There’s still a lot of nostalgia for the days when three or four broadcast networks produced virtually everything on television and functioned as the glue that held us together as a society. Because it seemed like everyone watched the Academy Awards, the World Series, The State of the Union address, “Happy Days” and “Dallas,” TV was essentially the lingua franca for the average American.
Of course those days are no more. Except for the Super Bowl, hardly any television event attracts a significant percentage of the U.S. population. Nostalgia aside, this might be a good thing. Contemporary programming is dramatically more diverse than it ever was: and while the worst programs today are worse than the worst shows of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the best programs today are significantly better.
Looking back, in the transformation of television from a somewhat bland landscape of homogenized shows to the vibrant, if flawed, carnival of programming we have today, the launch of the premium network we once called Home Box Office was a pivotal event.
I was an early HBO customer. In the late ‘70s, I was living in an isolated area where you needed cable for decent television reception. We didn’t have a movie theatre in the winter either, so we eagerly gobbled up HBO and were grateful to have access to recent theatrical releases. Indeed, for some of my neighbors, HBO was reason enough to get cable (and no one could believe that those R-rated movies were allowed to appear on the TV sets in our living rooms).
But as more networks appeared on basic cable, with other programming that was robust and compelling, the value proposition for HBO seemed to wane. Did we really need HBO now that broadcast television had so many other competitors? I didn’t think so. By the early ‘80s I had moved to the big city and went without HBO.
It was during this time that HBO had a second inspiration: rather than remaining a distribution network, it would essentially become a content producer. It began producing sporting events, high-quality movies -- and perhaps most important, original series.
The event that won me back was “Band of Brothers.” Through that remarkable World War II epic, I once again became a semi-regular customer. In recent years, HBO has, along with AMC, been the source of the best programming on TV, with dramas like “Six Feel Under,” “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” and comedies like “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” If the past decade has been the golden age of television, and TV has been a more creative and relevant medium than either film or theatre, it’s because HBO led the charge.
Yet, as much as I respect HBO, I can’t say I’ve been a very loyal customer. Consumers like me are the ultimate challenge for a premium channel. HBO has always suffered from churn, and I assume I’m not the only serial-churner who takes a “what have you done for me lately?” attitude. Every month I have sticker shock when I look at my cable bill, and the HBO fee stands out as the most discretionary of all the charges.
Consequently, when our family was threatened with a financial reverse, the first thing we did was to cancel HBO. Which is kind of funny, because the cost of HBO is less than 10% of the whole cable bill and a tiny sliver of our overall family budget. Out for dinner, we wouldn’t think twice about ordering a second glass of wine, which would cover the cost of the HBO charge, and if we wanted to go to the movies, we would never discuss whether we could afford the tickets. But for some reason spending money on HBO takes on huge symbolic meaning.
Of course Netflix and Bank of America recently discovered the same lesson on their own: Consumers spend a lot of time obsessing about small fees and if you force them to make a decision, it might not be the decision you want.
I know the feeling. I was one of those customers who cut back my Netflix service from two discs a month to one to save five dollars. And I have been known to pay for a tank of gas in cash so I can save seven cents a gallon. All I can say is that I hope “a la carte” pricing never goes into effect, because I will be driven insane trying to decide each month which networks to keep and which to drop.
In any event, for now at least, I remain an HBO customer again. When “Curb Your Enthusiasm” returned this summer, I signed up again after learning that former Red Sox star Bill Buckner was going to be on the show. I was going to cancel after that, but then the Martin Scorsese movie on George Harrison was coming up, and then, after that I wanted to see the end of “Bored to Death” and found “Enlightened” thought-provoking. It will be interesting to see how long the streak lasts this time.