“A Closer Look”: HBO Feature Presentation Sequence, 1982

 Exhibit / January 29, 2020 

Object Name: “A Closer Look: Inside HBO’s City”
Maker and Year: Film produced and directed by Scott Morris; HBO intro bumper by Liberty Studios
Object Type: Short promotional film
Video Source: YouTube (archivefilms)
Description (Michael Grasso):

The pay-cable network Home Box Office grew out of the milieu of closed-circuit television in New York City. Charles Dolan, a pioneer in direct cable television in the New York metropolitan area, had already built closed-circuit TV infrastructure underground for use in Teleguide, a network that brought tourist information into New York City hotel televisions in the 1960s. Dolan sought to expand his offerings into actual programming brought by cable into individual consumers’ homes. With the skyscrapers of New York often obscuring over-the-air television reception, there was a desire there (and in other metropolitan areas) for direct cable TV, but there was a problem: exactly what programming could be sent to those homes, considering the major networks’ stranglehold on content production? Dolan got Time, Life, Inc., a company that was itself expanding into television production and distribution at the time, to take a flyer on his cable idea, and pilot systems were set up in two Pennsylvania cities—Allentown and Wilkes-Barre—to broadcast an array of movies and sporting events (Wilkes-Barre being chosen because it was outside of the Philadelphia 76ers “blackout” zone). The new channel’s name, Home Box Office, was meant as a temporary internal placeholder but remained in place after the network’s launch in 1972.

In the next ten years, as cable TV providers multiplied across the country in a rebuke of the long-perceived reluctance of American consumers to pay for a utility and medium that they’d long taken for granted as “free,” HBO’s new network backbone, powered by satellite relay, became a premier offering to entice new cable customers into the fold. Crystal clear reception was one thing, but a channel that could offer a variety of unedited films, live sporting events from outside the local area (including boxing matches, formerly a closed-circuit television staple and still one of America’s top sports attractions in the 1970s), turned HBO into a household name. By the beginning of the 1980s, HBO was running its programming 24 hours a day (at a time when most if not all over-the-air television channels still played the national anthem and a test pattern at the conclusion of their broadcast day) and starting to branch out more and more into original programming.

A large part of HBO’s dominance in the 1980s was an increased awareness of and attention to its branding. As a cable TV innovator with nearly a decade in the business, HBO understood the need to differentiate itself from a panoply of new nationwide cable competitors such as The Movie Channel, Showtime, and Ted Turner’s new pair of superstations out of Atlanta (WTBS and CNN), as well as local pay-TV innovators like ONTV in Los Angeles, PRISM in Philadelphia, Preview in Boston, and Spectrum in Chicago and the Twin Cities. HBO’s longer history, increased name recognition, and larger capitalization allowed the company to spare no expense in self-promotion, as can be seen in this mindblowing short film from 1982 documenting the making of the classic “HBO Feature Presentation” intro bumper used between 1983-1987, which should be familiar to anyone who had access to an HBO subscriber box at the time.

Earlier HBO idents had been relatively simple affairs, the kind of simply animated and crudely soundtracked bumpers you might see on your local UHF station’s movie revue. But this bumper—known here as “HBO Theater,” although it would eventually be titled “HBO Feature Presentation” when broadcast in 1983—combined live actors, models, motion control cameras, animation, and a full orchestra soundtrack. The spot begins in a family’s living room in a big city, and after the camera banks and turns out of the matted-in living room scene, it swoops down an intricate model of a busy city street resembling the channel’s New York City birthplace, full of model cars, buses, and pedestrians (as well as a marquee for the titular “HBO Theater,” a miniature of an old-school Golden Age of Hollywood movie house). But soon we are out into the leafy suburbs and the countryside, reproducing HBO’s own spread into all 50 states over the first ten years of its existence. We then head into outer space, where a giant shiny chrome set of HBO letters—a “space station,” the documentary narrator says—–leads us into a “Star Gate” sequence created using a combination of practical visual effects and computer animation, representing HBO’s presence across the satellite web now covering the United States. The final portion of the bumper, the colorful streaks of light inside the “O” of HBO, is created using a rig of multi-colored fiber optic cables, a relatively new technology in 1982.

One can’t help but be charmed by the extreme effort taken to produce this bumper—not to mention the ego it took to produce a ten-minute short film about the production of a ninety-second bumper. “Six craftsmen worked for over three months to create nearly 100 unique buildings for HBO’s City,” the narrator brags as we see tiny pedestrians, miniature potted plants on fire escapes, and actual working traffic lights and headlights. The craftsmen and effects specialists at Liberty Studios betray their New York roots as they discuss the supposedly idyllic city main street in this ostensibly family-friendly special. (One interesting note: the live-action actors sitting down in front of HBO in the original version of the bumper consisted of a young urban professional couple; in later versions of the “HBO Feature Presentation” bumper, the family had two kids.) In a hilarious, thick, only-in-New-York accent, director of special effects James Kowalski informs the viewer, “We threw a few extras in, seeing if people would spot ’em… we put a few bums on the street, a few hookers on the corner.” The mini-documentary portrays the animated portions of the bumper, on the other hand, in a much less earthy way, accentuating the high-tech computer guidance of both the animation and the motion control cameras.

This deluxe bumper expresses perfectly a liminal period between the physical and practical special effects era and the coming era of visual effects developed and produced on a video synthesizer or computer. It also presages the coming of HBO’s original programming, which would begin in the same year as this bumper’s debut (1983) with the TV movie The Terry Fox Story and the Jim Henson series Fraggle Rock.

2 thoughts on ““A Closer Look”: HBO Feature Presentation Sequence, 1982

  1. Pingback: The Hauntological President: Citizen Media, Analog Memory, and Bernie Sanders

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