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A new book details the rise of Home Box Office since the channel debuted in 1972


In 1972, a channel named Home Box Office debuted, reaching fewer than 400 homes in Pennsylvania. HBO would go on to air groundbreaking hits like "Game Of Thrones" and "The Sopranos." And a new oral history book details the company's rise. It's called "Tinderbox: HBO's Ruthless Pursuit Of New Frontiers." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans spoke with author James Andrew Miller and Sopranos star Lorraine Bracco last week on a Twitter Spaces conversation hosted by NPR.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "Tinderbox" opens with a powerful moment from 2003. David Chase, creator of HBO's hit series "The Sopranos," joined friends and family of star James Gandolfini at the Manhattan apartment of then-CEO Chris Albrecht. They wanted the actor to go into rehab. Lorraine Bracco, who played therapist Dr. Jennifer Melfi alongside Gandolfini's mobster, Tony Soprano, says she remembers how much her co-star struggled with the role and the fame it brought him.

LORRAINE BRACCO: One of the big things you have to remember about Jimmy is that this took him by surprise, this success.

DEGGANS: "In Tinderbox," Miller writes Gandolfini, who left that intervention after about 10 seconds, struggled with the dark feelings Tony Soprano awakened in him. Bracco, already famous for playing Karen Hill in the film "Goodfellas," tried to warn him.

BRACCO: As we all know, success is a really weird thing, and fame is even weirder. So I don't think Jimmy was ready for that. And of all of us, I believe he was the least aware.


ALABAMA 3: (Singing) Woke up this morning, got yourself a gun...

DEGGANS: Miller spoke to 757 people for "Tinderbox," tracing its story and quotes from performers, producers, executives and more. And few programs symbolize the success HBO reached in challenging the rules of TV - with no commercials, explicit content and a wide latitude given the talent - like The Sopranos.


ALABAMA 3: (Singing) All that love had gone. Your papa never told you about right and wrong.

DEGGANS: Bracco reveals she loved working with HBO but hated how her character left The Sopranos. In her final scene, Chase basically had Dr. Melfi give up on Tony Soprano.


BRACCO: (As Dr. Jennifer Melfi) I don't think I can help you.

JAMES GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) What are you talking about? I've only missed three appointments since we had that heart-to-heart.

BRACCO: (As Dr. Jennifer Melfi) Go ahead. Tell me again I sound like your wife.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Well, if the show fits...

BRACCO: I was hurt. I felt that after all those years, that that was not really the ending I was hoping for for Tony and Melfi.

DEGGANS: "Tinderbox" also explore some of HBO's missteps, including passing on the chance to make "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad" and "The Crown" while letting Netflix outbid them for what became the streamer's flagship original series, "House of Cards." Miller, the author, says HBO offered to make a pilot of the show. Netflix bankrolled two seasons of episodes up front.

JAMES ANDREW MILLER: Well, listen. Nobody bats 1.000. You know, that's one of the first big examples of like, wait a second, Toto. We're not in Kansas anymore. There's a whole new playing field. And so HBO was just ill-equipped to compete with Netflix at that point.

DEGGANS: For decades, HBO has found success as a premium cable channel, revolutionizing TV by airing programs other outlets would never touch. But now, Miller says, it faces competition with streaming platforms breaking the rules in their own ways.

MILLER: And I think that the next two to three years of HBO's existence is going to determine the next decade of HBO's existence.

DEGGANS: "Tinderbox" details how HBO's victories helped define quality TV in one era, even as it seeks success in another one.

I'm Eric Deggans.


ALABAMA 3: (Singing) You woke up this morning, and all that love had gone. Your papa never told you... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.