How Blockbuster Nearly Killed HBO, Tinderbox Author Reveals

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‘Tinderbox’ Author James Andrew Miller on How Blockbuster Nearly Killed HBO

”It almost got canceled and almost got deleted … several times,“ Miller tells TheWrap

HBO may seem like a major success but the premium cable network came close to extinction multiple times in its nearly 50-year history, James Andrew Miller discovered in writing his new oral history, “Tinderbox: HBO’s Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers” on Tuesday.

“There was this perception that it went on the air and it was a big success, and it just kind of like flourished. And the truth is that it almost got canceled and almost got deleted by its parent company, Time Inc., several times,” said Miller, a former Washington Post reporter who had previously written lengthy oral histories on “Saturday Night Live,” CAA and ESPN.

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“When HBO started, part of its value proposition was ‘We’re going to give you uncensored movies without commercials.’ That’s great in the ’70s,” Miller said. “And then when there’s a Blockbuster on every corner that doesn’t become that compelling of an argument.”

TheWrap spoke with Miller about why he picked the pay-cable network for his latest (1,000-page) deep dive and what the future holds for HBO as it prepares to move under Discovery and David Zaslav when the cable rival takes over parent company WarnerMedia. The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

When you were looking for your next subject, why was HBO the one you landed on?
It’s had such an amazing history over 49 years. Lots of ups and downs, but it’s impact on both television and the culture is undisputed. And there really hadn’t been a book of record done about it. And as I started to talk to a lot of the influential players involved, I think that they were both excited by the prospect, but also eager to make sure that a lot of misperceptions, or some of the narratives that have been out there about certain key moments in its history that weren’t right, got straightened out. The other thing is that it fit very nicely with “SNL,” ESPN and CAA, because it was one of those entities that was born in the ’70s, and nobody really thought that it would last or people were very, very skeptical about its success and, like the others, managed to to prevail.

What do you think was the biggest misperception about them?
For the early part of HBO’s history, there was this perception that it went on the air and it was a big success, and it just kind of like flourished. And the truth is that it almost got canceled and almost got deleted by its parent company, Time Inc., several times. There were some very, very sketchy early days. One of the things that I tried to do was explain just how precarious its infancy was.

There was also this perception of why didn’t HBO or Time Warner just buy Netflix? That would have been great, but sometimes the facts are a little bit more complicated. In telling the story of HBO, I also had to tell the story of its corporate parents. There’s never been a stock called HBO — it always had a bigger entity owning it.

One of the revelations from the book is that some inside HBO wanted to buy Netflix back in 2006. Did you get any kind of sense that it was ever realistic?
I don’t know if Reed Hastings would have ever wanted to sell Netflix. Even when you’re looking back to DVDs and red envelopes, he still had a great vision about what the future could be for Netflix. And even though they went through some lean times, I’m not sure that he would have done it. The second thing is that it’s really important to point out that Time Warner just survived the debacle called Time Warner AOL. Can you imagine going to Wall Street after a $200 billion write-off and it’s like, “Oh, and now we want to do this other internet thing.” You just can’t play around with your investor base like that. I think they would have been severely damaged.

Also in your book, AT&T CEO John Stankey blamed the two-year Justice Department holdup on the Time Warner deal for why it ended up selling off WarnerMedia to Discovery. Do you agree with that?
In fairness to John Stankey, you can’t do a purchase on this order, and all of a sudden be sidelined for 17 months. Given the fact that the world was moving so fast. I mean, Disney+ was obviously aggressively making its case in the marketplace, and others were too. There’s a big margin of error you can give AT&T because of that 17-month delay. At the same time, you also have to go confront other questions: Were they really in the best possible position to vertically integrate? Did they have enough money to do it?

It’s not just one explanation fits all.

Was there anybody major that weren’t able to talk to for this?
Yeah, Dennis Miller. I interviewed him several times [before]; he was involved with “SNL,” of course, and ESPN. I was told it wasn’t personal, and it’s more about his feelings towards HBO. But I would have loved to talk to him because I think his show was an important one. [“Dennis Miller Live” ran from 1994-2002.] But I totally respect his decision not to talk about it.

What were some of the more surprising things you found out?
I was surprised at how emotionally attached people were to their jobs at HBO. People go there and they stay there for 10, 15, 20, 25 years. It’s pretty extraordinary. As a result, there was a powerful emotional component driving a lot of their observations.

On a more specific thing, seeing how close HBO got to being canceled early on in history. Understanding how it had to adapt at various points. You constantly see HBO adapting and changing and being incredibly inventive. That was something that I didn’t realize. It’s so hard to to be successful for a long time. And HBO obviously had times when they were less successful than others. And I felt like it was incumbent upon me to document for the reader why those things happen. You’re going like 90 miles an hour and all sudden you hit a pothole. Who was involved and why that happened and what impact that that has, and I thought those those were interesting inflection points.

Going forward in this streaming era (as HBO gets put under the new Warner Bros Discovery banner) do you see HBO as a brand still having the impact and cachet it’s had over the last 20 years?
Your question is the question. We’re in such a fundamentally important point for all for so many of these services, and for so many of these platforms. There are no givens. Things are moving very, very fast. Ownership is changing. There’ll be further consolidation. Brand awareness is obviously key to a lot of the success. 0I don’t think David Zaslav and John Malone are taking anything for granted. David told me in the book: This is a war. It’s gonna be really interesting in the next couple of years.

Sometimes things happen, and then three or four years later, you look back on it and you go, “Looking back on it, this was an incredibly important time.” We don’t need to do that right now. We know this is the time. There’s so many proverbial forks in the road, and there’s so many ways that this could play out.