By Luis Bou.
Home Box Office Entertainment, or as you probably know it better: HBO, is known for its dramas and comedies. The network is an absolute Juggernaut, but it wasn’t always like this. It had to pave its own path and make its way through 90’s television in order to turn into what it is now. It started as a paid service that used satellites in order to give viewers at home quality movies for the price of a monthly subscription. That was its main purpose at the beginning, movies. But HBO saw something that no other networks were doing and decided to capitalize on it; They decided to bring the structure and form of movies straight into our televisions with weekly episodic content. They probably didn’t know it at the time, but this would revolutionize serialized TV as we know it.
While The Sopranos (1999) wasn’t HBO’s first foray into serialized dramas, an honor that would go to OZ (1997), The Sopranos was definitely HBO’s first big hit. Focusing on a mob boss, his family, and his visits to his therapist’s office, The Sopranos was an absolute phenomenon for the entirety of its run. Unlike Tony, The Sopranos really did have the makings of a varsity athlete. But HBO knew one thing, that once The Sopranos ended, it would be in big trouble unless it found another big rating hit. So, HBO got moving.
In the following years of Oz and The Sopranos’ release, the channel produced hits like Six Feet Under (2001) and Sex and The City (1998). Both were substantially different shows that hit different demographics but still kept the paid channel in the public eye and brought critical acclaim.
See, HBO had a strategy, and it was a simple one; make good shows that win audience acclaim and awards. Unsurprisingly, the strategy worked. While not always what we’d call “popular,” the shows were well produced and well written, often winning Emmys. This, in turn, made HBO a “prestige channel” that viewers went to for quality. Through its early run, it won Emmys for Angels in America (2003), Six Feet Under, Sex and The City, and of course, The Sopranos.
But eventually, The Sopranos had to end. Where to next? How about vampires in the deep south? HBO’s next big hit would become Alan Ball’s True Blood (2008). Having already proven his talent with Six Feet Under, Alan Ball went for a higher concept with the adaptation of The Southern Vampire Mysteries written by Charlaine Harris. Filled with sex, violence, and a dark gothic style, the series made an immediate impression on its viewers. While not a rating hit in its first season, performing under shows like Big Love (2006) and John From Cincinnati (2007), the show’s viewership numbers kept steadily climbing. With its season 2 premiere, the show was an absolute gangbuster in the ratings, reaching HBO’s highest-rated program since the finale of The Sopranos.
True Blood was a success, but it still couldn’t touch The Sopranos. Maybe no show ever would have, that is of course if Game of Thrones (2011) had never been made. Set in the fictional, brutal land of Westeros, Game of Thrones focused on families of characters, all focused on one thing, power. The show was gritty, and dark compared to the fantasy that had been seen before on television and film. It was often historically accurate, letting viewers who didn’t like fantasy to be able to slide into its world and story seamlessly.
While we focus on the big ones here, have no doubt that there’s more than just these three shows to HBO. Often focusing on quality, HBO let shows develop even as they weren’t ratings’ hits. We got The Wire (2002) from David Simon, a crime show focused on both the police and criminals and often regarded as one of, if not the, best show ever made; We got Deadwood (2004), a realistic view into westerns and the building of a society known for its tremendous dialogue; We got comedies like Eastbound and Down (2009) and even a whole Aaron Sorkin news drama with The Newsroom (2012).
HBO succeeded by putting screenwriting first. Letting its writers develop their shows with almost full control on the creative side. HBO took risks and let them play out. Even if they didn’t pay off immediately with ratings, they paid off eventually in the cultural consciousness. Take a look at what the hype is all about and read some of their best scripts in our Ultimate HBO Screenplay Collection!
Luis is a passionate film major from Puerto Rico. If not caught rock climbing on weekends, you’ll probably see him standing over a keyboard, typing away.
Find out more about screenwriting opportunities at Shore Scripts. We hold Feature, TV Pilot & Short Film Fund contests each year. And check out our Fiction Podcast Contest before you go.