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HBO (The Home Box Office)


In 1971, Charles Dolan, owner of Sterling Communications (a Time Inc. subsidiary), used money from Time Inc. to create the “Green Channel”. However, as the channel would charge its customers to view home-entertainment, such as premier movies and sporting events, Dolin fittingly renamed the channel “Home Box Office Inc.” (HBO). On November 8, 1972, HBO debuted with Sometimes a Great Nation and a National Hockey League game. With a sluggish start and a failure to retain subscribers, Gerald Levin replaced Dolan as president. In an attempt to boost subscriptions, HBO purchased access to Satcom 1, a communication satellite owned by RCA, in 1975.

On October 1, 1975, HBO began its initial success by internationally broadcasting “Thrilla in Manila”, a heavyweight boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Proving itself a television success in American television’s cable era, HBO started earning profit in 1977 with over 600,000 subscriptions. Seeing HBO’s success, many niche channels followed suit. By 1983, HBO garnered over thirteen million subscriptions. In that year, HBO transmitted its first made-for-pay-TV movie, The Terry Fox Story; a year later, it released its first miniseries, All the Rivers Run.

In the 1990s, along with the help of its digital and online viewership, HBO created a tradition of original, critically acclaimed programming, including such programs as Sex in the City.

Role in Production, Distribution, and Transmission

HBO produces all of the original series that are broadcast on its channels. In 1990, it launched HBO Independent Productions which produced sitcoms for other channels besides itself. They soon followed Independent Productions with HBO Downtown Productions which produced comedy specials for both HBO and Comedy Central.

Currently HBO runs and owns HBO Films, HBO NYC Productions and HBO Pictures. HBO Films is in charge of producing the original feature films as well as the original miniseries. It has been behind such programs as The Pacific, Generation Kill, and Band of Brothers. 

HBO generally keeps the programs that it produces, however some of its production studios have completed full length feature films that have had commercial success. The channel itself is only distributed to subscribing customers.

HBO recently refused to let Netflix use the movies that it holds the rights to, so Netflix signed an agreement with Relativity Media that allowed Netflix to have rights to those movies, instead of having them run on pay cable channels like HBO.[2] This limits the programs and feature films that HBO has the ability to air and could potentially affect its viewership.

In a surprising move, HBO announced that it would partner with Google in order to offer Web programming through television. It plans to make its on-demand website available throughout Google TV, but only to HBO subscribers.[3] According to the website, "On HBO GO,℠ you can enjoy unlimited access to over 600 hours of your favorite shows, including HBO® original programming, hit movies, sports, comedy and much more, all available in HD right from your computer (PC or MAC). Plus, get bonus features and special behind-the-scenes extras." The partnership with Google TV will make it so that this service is not only available online, but also at-home.

Branding and Advertising Strategies

HBO relies on its programming as well as the cast members involved to comprise its most powerful branding techniques. Consequently, HBO budgets the bulk of its branding dollars to programming. As vice president of HBO marketing Eric Kessler explains: "At the end of the day, the brand is all about the programming. The campaign `It's Not TV. It's HBO' works because the programming is so incredible," says Kessler. "What people remember about HBO isn't a slogan. It's The Sopranos. It's Sex and the City. It's Six Feet Under."[4]In fact, they rely on the idea that the programming should speak for itself so much, that an ad shot by Annie Leibovitz in 2002 promoting the new season, didn't even include the show's title, and instead relied on the fact that The Sopranos was one of the most watched shows at the time.[5]

Another part of the self-created HBO brand is the idea that it's "Not TV. It's HBO". While no longer HBO's current slogan, many HBO advertisements still center on HBO's idea of being something more than what other channels offer. Additionally, HBO greatly differs from network television with its cancellation policy. Network TV heavily relies on ratings, and thus is forced to cancel show with low ratings; often this spells disaster for new shows with potential, but take too long to find their fan base. Because HBO operates on a subscription basis, it can keep shows, regardless of ratings. Therefore, HBO has the liberty to pick up and keep as many new shows it desires. By showing their commitment to keeping their programming consistent, they set themselves apart from other channels.[6]

