The Past, Present, and Uncertain Future of HBO

the sopranos
Photo by Anthony Neste/Getty Images
Matthew Belloni
November 21, 2021

If I have to tell you that author James Andrew Miller has a new book about HBO, you should probably unsubscribe. Jim is a friend of What I’m Hearing… who wrote for me at T.H.R. and whose previous oral histories of Saturday Night Live, ESPN and CAA occupy major shelf space at What I’m Hearing H.Q. In Tinderbox, out on Tuesday, he uses 750 interviews to trace the history of Home Box Office from its 1971 origin in the brain of cable mogul Charles Dolan all the way to its pending spinoff from AT&T to Discovery, with all the programming dramas and executive intrigue in between. We talked about the past, present and future of HBO on Thursday; our condensed and edited chat is below.   

Matt Belloni: It’s crazy how many different ways HBO’s ownership could have gone. Before selling to AT&T in 2016, Time Warner C.E.O. Jeff Bewkes was talking to Bob Iger at Disney, and, ironically, David Zaslav at Discovery. Rupert Murdoch made a hostile run at it. If Bewkes didn’t sell to AT&T, what do you think was the most likely alternative scenario for HBO and the Time Warner assets?

James Andrew Miller: From 2014 on, when Murdoch comes after Time Warner and Bewkes is able to beat it back, he went to the board and they said, “We’re OK now.” And he said, “No, we’re not, because we still don’t have an answer to the question of how we are going to compete with Netflix,” given that 50 percent of their operation was funded by Turner, which is a linear television operation. So the [cable] bundle becomes a cancer on Time Warner. They clearly had to merge or get taken over. And there’s not a long list [of potential acquirers,] given its size. You have Apple, Verizon, AT&T, maybe Amazon. Maybe, in a long shot, Facebook would be interested. But it’s not like there were 30 entities. Apple was interested in HBO, but it didn’t want Turner. Who wants to deal with the bundle?