4" video cassettes into the large tape decks making sure the movies started on time and played all the way through.

Between movies a simple schedule was displayed.

There was hell to pay whenever there were technical difficulties.

The video cassettes came in the mail and were sent back when a movie's run was done.

I saw a lot of movies that way. I also read a lot of books.

HBO began satellite service in the mid-seventies but many smaller cable companies didn't have it.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Fri Nov 8, 2019, 11:31 AM

6. Remember this?

I always loved this intro...


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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Fri Nov 8, 2019, 11:36 AM

7. One of my first exposures to HBO original programming was the great Mr. Show.

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