As mentioned above, HBO viewers must subscribe to HBO, as HBO is not a part of basic cable packages. While relying on programming is a good technique for keeping current subscribers and occasionally attracting new ones, this method does not attract the number of new subscribers that HBO wants or needs. Therefore, they turn to other classic techniques, such as telemarketing and shipping out millions of promotional materials annually. According to Eric Kessler, this strategy proves successful, as between 1997 and 2002, HBO gained one million subscribers.[7]

Some less traditional marketing techniques rely on creating buzz around the channel and its television shows in order to generate fresh interest. For example, HBO held the Band of Brothers series premiere on the beaches of Normandy, and turned The Sopranos premiere into a special event at Radio City Music Hall in order to magnify the hype surrounding these shows' debuts. By turning these premieres into special events, HBO, again, highlights its "It's Not TV. It's HBO" slogan.[8]Additionally, buzz creates other ways of creating intrigue. Promoting True Blood's season 2 premiere, HBO joined forces with mainstream companies, such as Marc Ecko, Harley Davidson, Geico, and Gillete, to create advertisements supporting both the TV show, as well as the company. HBO was satisfied because they got their program advertised to consumers whom might normally be unexposed to their other campaigns, while the companies were equally satisfied because they benefited from the TV show's success.[9]Currently, a similar ad partnership is evolving between Boardwalk Empire; and Harrah's, Macys, and Canadian Club.[10]

One of the more well-known HBO brand campaigns, the HBO Voyeur Project, was publically revealed in June of 2007. The HBO Voyeur Project filmed a series of interconnected stories taking place across many urban apartments and featured them on, HBO Mobile, and HBO on Demand. The tag-line for the project was, "sometimes the best stories are the ones we were not meant to see" and was meant to play upon HBO's characteristically grand storytelling.[11]

Target Audiences

With seven channels, including HBO, HBO 2, HBO Comedy, HBO Family, HBO Signature, HBO Zone, and HBO Latino.  HBO has extended its target audience from the 18-49 year old male demographic that the original channel attracted, to include a wide variety of demographics including women, minorities, and children. The breakdown is below:


As the original channel, HBO shows feature films, sporting events, documentaries, original movies, original series, and comedy specials. It shows a little bit of everything that is seen on the other channels allowing it to attract a more diverse audience than many of the other channels. It does limit R-rated and TVMA rated programming after 8:00 ET, however the fact that they do still air PG-13 material during the day allows that the primary audience is generally from the 18-49 year old age group.


HBO 2 features more movies and series than the original channel, and also airs R-rated films during daytime hours. For this reason like HBO it generally attracts 18-49 year olds.

HBO Comedy

In showing comedic films and series and in airing adult comedy specials at night, HBO Comedy caters it's programming to the 18-35 year old demographic as well as minorities.

HBO Family

HBO Family is designed to cater to a younger audience as well as showing programming that the whole family can enjoy. Like many other stations directed toward families, the earlier morning hours are filled with shows directed toward a pre-school age audience. Mid-afternoon (Generally around 1) brings G, PG, or PG-13 rated movies to the channel, and R and TVMA programs will never be shown.

HBO Signature

Showing mainly original, feature, or original series films, HBO Signature tailors its programming towards women of all ages.

HBO Zone

In broadcasting softcore pornographic movies at night, HBO Zone caters itself to the 18 to 35 male demographic.

HBO Latino

This is a Spanish language version of the original HBO and broadcasts almost the exact same programs. It also airs spanish language films, and original HBO series dubbed in Spanish. One of the things unique to this channel is that it airs boxing events. This channel narrowcasts to a latino population but again more specifically targets those in the 18-35 range.

While the nature of the HBO target audience has changed with the addition of new channels, the majority of programming still attracts the 18 to 35 year old male demographic.

Ownership and Conglomeration

In 1973, Time Inc. purchased “HBO” from Sterling Communications. With the merging of Time Inc. and Warner Communications Inc., HBO joined Time Warner in May 1989[12].  Currently, Time Warner owns HBO[13].

