Warner Bros. Discovery is shutting down HBO Max. What does it mean for viewers? : It's Been a Minute HBO gave us some of the most iconic television shows of our time: Sex and the City. The Sopranos. Game of Thrones. But is the era of HBO coming to a close?

Earlier this year, HBO's parent company, Warner Media, merged with Discovery. By next year, the new Warner Bros. Discovery will combine HBO Max with Discovery Plus into an as-yet unnamed umbrella streaming service. The merger raises questions about what's next for the HBO brand – including whether or not "HBO" will still mean "quality TV" once the dust settles.

Guest host Elise Hu talks to Charles Pulliam-Moore, who covers TV and film for The Verge, about HBO's legacy, how it paved the way for prestige TV, and what changes at the company could mean for what kind of television we'll see.

You can follow us on Twitter @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at IBAM@npr.org.

How HBO transformed television

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Just a quick heads-up - this episode includes a reference to sexual assault and some language that some listeners may find offensive.


HU: Hey, y'all. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Elise Hu, your guest host. Today, I'm joined by Charles Pulliam-Moore, TV and film writer for The Verge. And we started our conversation with a little icebreaker.

We're going to play you some theme songs. You can just kind of riff based on what you're hearing, OK?


HU: All right.


HU: What does this say to you?

PULLIAM-MOORE: Goodness. This is peak '90s. We're wearing tutus outside of ballet recitals. Oh, my goodness. The city is the fifth character in "Sex And The City."

HU: (Laughter) Beautiful. All right, next one.


PULLIAM-MOORE: I'm getting New Jersey. I'm getting therapy and, you know, a lot of conflicted emotions. I'm getting ill-fitting suits.

HU: Terrible suits.

PULLIAM-MOORE: It's "The Sopranos."

HU: Yes.


ALABAMA 3: (Singing) She said, you're one in a million. You got to...

HU: OK. Next one.


PULLIAM-MOORE: OK. Yeah. I mean, I feel like I've never heard this before. And so this must be a new - a never-before-seen show.


PULLIAM-MOORE: No. I mean, we all know "Game Of Thrones." It's the show that brought us all together.


HU: OK. One more.


PULLIAM-MOORE: That right there?

HU: That right there.

PULLIAM-MOORE: The most refreshing noise of all - it sounds like a can of soda opening, but no, it's HBO. HBO is here.

HU: Except it might not be here for long, at least not in the way we know it. Back in the spring, HBO's parent company WarnerMedia merged with Discovery. So what does that mean for HBO? Well, the cable channel will be sticking around, but the streaming service, HBO Max - we'll have to prepare our goodbyes. By next year, it'll be replaced by a new service, not yet named, which combines HBO Max and Discovery's own streaming app, which is called Discovery+. Apps aside, what I want to know is what will happen to the shows that we've come to expect from HBO, the prestige television they were the vanguard of?

PULLIAM-MOORE: The new CEO of the company, David Zaslav, has made it pretty clear that what he wants from the network - it's not less content exactly; it's cheaper content, easy to produce and sort of has a broader appeal, sort of reality TV-centric things that are meant to appeal to, quote-unquote, "middle America," that compared to something like a prestige drama, is just way cheaper to produce, something like a "Game Of Thrones" that, you know, the production costs are in the tens of millions of dollars for a single season.

HU: So he's trying to cheapen and dilute HBO and what made it good?

PULLIAM-MOORE: (Laughter) I don't know that he would say that he's cheapening and diluting it. But sort of giving us a less intense version, I think, might be, like, the company line from within.

HU: Gosh, it's just wild to think about. So we're talking about this because HBO has had such a huge cultural impact. Despite not having the reach of a broadcast network, it has had a lot of reach in terms of just word of mouth and buzz and coverage, right? And it's produced so many of the beloved shows we talked about over the years. What are the ways that HBO has kind of been innovative since its beginnings?

PULLIAM-MOORE: Initially, that was boxing.


PULLIAM-MOORE: That was sort of their first big thing, sort of repackaged from being Saturday afternoon content that no one was really tuning into to Saturday evening events.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: ...Proudly present the "Thrilla In Manila."

