In “Tinderbox,” the new HBO rock oral history of James Andrew Miller, there is enough hostility, jealousy, score-settling and murderous gossip to fill Elizabethan drama. However, the tone of the book is mostly pleasant.
The people who made HBO have done what they are proud of. They are glad that they were there, they got some of it in the first, free decades. Most people know that they will never be so good again.
HBO began broadcasting live on November 8, 1972, broadcasting to several hundred homes in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. The first thing you saw on the screen (shouting from future Time Warner shareholders) was Jerry Levine sitting on the sofa. He greeted the audience and then sent them to a hockey game from Madison Square Garden, followed by Paul Newman in Sometimes a Great Idea.
Levine was an ambitious young lawyer hired by cable company Sterling Communications to lead programs for startup HBO. Tinderbox explains how Sterling ended up running wires to all of these buildings in Manhattan and elsewhere, sometimes using subgalactic methods.
Levin will, of course, be the architect of the most ill-considered merger in media history. At the height of the dot-com bubble in 2000, he tried to merge HBO’s Time Warner subsidiary with Steve Case’s already sinking AOL. In a pernicious trail, Levin resembled the notorious hedgehog who gets off the comb, timidly muttering: “We all make mistakes.”
If you’re going to read Tinderbox, get ready for a corporate history crash. Students of power will find a lot that interests them. HBO has had many adoptive parents over the years. It is difficult to execute these deals, as if following the lyrics of the song “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly.”
In reverse order, Miller describes how HBO – more or less a fly in this scenario – has been consistently consumed from 1972 to the present: “Warner Bros. Discovery saved him from AT&T, which absorbed him from Time Warner, from which it saved him from Time Warner AOL, which somehow kidnapped him from Time Warner, which slyly outplayed Time Inc. after Time bypassed Sterling Communications long ago. ”
Explore the New York Times Book Review
Want to keep abreast of the latest and greatest books? This is a good place to start.
Miller, who has previously written oral histories for Saturday Night Live, ESPN and the Creative Artists Agency, delves into the shenanigans and bruised ego behind these deals.
These guys (they were mostly guys) seemed to want to handcuff each other and throw enemies into the back of the van. Miller often quotes: “The only way to sit at the table across from Jerry is to jump over him and grab his throat”; “He is a dog, he will follow whoever feeds him.”
HBO’s iconic bumper – static, heavenly 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 a teenager.
My family didn’t have HBO, but a friend did. This is where you clicked to see George Carlin utter the seven words you can’t say on TV, to watch movies with naked people in them and laugh at the comedians (Robert Klein, Bette Midler, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams) making stuff they never get away with on Carson.
HBO was so sexy that people went to hotels to watch it. The channel had no advertisers, so there was no one to complain about sassy or hot content.
Before HBO, television in the hands of the three major networks was a wasteland – “a huge act of indulgence,” as Robert Hughes put it, “pretty smart people towards millions of other people who they think are much more stupid than they really are. … “
An important early contributor was Sheila Nevins, stolen from CBS to work on the HBO documentary that is now being featured. The concert by Barbra Streisand was the first hit. Boxing was vital to HBO’s early growth, as were Wimbledon’s midweek broadcasts. The channel has launched a million comedy clubs. If you were a comic book without an HBO Special, you wouldn’t be on the map.
HBO branched out into original films, some of which I was happy to remember: Gia with Angelina Jolie; Assassins Among Us: The Story of Simon Wiesenthal with Ben Kingsley and Always Outnumbered, Always Outnumbered, based on the novel by Walter Mosley with Laurence Fishburne and others.
Tinderbox slows down and deliberately lingers at the turn of the century, when the so-called golden age of television began to appear in sight. Through shows like Sex and the City, Six Feet Underground, Curb Your Enthusiasm and especially The Sopranos, HBO has redefined what television can be and took cultural talk out of the movies.
“The Sopranos” did not immediately become a hit, but they fell in love with it inside. “We starred a hefty guy with a hairy back hitting his wife,” says Jeff Bewkes, former CEO of Time Warner. “Nobody else would do that.”
HBO was lucky to have its early CEOs. These were the guys who knew what debt was, but they had a sense of programming and knew enough to hire good people and leave them alone. HBO gave people the opportunity to run.
Often, directors and producers were given only one instruction: Don’t create anything that you wouldn’t see anywhere else. Awards were more important than ratings. Prior to HBO, elite actors did not fit into TV shows.
HBO staff sometimes found it difficult to define what HBO was, but they knew what it wasn’t. Howie Mandel’s planned special edition was killed.
HBO was lucky for a while after The Sopranos ceased to exist. Lena Dunham’s Girls and Game of Thrones were at their peak. But the modern television market was becoming overcrowded.
HBO was no longer a cocky rebel. He starred on TV series – Mad Men, House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, Breaking Bad, The Crown – which went on to become critical hits for Netflix and other cable and streaming services.
The oral history is odd. This gives you a jerky series of micro-bites, as if you were looking through the complex eyes of a fly. George Plimpton, who helped edit Edie’s best-selling oral biography, was a fan of her. He liked that “the reader, not the editor, is the jury.”
Elizabeth Hardwicke hated this uniform. She thought the oral histories were full of irresponsible passing car gunfights. As a result, she wrote, “you are what people say about you.”
More and more I am a fan of this genre. I especially like Lizzie Goodman’s Meet in the Bathroom: Revival and Rock ‘n’ Roll in New York 2001–2011, and I look forward to talking about Chaz Panissa, Balthazar, Death and Company (bar), n +1, work Anna Wintour at Vogue, Monster Energy drinks, the creation of “Dusty in Memphis” and the “Styles” section of this newspaper.
Miller is a good interviewer, but a commonplace writer. His interstitial material is replete with phrases like “a lot of ambition” and words like “huge.” It really bothered me at first. But this book is so vast that by the tired end, those cold margarine flakes hitting my face were the only things keeping me awake.
There are many winning points at Tinderbox. But looking at almost a thousand pages, I often felt overwhelmed and exhausted, as if it was 4am on the third night of one of those endurance competitions and had to keep my hand on the pickup truck.
HBO has retained much of its magic. “Continuity”: what a pleasure. The sound of this bumper – static, chorus – remains Pavlov’s promise. But our overly amused eyes have more options, and the channel’s competitors, Miller explains, have long knives sharpened.