Within HBO Inc., HBO possesses the following auxiliary brands:

  • HBO
  • HBO On Demand
  • Cinemax
  • Cinemax On Demand
  • HBO Home Entertainment
  • HBO Domestic and International Program Distribution
  • HBO On Demand International: Israel, United Kingdom, Japan, Cyprus, Greece
  • HBO Mobile International: United Kingdom, South Africa, Canada
  • International Ventures: HBO Asia, HBO Central Europe, HBO Latin America
  • E! Latin America Channel

One of the largest media conglomerates, Time Warner notably owns the following companies and their respective brands: Turner Broadcasting, Warner Brothers Entertainment, and Time Inc.[14].

Signature Programming and Genre Trends[15]

Evidence of its original, critically acclaimed programming, HBO has annually received the greatest number of Emmy nominations of any network since 2001[16]. Accredited to its success, HBO, as a premium cable service, can broadcast programs containing graphic nudity, violence, profanity, and other adult content. Capturing numerous genres, HBO's programming fits into eight categories: drama series, comedy series, miniseries, original films, documentaries, sports, talk shows, and performances.

Drama Series

HBO's dramas concentrate on various genres, such as family life (Big Love, Six Feet Under), history (Deadwood, Rome), and crime (The SopranosOz, Boardwalk Empire,The Wire). Currently HBO features five drama programs: Boardwalk Empire, True Blood, Big Love, Treme, and In Treatment.

Comedy Series

HBO has produced breakthrough hits for young comedians (Flight of the Conchords, Da Ali G Show) as well as successful series with established comedians (The Larry Sanders Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm). HBO comedy series often deal with show business (Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Extras), the literary world (Sex and the City, Bored to Death), sports (Arliss, Eastbound and Down) and sketch comedy (Mr. Show with Bob and David, Tracey Takes On...). Currently HBO features six comedy programs: Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Bored to Death, Eastbound and Down, Hung, and How to Make It In America.


HBO's miniseries frequently deal with social issues, such as poverty (The Corner), AIDS (Angels in America), war (Generation Kill, The Pacific, Band of Brothers), and history (From the Earth to the Moon, John Adams).

Original Films

Confirmation of its successful innovation, HBO has won the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Made for Television Movie nine out of ten years[17]. Some notable films include Something the Lord Made, Truman, Miss Evers' Boys, The Girl in the Cafe, and Recount.


HBO's documentaries and documentary series focus on a gamut of issues including current events (When the Levees Broke, Baghdad High), sexuality (G String Divas, Real Sex), and music (The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town), among other topics.


HBO’s sports coverage has previously consisted of reality series (Hard Knocks), journalism (Costas Now, Inside the NFL, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel), and boxing matches.

Talk Shows

Occasionally, HBO has featured several comedic talk shows including The Chris Rock Show, Dennis Miller Live, and the still-running Real Time with Bill Maher.


As well as featuring regular performance programs such as Def Poetry and Def Comedy Jam, HBO often showcases musical and comedy specials such as The 25th Anniversary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Concert and You're Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush.


HBO primarily divides its schedule between original programming and movies. HBO's premier original line-up airs on Sunday from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. Normally this line-up consists of two half-hour comedies followed by one hour-long drama (or vice versa). Other original programmings, such as talk/variety shows, appear on various nights during prime time. Special programs, such as miniseries, comedy specials, boxing events, or HBO original films, appear during prime time at a heavily advertised date (usually during a weekend). Re-runs of original programming play frequently at different times. Often HBO will schedule a marathon of episodes from a series to allow viewers to keep up with the series. Because of the mature elements often present in HBO's original programming, rarely will a series sell into syndication. However, when this does occur (e.g. Sex and the City playing on TBS), HBO will edit the syndicated program to satisfy the regulations of the channel it is playing on.

With its unoccupied airtime, HBO broadcasts movies. Feature films making their first appearance on television premier on Saturday evenings. HBO commonly plays films several times a day or week to give viewers multiple opportunities to view a particular film (however, DVR has diminished this feature’s importance). Additionally, HBO now has an On Demand feature for much of its original programming.

Related Channels

Seven channels fall under the HBO umbrella, not including Cinemax, which is HBO's sister network.