PULLIAM-MOORE: You're paying a little bit extra. You've got live announcers and commentators. The box office is at home. It's an event. That sort of became HBO's bread and butter.


PULLIAM-MOORE: They were sort of the original Netflix, right?

HU: Yeah.

PULLIAM-MOORE: In that they were a disruptor in the space, willing to sort of come in at a time when prestige and television were not synonymous, right? But back in 1972, when HBO was first launched, the idea is, hey, we have this entirely new space to play with. You know, regulations on cable have been loosened up. We've got all these airwaves. What are we going to fill them with?

HU: Yeah.

PULLIAM-MOORE: What we're talking about is sort of, you know, sex, violence, the things that the FCC tries to keep off of network television. And while the content that HBO was putting out in the '70s might not necessarily be what we would consider prestige today, at the time, it played a really important role in shaping how people thought and felt about television. We don't get "Game Of Thrones" without people sort of being almost taught - right? - like, this is what television can be. Television can be big and bombastic and something to get invested in...

HU: Yeah.

PULLIAM-MOORE: ...Week to week, beyond, you know, like, soap opera appeal. It can have that sort of glamour of wow. So HBO was really sort of the network responsible for the popularization of the hourlong comedy special. Yeah.

HU: I didn't know that 'cause I think comedy special, and I think Netflix.


HU: But obviously it existed before that.

PULLIAM-MOORE: Totally. And that's Netflix following in HBO's lead and their example. Pre-HBO, the sort of big thing that you would want would be, like, a five-minute set on, like, a late-night show.

HU: Yeah.

PULLIAM-MOORE: But HBO was willing to come in and give people like comedian George Carlin an - like, an entire hour to say whatever they want, right?


GEORGE CARLIN: Let them clean up some of the names like Excello (ph) and Acme and Ace and Top (ph). Bullshit. Things should be called what they are. I'd like to bring out a new car, the 1977 Piece of Shit.


PULLIAM-MOORE: With HBO, the promise was always, hey, do you just want to do your thing? Do you want to do your thing as honest and truthfully as it is in your head? We're the home for that.

HU: Got it. So there's innovation in terms of comedy specials. There's innovation in terms of boxing and really making that an event on television.

PULLIAM-MOORE: Do you think to yourself, oh, HBO is doing - look at them? They're doing something fun and interesting.

HU: Yeah. It becomes a place for cool kids or creatives.

PULLIAM-MOORE: Exactly. Right. And it's sort of, like, wild to think of now, but there really was a time where being on TV was seen as, like, a lesser version of acting, right?

HU: Right. Right.

PULLIAM-MOORE: A lesser version of writing, production - everything. Obviously, this is never true, right? There was - there's always art in the industry. But, again, it comes back to this idea of how people think about and feel about the medium. And HBO really played a significant role in getting everyone into the idea of TV being this really sort of prestige space.

HU: Coming up, the golden age of HBO and how the network was able to create viral moments among so much competition.


HU: I'm glad you're bringing up how HBO raised the profile of television itself - right? - because, by the 1990s, HBO was credited for really bringing on this era of prestige television. It's the golden era of HBO. Tell us a little bit about this and what forces or individuals really made this era possible.

PULLIAM-MOORE: So when I think of, like, HBO really hitting its prestige stride in the '90s, I do think of "Oz."


PULLIAM-MOORE: Tom Fontana's "Oz" was an HBO series about a men's prison - the prisoners and everyone working in the facility - and a sort of really difficult, but important message about the carceral state, right?


MARK MARGOLIS: (As Antonio Nappa) Needless to say, I was saddened by Peter Schibetta's rape. His father, Nino, and I were paisans. I'm Peter's godfather.

PULLIAM-MOORE: Before "Oz," like, television really did not try to get into the dark, nitty-gritty things quite like this. That feels a little hyperbolic to say, but the idea of there being a flagship drama on a network in which the bulk of the main characters are not just criminals, but, like, hardened felons who have committed awful crimes.

HU: Yes.

