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HBO revolutionized TV, but the next few years are tipped to be pivotal for its future

Steven Van Zandt [left], James Gandolfini and Tony Sirico starred in HBO's hit television series, <em>The Sopranos</em>.
Getty Images
Steven Van Zandt [left], James Gandolfini and Tony Sirico starred in HBO's hit television series, The Sopranos.

HBO is synonymous with great TV and has been credited with redefining how we watch movies and shows at home. But it wasn't always so.

In his new book, Tinderbox: HBO's Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers, journalist James Andrew Miller charts the rise of the entertainment juggernaut and how it carved out a unique space in showbiz.

Miller is known for writing definitive histories, having written books on Saturday Night Live and ESPN, and for this latest project he says he conducted more than 750 interviews with people associated with HBO.

Miller spoke to NPR's TV critic, Eric Deggans, in a Twitter Spaces conversation last week hosted by NPR, and shared some of what he learned while chronicling the evolution of HBO over the network's 49-year history. They were also joined by Lorraine Bracco, who played Dr. Jennifer Melfi on The Sopranos.

This interview with Miller has been edited for length and clarity.

On the ways HBO changed television

At the beginning, HBO's value proposition was really clear; it was going to offer viewers something that they couldn't see any place else. So that manifested itself in a couple of different ways.

One was uncut, uncensored movies. Because we're talking way before Blockbusters, right? So the only other time you got to see movies on TV were when the networks put them on and they cut them up with commercials and, of course, bad language was cut out.

And then you get to things like comedy, where if you're a comedian in the late '70s or the early '80s, your dream is to go on Johnny Carson. You go on Johnny Carson, and you get a four-minute spot. And the network censors want to know everything you're going to say.

Then all of a sudden, HBO comes and says to like, George Carlin, "Here's an hour and we don't care what you say. You can say whatever you want." And thus, George Carlin, one of the first things he does on HBO is this set we've never seen on television. It's like, literally, how great is that? And so you go on. I mean, Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy and all these people get huge lifts in their career by being able to be on stage. There's nothing better for a comedian than to have total freedom and a ton of time. And so, HBO clearly with comedy makes a huge step.

They did it with music, too. All these concerts with Bette Midler and Whitney Houston and Bruce Springsteen, and you can go on and on. And then, of course, a couple more years after HBO gets into original programming and HBO decides that they're going to give creators a lot of freedom. It comes back to that word: freedom.

On the impact of James Gandolfini's death on HBO

I mean, if you start to do the Mount Rushmore of HBO, there are so many faces, and there are so many talented people. But I think everyone would agree that Gandolfini gets one of those four spots.

Lorraine Bracco And James Gandolfini on set of The Sopranos.
/ Getty Images
Getty Images
Lorraine Bracco And James Gandolfini on set of The Sopranos.

And so I think that [his death] was such a mixture. I've talked to so many people about it. It was such a combination of sheer shock and also profound sadness. [When he died] people were trying to break into the hotel room [where he was]. People were trying to disrupt what was going on. They had to use a fake coffin and a fake hearse [as decoys] just to make sure that the right one got on the plane right. There were all these exigencies that happened in the days to follow. And, of course, HBO then facilitated the massive, massive funeral with over 2,000 people there. But I think that what you see from an organizational point of view in the waning days, right after he passed away, is true affection for him, tons of gratitude and just profound, profound sadness.

On why HBO missed out on major hit shows to new competition

There's a whole new playing field. So HBO was just ill equipped to compete with Netflix [and other competing networks]. I think the bigger losses were Mad Men and Breaking Bad. And one of the things that I try and do in the book is deconstruct the exigencies involved in both of those.

They were just outmaneuvered and outspent, but it's a very interesting backstory. Remember something, David Chase (who wrote and produced The Sopranos and is a pivotal figure at HBO) hires Matt Weiner based on the pilot of Mad Men. David reads it and gives it to HBO and says, "Yo, you guys should look at this. I mean, I'm bringing this guy on to The Sopranos, but you guys should look at the show." And so I kind of take it from there in the book.

James Gandolfini and <em>The Sopranos</em> creator David Chase.
/ Getty Images
Getty Images
James Gandolfini and The Sopranos creator David Chase.

And so I don't really fault HBO for doing those things because they had an amazing track record. And there were legitimate reasons why they didn't do those other shows. I think it's very hard to "Monday morning quarterback" on things just because we now know there's success. It's very difficult.

On the future of HBO

I think that the next two to three years of HBO's existence is going to determine the next decade of HBO's existence. The stakes are really high. They're straddling two eras. David Chase is going to need a lot of support. He's also going to need a ton of money and he's going to have to balance the priorities that the Wall Street and investment community has with the value proposition that HBO has always had, which is to be talent friendly, to be a home where people, directors, writers, talent want to come. They want to commit themselves.

Sometimes people say, "Oh, yeah, I'm going to be doing a pilot." Well, sometimes when the Lord wants to punish you, we answer your prayers. The pilot picks up, it goes to series, and you're all stuck together for seven years. If you're not working for a network that is going to be patient with you and good to you and supportive, that can be like a prison term. So I think that one of the things [HBO leadership] is going to have to do is somehow triage with all these things and somehow figure out a way to be even more competitive with Netflix, Apple, Amazon and anybody else that's coming along.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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