The channels are[19]:

  • HBO- the original channel, offered by some services in both a Eastern and Pacific feed.
  • HBO 2- plays similar films as the original channel, as well as reruns of series.
  • HBO Comedy- plays comedy films and reruns of comedy series and specials.
  • HBO Family- plays films and specials aimed at children (with no films rated R). Also plays series aimed at children in the morning hours.
  • HBO Signature- plays more critically-acclaimed films.
  • HBO Zone- programming for a mature audience, with softcore pornography airing at night.
  • HBO Latino- mostly plays the feed from the original channel dubbed Spanish, but also airs specifically Spanish-language films and sports events.

Textual Analysis

True Blood

Based on Charlaine Harris’ a book series Southern Vampire, True Blood is an HBO original series produced by Alan Ball. Following Six Feet Under’s series finale, Ball signed a two-year contract to develop new original programming for HBO, with True Blood becoming his first project[20]. The show debuted on HBO on September 7, 2008 with 1.44 million viewers[21]. Steadily gaining a loyal viewership with each season, the show garnered 5.38 million viewers during the third season’s finale, which aired on September 12, 2010[22]. Currently, HBO has renewed True Blood for a fourth season.

Fixed in fantasy, True Blood is a dramatic serial fantasy that takes place in Bon Temps, Louisiana just two years after the revolutionary development of “TruBlood,” a synthetic blood beverage (for which the show gains its title). Capturing the town’s mixed relations concerning vampires, the show follows its characters, especially at the local bar, Merlotts’. One consistent main plot throughout all three seasons traces the relationship between Sookie Stackhouse, a mind-reading waitress, Bill Compton, a 173-year old vampire whom she meets in “Strange Love” (1.1). Apparent in the show’s existing three seasons, the show explores ideas of prejudice, drug use, and gay rights via the interplay between humans and supernatural creatures, such as vampires, shape shifters, and werewolves.

Deeply embodying HBO’s slogan of “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO,” True Blood conveys fantastical themes through depictions of explicit sex and violence that no other channel would either fund or display. As one critic noted, “Take away the graphic sex, and True Blood could air on USA Network.”[23] Equally, True Blood without illicit sex and seemingly graphic violence would not be True Blood.  Ultimately, these conventions draw new subscribers to HBO.

Initial critical reactions to True Blood were mixed. For instance, Time magazine’s generally reviewed the show’s premiere by writing that:
“Ball's characters, living and dead, are caricatures. He once said the only meddling HBO ever did on Six Feet Under was to ask him to make it less conventional, and he could have used that kind of intervention this time. For a show about prejudice, True Blood is free with stereotypes: Sookie's sassy black friend, the flaming gay cook and sundry racist Juh-hee-sus-fearing rednecks.”

Positive critical acclaim for the series only started to accumulate after "Sparks Fly Out" (1.5). Similarly, True Blood’s first season received a favorable rating of 64 on Metacritic, a 74 for the show’s second season, and a 79 for its third season. In terms of popular viewing, True Blood currently exists as HBO’s most watched series since The Sopranos. The show’s creative success materializes in its annual multiple Emmys and Golden Globes since its premiere. By the end of 2009, the first season DVD had sold over 1.6 million units and grossed over $57 million; it was the only TV show in the 50 Top-Selling DVDs of 2009.

While many note HBO’s capitalization on the current vampire fad, True Blood targets a more mature audience than those of other pop-culture vampire representations, such as the CW’s The Vampire Diaries or Stephanie Myers’s Twilight franchise. Additionally, the show attracts an atypically-wide viewership from a liberally-minded fifteen to forty-nine year old demographic by presenting content mostly devoid of race, gender, or sexual orientation. For example, Rolling Stone magazine posits that “[True Blood]’s extreme sexual violence and voyeuristic viewership invites male viewers even where the initial topic of a female protagonist and her vampire lover might not.” Rolling Stone also explains that the show refrains from alienating its homosexual viewers not only highlighting, but also sincerely exploring homosexual relationships and sex. Rolling Stone observes that in True Blood, “every available orifice is used for intercourse: gay, straight, between humans and supernatural beings, and supernatural being on supernatural being.” To further fascinate its target audience, the show strategically uses unique scheduling techniques. While the first season aired from September to November, the following two seasons aired during the summer, a time when the bulk of the show’s target audience, particularly its school-aged demographic, can devote more time to follow the series.

