Home Box Office was the first pay TV I ever knew in college, although living in a house full of engineering students, figuring out how to rig the box so we didn't have to pay was practically a required homework assignment.
Of course, if you're newer to the planet than me, you might think HBO has simply slumped from their former glory days or is suffering due to increased competition, but the truth is, HBO was always kind of sketchy. To me, the image of a Box Office conjures up movies. But to HBO, it apparently summons from the ether a diversity of programming choices in which, frankly, I hold much less than a passing interest.
When I got out of college and could scrap together enough money to purchase one – just one – premium channel, I put my chips on The Movie Channel. Sure, occasionally I glanced longingly at the row above The Movie Channel in my TV Guide, but from a movie lover's perspective, TMC kicked HBO's confused ass.
Do you like "Tennis anyone?" at Wimbledon? HBO was carrying it in 1977 and they still can't wait to put it on. Tradition. Bleech. Put on a movie with Roy Schneider or something. In fact, the HDNET Movies channel is, for me at least, the modern day equivalent of what I always expected from HBO – but was denied. Maybe watching Tennis on HBO in the Seventies was an okay idea, because there weren't that many outlets for the weird or the British. Wait – that could be a single channel.
If memory serves me correctly, in 1977 we had a cable box with a row of maybe 14 buttons, an A/B switch at the beginning of the row that doubled the number of selections, but even with 28 possible channels, many were either empty or dups of other stations. (As a beacon of hope for all us non-sportsaholics out there, there are no Tennis networks out there crowding the bandwidth and – oh wait, Dish satellite carries The Tennis Channel. All is lost.)
But things are different today. We didn't have A&E, Comedy Central or 19 flavors of ESPN back during the four years Carter was president (six years with inflation), so maybe HBO felt they could be all things to all people and get away with it. Today, stations like HBO have gone the way of the variety show. If it weren't for Tony and Carmella, I'd probably have Showtime.
Movies aside, the made-for-HBO series and programs are, for me at least, time I'll never get back. Take Bill Mayer – please! Shouldn't he be on Comedy Central? Or is displaying a sense of humor still a prerequisite over there? What about the sports talk shows on HBO? I thought sports talk was the domain of AM radio which, last I checked, didn't run you $12/month.
The Sopranos was great, and Rome was certainly well done, but most of these special series don't capture my interest. Six Foot Under, a show about gay undertakers had a title that accurately predicted when I wouldn't mind watching it. Or take that series about what the Old West would have been like if it had been set on an HBO soundstage. Deadwood (or as I've heard it referred to, "F _ _ _ wood") took profanity to such extremes, I'm surprised it didn't win "Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song" at last week's Academy Awards. But I don't want to give it a bad Rap.
When it finally comes to movies, HBO doesn't seem to have the best movies anymore either. I've seen Alien vs. Predator. Was that really necessary? A free Starz weekend on Directv only underlined HBO's deficiency. In fact, when I'm looking for movies to watch or record on Tivo, I'm just as likely to scan USA, FX, SciFi and the Comedy Central as I am any of the seven HBO stations I receive. I do like HBO's high definition channel, so for the moment, HBO is safe - at least until Tony sleeps with the fishes.