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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

Flight of the Conchords

An episodic sitcom on HBO, Flight of the Conchords (FOTC) 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 (2). Thereafter, the duo made their way onto several television spots, including an HBO special and performances on late night programs from Letterman to Conan (3). The show gained increasing critical acclaim and popularity over the course of its two-season run, with the first season earning four Emmy Nominations and a 68/100 rating on and the second season earning six Emmy nominations with an 80/100 rating on (4 and 5). While the show did not acquire phenomenal ratings (6), it sold on DVD wonderfully. In fact, the second season topped TV show DVD sales for a week in August 2009 (7).

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 ofThe Office. Unlike the The Office, many critics describe FOTC’s style as “awkwardly hip” (1). 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” (8).

The show examines much more facets of American culture than just the hipster trend. The duo and their equally naïve manager/deputy cultural attaché at the New Zealand consulate Murray Hewitt (New Zealand comic Rhys Darby) parody an American sentiment of what bumpkins from New Zealand would behave like. For example, the characters mention their own culture’s primitiveness, such as sheepherding and a lack of technology (cable television). They also parody American sentiments of New Zealand itself, 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. Whether this cultural rivalry actually exists, its humorous presentation to American audiences due to our concepts of the two country’s being so similar. 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. FOTC 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 (10). 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 comedyEastbound and Down, the season finale of which got higher ratings than the finale of FOTC (12). 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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