Aligned with HBO’s commitment to showcase contemporary political matters, True Blood culturally depicts vampires as a marginalized minority group. While True Blood’s setting in the Deep South undeniably recalls a past rooted in racism, an updated form of bigotry against vampires predominantly arises. Located within a time when vampires already exist, True Blood focuses on the assimilation of vampires—the Other—into a human-dominated world. However, unlike the visibility of racial discrimination of skin color, the distinctions between vampires and humans appear socially invisible, except in vampires’ queer lifestyles: diurnal sleeping cycles, feeding patterns, and unbridled sexual appetites. Attempting to alleviate “racial” tensions, some vampires drink “TruBlood.” In fact, some humans support vampires and their goal of integration. Conversely, not all vampires wish to assimilate into “above-ground” society, as they feel that they will lose what makes them vampires. Some vampires terrorize humans to preserve a pure vampire culture. Many opponents contest vampire assimilation. Unspoken, the divide over civil rights that HBO projects certainly seems to parallel those of contemporary political activity concerning LGBT rights. For example, much of the vilification of vampires surfaces in similar homophobic comments such as “God Hates Fangs” (analogous to “God Hates Fags”). Additionally, the news coverage sequences on True Blood between vampires/vampire-advocates and vampire-haters mirror those of current events involving televised debates over LGBT rights. Much social anxiety surrounds both vampire and LGBT rights.

Chiefly depicted through the arguments of the show’s right-wing fanatics—such as religious adherents of the anti-vampire Fellowship of the Sun—vampiric integration in a human world allegedly engenders nefariousness. In one of the series’ opening scenes, the ramifications of having sex with a vampire become evident when a male vampire sex kills his female lover (termed a “fang banger”). Additionally, many radicals disapprove of the inter-“racial” romance between Sookie and Bill; his vampiric wickedness will damage Sookie. While vampire-opponents incessantly condemn vampires for the immorality they bring, many of vampire enemies hypocritically engage in these dissolute activities. Furthermore, the show also portrays modern views on drugs and its trafficking. In the show vampire blood stands in for a novel drug. The hallucinatory effects of vampire blood resemble those of drugs, such as ecstasy. Similar to ecstasy and its colloquial moniker of “X," vampire blood bears the nickname “V.” In addition to its euphoric effects, “V” induces hyper-sexual arousal, like Viagra. A drug, vampire blood becomes addicting to the point of corruption. “V” is sold “underground.”

New episodes of True Blood air on Sunday nights at 9, thereby fitting in HBO’s typical scheduling model of “hammocking” a drama in between two half-hour comedies. After its debut on Sunday, a new episode will often air multiple times during the week in order to allow for all viewers to keep up with the series.

Flight of the Conchords

“New Zealand's fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo"[24]

An episodic sitcom on HBO, Flight of the Conchords follows show creators/stars Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, two New Zealander musicians living in Brooklyn. The show, which originally aired in 2007, was critically and had a strong following, especially in DVD sales. Despite its success, Clement and McKenzie announced the show’s ending in late 2009.

The show’s title refers to Jemaine and Bret’s real-life comedy folk band, which existed prior to the creation of the HBO program. In fact, the musicians garnered so much success on the live comedy circuit in 2005 that BBC 2 picked them up as a radio show[25]. Thereafter, the duo made their way onto several television spots, including an HBO special and performances on late night programs from Letterman to Conan[26]. The show gained increasing critical acclaim and popularity over the course of its two-season run, with the first season earning four Emmy Nominations[27] and a 68/100 rating on and the second season earning six Emmy nominations with an 80/100 rating on[28]. While the show did not acquire phenomenal Nielsen ratings[29][30], it sold on DVD wonderfully. In fact, the second season topped TV show DVD sales for a week in August 2009[31].

