In its early days HBO primarily showed Hollywood movies and high-profile sporting events such as boxing. In the mid-1980s, however, HBO began to emphasize original productions, which included critically acclaimed made-for-HBO movies such as And the Band Played On and From the Earth to the Moon, comedy shows such as The Larry Sanders Show, and dramatic series such as Oz.
The shift toward original programming was fueled in part by the arrival of the VCR, which enabled viewers to rent at their convenience the same Hollywood movies broadcast by HBO. By the mid-1990s the network also offered original documentary films, animation specials, children’s and family programming, extensive sporting events and shows, and coverage of contemporary music concerts. At the time of the ‘‘It’s Not T.V. It’s HBO’’ campaign, 30 percent of HBO’s programming was original. By 1997 HBO reached roughly 23 million subscribers, approximately one-fourth of the viewing public. That same year it also won 19 Emmy Awards for its original films and shows, the most ever garnered by a cable television channel.
HBO’s programming was recognized for being innovative and daring. The New York Times lauded the channel’s ‘‘willingness to take a chance on unconventional programming and to allow writers and directors to operate with minimal interference.’’ HBO produced movies dealing with such issues as abortion, AIDS, and racism. As a pay television channel independent of advertisers’ pressures and demands, HBO had the flexibility for controversial and bold programming. ‘‘We’re not selling ads,’’ Jeffrey Bewkes, the company’s CEO, told BusinessWeek. ‘‘We’re not selling our audience to advertisers. We’re selling our programming service to you.’’ HBO’s mandate, and the key to its survival and profitability, was to continue to expand its subscriber base.
Like the cable industry as a whole,HBOwas subject to ‘‘churning,’’ the phenomenon of tremendous fluctuations among subscribers. Each month a huge number of viewers disconnected their HBO service for a variety of reasons. Some signed up for a specific event, such as a high-profile tennis tournament, and then disconnected the next month. Others subscribed to HBO only during the winter months, when they knew they would spend more time indoors, and canceled the service in the spring and summer. Some lost their jobs or suffered other financial hardships, and some disconnected when they moved. Despite the constant drain of viewers, however, an even greater percentage signed up either as first-time or repeat subscribers. There were other factors that made it challenging for HBO to attract and retain subscribers. Potential customers had a wide array of entertainment choices. Network and cable television, premium cable channels like HBO, Showtime, and the Disney Channel, and video rentals, movie theaters, and even chat rooms on the Internet—all vied for the consumer’s entertainment time and dollars. It was in this competitive situation that HBO developed the ‘‘It’s Not T.V. It’s HBO’’ campaign. The goal was not only to distinguish HBO from its competitors but also to reflect the originality of much of HBO’s programming. The commercials, with their quirky humor, compelling plots, and high-tech execution, were intended to encapsulate the strengths of HBO and keep the channel prominent in the consumer’s mind.