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‘Tinderbox,’ an Oral History of HBO From Modest Beginnings to TV Revolution

By Dwight Garner

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There’s enough animosity, jealousy, score-settling and killing gossip in “Tinderbox,” James Andrew Miller’s mountainous new oral history of HBO, to fill an Elizabethan drama. Yet the book’s tone is largely fond.

The people who created HBO made something they’re proud of. They’re glad to have been there, to have had a piece of it, in the early, freewheeling decades. Most know they’ll never have it so good again.

HBO went live on Nov. 8, 1972, broadcasting to a few hundred houses in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. The first thing you saw on the screen (cue screaming from future Time Warner shareholders) was Jerry Levin, sitting on a sofa. He welcomed viewers, then kicked it over to a hockey game from Madison Square Garden, which was followed by Paul Newman in “Sometimes a Great Notion.”

Levin was an ambitious young lawyer who had been brought in by a cable company, Sterling Communications, to run HBO’s start-up programming. “Tinderbox” explains how Sterling eventually ran wires to all those buildings in Manhattan and elsewhere, sometimes via sublegal methods.

Levin, of course, would become the architect of the most ill-judged merger in media history. At the height of the dot-com bubble in 2000, he tried to combine Time Warner, of which HBO was a subsidiary, with Steve Case’s already sinking AOL. In the ruinous wake, Levin resembled the proverbial hedgehog, the one who climbs off the hairbrush while sheepishly muttering, “We all make mistakes.”

If you’re going to read “Tinderbox,” prepare for a landslide of corporate history. Students of power will find much to interest them. HBO had many stepparents over the years. Following these deals is complicated, like following the lyrics to “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.”

In reverse order, Miller describes how HBO — the fly, more or less, in this scenario — has been sequentially consumed from 1972 through today: “Warner Bros. Discovery rescued it from AT&T, which had gobbled it up from Time Warner, which had saved it from Time Warner AOL, which had somehow abducted it from Time Warner, which had shrewdly outplayed Time Inc. for it, after Time had outflanked Sterling Communications long ago.”

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    Miller, who has previously compiled oral histories of “Saturday Night Live,” ESPN and Creative Artists Agency, digs into the machinations and bruised egos behind these deals.

    These guys (they were mostly guys) all seemed to want to flex-cuff one another and throw enemies into the back of a van. Miller gets good quotes: “The only way I was going to sit across a table from Jerry was if I could jump across it and grab him by the throat”; “He’s a dog, he’ll follow whoever feeds him.”

    HBO’s famous bumper — the static, the celestial choir — didn’t debut until 1993. But the channel had an aura long before that. It began to make its mark on popular culture in the late 1970s and early ’80s, around the time I was in my teens.

    My family didn’t have HBO, but a friend’s did. It was where you clicked to see George Carlin say the seven words you couldn’t say on television, to watch movies with naked people in them and to laugh your ribs loose seeing comedians (Robert Klein, Bette Midler, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams) do material they’d never get away with on Carson.

    HBO was so sexy people went to hotels to watch it. The channel had no advertisers, and thus no one to complain about brash or steamy content.

    Before HBO, television in the hands of the big three networks was a wasteland — “a vast exercise in condescension,” as Robert Hughes put it, “by quite smart people to millions of others whom they assume to be much dumber than they actually are.”

    An important early hire was Sheila Nevins, stolen from CBS to run HBO’s now-storied documentary unit. A Barbra Streisand concert was an early hit. Boxing was vital to the early growth of HBO, as were midweek broadcasts of Wimbledon. The channel launched a million comedy clubs. If you were a comic without an HBO special, you weren’t on the map.

    HBO branched out into original movies, some of which I was happy to see recalled: “Gia,” with Angelina Jolie; “Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story,” with Ben Kingsley and “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned,” based on the Walter Mosley novel, with Laurence Fishburne, among others.

    “Tinderbox” slows down and lingers purposefully on the turn of the century, when the so-called golden age of television began to come into view. With shows like “Sex and the City,” “Six Feet Under,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and especially “The Sopranos,” HBO changed notions of what television could be, and pickpocketed the cultural conversation from film.

    “The Sopranos” was not an immediate hit, but it was beloved internally. “We were putting a husky guy with a hairy back wearing a wife-beater in the lead role,” says Jeff Bewkes, a former Time Warner C.E.O. “Nobody else would do that.”

    HBO had good luck with its early executives. These were the kind of guys who knew what a debenture was yet had a feel for programming and knew enough to hire good people and leave them alone. HBO gave people room to run.

    Often the only direction given to directors and producers was: Don’t make anything you’d see anywhere else. Winning awards was more important than ratings. Before HBO, elite actors wouldn’t go near a television show.

    Staffers at HBO sometimes found it hard to define what HBO was, but they knew what it wasn’t. A planned Howie Mandel special was killed.

    HBO’s luck held for a while after “The Sopranos” signed off. Lena Dunham’s “Girls” and “Game of Thrones” were in the wings. But the souk that is the modern television world was growing crowded.

    HBO was no longer the brash insurgent. It passed on shows — “Mad Men,” “House of Cards,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Crown” — that went on to become crucial hits for Netflix and other cable and streaming services.

    Oral history is a strange form. It gives you a staccato series of micro-impressions, as if you were looking through a fly’s compound eyes. George Plimpton, who helped edit the best-selling oral biography “Edie,” was a fan. He liked it that “the reader, rather than editor, is jury.”

    Elizabeth Hardwick loathed the form. She thought oral histories were full of irresponsible drive-by shootings. The result, she wrote, was that “you are what people have to say about you.”

    Increasingly I’m a fan of the genre. I have a special fondness for Lizzy Goodman’s “Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011,” and I await the oral histories of Chez Panisse, Balthazar, Death and Company (the bar), n+1, Anna Wintour’s tenure at Vogue, Monster Energy drinks, the making of “Dusty in Memphis” and this newspaper’s Styles section.

    Miller is a good interviewer, but a corny writer. His interstitial material is mugged by phrases like “oodles of ambition” and words like “ginormous.” These really bugged me at the start. But this book is so vast that, by the weary end, these pats of cold margarine slapping me in the face were the only things keeping me awake.

    There are a lot of winning moments in “Tinderbox.” But wading through its nearly thousand pages I often felt spacey and exhausted, as if it were 4 a.m. on the third night of one of those endurance contests and I had to keep my hand on the pickup truck.

    HBO has retained much of its magic. “Succession”: what a treat. The sound of that bumper — the static, the choir — remains Pavlovian in its promise. But our over-entertained eyeballs have more options, and the channel’s competitors, Miller makes clear, have the long knives sharpened.

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