PULLIAM-MOORE: They are going to be people who you come to sympathize with - whose struggles you understand and really sort of feel within yourself. There was always nuance and subtlety to it, and it's present in a lot of HBO's more popular shows.


HU: What else stands out to you from that era?

PULLIAM-MOORE: Obviously, "Sex And The City" - and I bring "Sex And The City" up not just because it came out so relatively close to "Oz," but because I do think the two are kind of two sides to the same coin. It's difficult, initially, to see the throughline between the two. At the time, they were rather frank and sort of explicit portrayals of sex lives in a way that was shocking, even for cable.


KIM CATTRALL: (As Samantha Jones) Charlotte, I'm masturbating. I told you I'd be doing that all day today.

PULLIAM-MOORE: But the explicit is balanced out by three-dimensional characters who are complex and nuanced in a way that almost would have - doesn't make sense for a show that feels as, you know, racy and spicy as something like this. When people sort of pooh-pooh cable TV - HBO and Cinemax in particular - people always forget that Cinemax was a subsidiary of HBO that was long...

HU: Skinemax (ph)? Uh-huh.

PULLIAM-MOORE: Well, here's the thing, right? Skinemax caught on in the public consciousness because we all associate it with, oh, you're flipping channels, and then you catch a little bit of skin. Oh, my. Oh, my. But at the same time, there is an attention to the quality of story and sort of, like, the depth of character that's sort of meant to keep you engaged and compelled.

HU: What would you say was the most significant program of this era that we're talking about?

PULLIAM-MOORE: I feel like it's a toss-up between "The Sopranos" and "The Wire."

HU: Why?

PULLIAM-MOORE: I feel like you can see the way that these two shows, "The Sopranos" and "The Wire" in particular, really had a profound impact on the current generation of TV creators. The sort of - let's take this thorny, seemingly ugly from the outside space inside of people and really sort of dig into what it is that makes them tick in a way that also kind of makes our skin crawl while we look directly at their pain.


LAWRENCE GILLIARD JR: (As D'Angelo "Dee" Barksdale) Pawns, man, in the game - they get capped quick. They be out the game early.

J D WILLIAMS: (As Preston "Bodie" Broadus) Unless they some smart ass pawns.

PULLIAM-MOORE: That, I feel, has really sort of become the mode for crafting protagonists right now. Like, I'm thinking specifically of a "Breaking Bad," a "Better Call Saul." We talk about sort of, you know, the bad men in fiction.

HU: Yeah, moral ambiguity.

PULLIAM-MOORE: You know, the moral ambiguity - the antihero - the sort of schlubby man who does awful things, and yet you love him.


PULLIAM-MOORE: But by the time that these shows came around, the space had become really mature, right? HBO had plenty of competition. But HBO, with shows like "The Sopranos," like "The Wire," was able to create what we would call now, like, these viral mega-hits, where everyone is like, have you seen it? Did you see what happened last week?

HU: Right, right.

PULLIAM-MOORE: Specifically for something that people were paying for - right? - which I think we really do have to, like, bear in mind - that, back then, it was sort of like, well, what did you watch last night? And so, well, I watched "General Hospital" because it was on TV for free - right? - like, perfectly normal. But when you get, you know, an entire office full of people talking about the gangster from New Jersey who's in therapy and wants to have sex with his therapist, like, that's something really sort of - like, that's something really special.

HU: Right. It's a moment.

PULLIAM-MOORE: It's a moment. It's a whole moment.


HU: Coming up - how one of HBO's biggest strengths could also be seen as a weakness.


HU: OK. Let's talk about the creative industry, the entertainment industry. What possibilities did it open up for creators in entertainment?

PULLIAM-MOORE: So I think that HBO really taught them to be bolder and a little bit riskier with the kind of stories that they make. The thing that comes to mind immediately, actually, is "The Wire," because before there was "The Wire," there was "Homicide: Life On The Street."


CLARK JOHNSON: (As Meldrick Lewis) You go when you're supposed to go, and everything else is homicide.