Primarily targeting a 16-28 year-old audience, the show uniquely operates on various elements of off-beat comedy. Firstly, each show typically features two musical performances—many of which end up on the band’s actual albums. In the show, as well as their other comedic performances, Bret and Jemaine play parodied, childlike version of themselves. However, their immature characteristics arise from the musicians’ cultural foreignness as ex-shepherds from a bucolic country. Unaware of their cultural differences, the duo is unaware of typical American behavior. Their awkward situations closely mirror the dry style humor found in both the U.K. (Rick Gervais) and U.S. (Greg Daniels) versions of The Office. (UK). Unlike the The Office, many critics describe FOTC’s style as “awkwardly hip”[32]. Bret and Jemaine embody the archetypical “hipsters,” who wear flannel, ironic tee shirts, skinny jeans, thick glasses, and have beards. However, the duo is comically unaware that their appearance and lifestyle—as poor musicians in Brooklyn—follow the “hipster” trend. In fact, their unawareness of their style further establishes the trendiness of the “hipster” style, coolness without conscious effort. Mike Vilensky attributes part of FOTC’s popularity with its existence as a “cultural mockery by and for the cultural types that it mocks.” In fact, Vilensky asserts, “The show’s lack of self-seriousness separates it from other media attempting to portray today’s creative twenty[-]somethings”[33].

The show gives a satirical look at many elements of American culture. The duo and their equally naïve manager/deputy cultural attaché at the New Zealand consulate Murray Hewitt (New Zealand comic Rhys Darby) parody American conceptions of bucolic foreigners. For example, the characters mention their own culture’s primitiveness, such as sheepherding and a lack of technology (cable television). They also parody New Zealand popular culture, such as in the episode “The Actor” which includes a music video about The Lord of the Rings, which was famously produced by New Zealand director Peter Jackson in his native country (in fact, McKenzie and his father appeared in The Fellowship of the Ring, and the former’s brief on-screen appearance prompted an internet fan club prior to his comedic success). A recurring theme is the rivalry between the characters from New Zealand and appearances by Australian characters. It is not clear whether this is a real cultural rivalry, however its presentation is humorous to American audiences due to our concepts of the two country’s apparent similarities. The show also deftly parodies the music business. The band’s average gigs are at libraries or aquariums, with important performances occurring at dive bars. In the finale of season one Murray finds success managing a band called Crazy Dogggz that scores large with the moronic hit “Doggy Bounce,” a clear parody of how awful musicians and their songs become commercial hits.

In the second season finale, the show addresses illegal immigration when Murray invites members of the New Zealand embassy to a musical he produces narrating Jemaine and Bret’s lives. Ironically, the play mentions the illegal immigrant statuses of the Conchords’ members. Accordingly, the embassy members deport Bret, Jemaine, and Murray to New Zealand. Typical of the show’s humor, oblivious characters disclose information on major topics that ultimately harms them. In this instance, the show makes light fun of a serious national issue. Another recurring theme throughout the show is Bret and Jemaine’s awkward interactions with women. The characters have successful and unsuccessful romantic exploitations. All of their interactions have one thing in common, however: the duo never completely realizes how “normal” interactions with American females. This is indicative of Bret and Jemaine’s general ignorance of American cultural, but it is also an extreme version of the awkward-geek character type (e.g. Andy Stitzer in The Forty-Year Old Virgin) typical of contemporary comedy.

FOTC perfectly fits into the tradition of HBO original comedies. The network always seeks to give performing spots to young comedians. Flight of the Conchords features a slew of roles from young comedians. Besides the three main characters, young comedians Eugene Mirman, Arj Barker, Kristen Schaal have recurring roles on the program, while Kristen Wiig, Jim Gaffigan, Aziz Ansari, and Demetri Martin, among others, have guest starred on the program. The show’s comedy and mix of music and narrative are fairly unconventional. Because of its target audience and style, it is unlikely that the show would have been broadcast by any other network besides HBO or Comedy Central. The style and production of the show fit into HBO’s trend of unconventional comedies promoting young comedians.

The first FOTC season ran Sunday nights during HBO’s summer line-up, with Entourage acting as a lead-in program[34]. Entourage, a well-established program by 2007, appeals to a similar audience as that of FOTC. However, the comedic styles are quite, and it could be argued that while the latter appeals namely to a “hipster” audience, the former appeals much more to the “bro” type. The second season ran alongside the newly premiering comedy Eastbound and Down, the season finale of which got higher ratings than the finale of FOTC[35]. Though the show has ended, the band’s popularity continues. Jemaine Clement has recently appeared in Dinner for Schmucks and Despicable Me, while the duo appeared together in a recent episode of The Simpsons.


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