PULLIAM-MOORE: The two shows are very similar. One's a network TV show, one is not. David Simon works on both. David Simon, who, after his work on "Homicide: Life On The Streets," comes to HBO with a pitch for a show that is very much like it. I have an idea. I feel as if we can do this harder and a little bit grittier in a way that the industry says might turn people off. I don't think that you can really deny that aspiring writers looked to David Simon and thought to themselves...

HU: Yeah.

PULLIAM-MOORE: ...Oh, like, I'm in this industry. I can hop over into Hollywood land and write what I know.

HU: Got it. What do you see as HBO's biggest weakness?

PULLIAM-MOORE: I mean, HBO's biggest weakness is that it was first. When you're at the top for so long and when you are consistently successful, but not in a way that really demolishes your competition...

HU: Right.

PULLIAM-MOORE: ...Eventually you are going to get to a point where the competition is capable of giving you trouble. Everyone sort of thinks of Netflix as being the kid that really sort of knocks - well, I do think - that knocked HBO off of its throne, thinking of "House Of Cards" in particular. "House Of Cards" was initially being shopped around to HBO, and HBO said, of course, we would love this. We will greenlight you for one pilot. Netflix came in and said, we'll give you two seasons - right? - like, immediately.

HU: Yeah.

PULLIAM-MOORE: And that kind of decision-making - that was a gutsy, ballsy, loss leader decision. HBO, in sort of being the establishment, was relatively more conservative. That does feel to me sort of like a consequence of being at the top for so long.

HU: How do you feel they've done when it comes to centering stories about marginalized voices? Because I remember the controversy around "Girls," for example, from Lena Dunham, which was backed by HBO.

PULLIAM-MOORE: You know, HBO has had its series that center people of color, queer people, stories about women. Recently, HBO Max, in particular, has emerged as being one of the sort of like bright spots in the streaming space for, you know, people who are not white, are not straight, the kinds of people...

HU: Or may not speak English, right? Like, there's "Tokyo Vice" on there.

PULLIAM-MOORE: Exactly, right? Unfortunately, just as a lot of these shows are taking off - it's coming just as the merger is really shaking things up. And it does seem as if those are the - like, those are the shows that are on the chopping block, the kinds of projects that are going to see less enthusiasm from executives.

HU: Yeah, well, it sounds like that's certainly the case if the executives are going towards more Discovery-ification of America.


HU: And I have to wonder, you know, that which we found really special about HBO back in the day, now there are so many places to do that, or it seems like there are so many other streaming networks where you could do that. So in that sense, is anything really lost, then, if HBO has to go by the wayside or HBO's brand has to get diluted because of these giant mergers?

PULLIAM-MOORE: I mean, yes and no, right? Because there's nothing stopping any of these other networks from just picking up the slack and being like, all right, sure, like, if HBO goes kaput, then we will make the HBO shows. That being said, when one of these services goes through a reinvention like this, it does send a signal to the space, right? Other streamers might not necessarily be as inclined to move forward with HBO programming. I don't think that everyone's going to start making, you know, Discovery-like content in the next couple of years and we're just going to see, you know, dramas and prestige disappear.

But I guarantee you there are executives who are watching what's going on with Warner Discovery and thinking to themselves, like, OK, well, if they're winding this down, if they are sort of sensing that audiences will accept content that is, you know, to be honest, whiter, cheaper, more reality-centric, then perhaps we need to be airing in that direction as well, just for, you know, our own benefit.

HU: Oh, so everything could get watered down.

PULLIAM-MOORE: It could. It could. Everything isn't going to change overnight, but these things are connected, right? And as much as everyone likes to fancy themselves - we're the studio does things different. We think for ourselves. You're also cognizant of how your competitors are moving in the space. And you're thinking to yourself, are the choices that they're making things that I need to be doing as well?

HU: All right. Farewell to the HBO as we knew it.

PULLIAM-MOORE: (Laughter).

HU: Charles Pulliam-Moore, writer at The Verge, thank you so much.

PULLIAM-MOORE: Thank you so much for having me.


HU: This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by Jessica Mendoza and edited by Jessica Placzek. Engineering support came from Hannah Copeland and Josephine Nyounai. I'm Elise Hu. Take care, y'all.

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