The Pequod Review:
Felix Gillette's and John Koblin's It's Not TV is a broad and high-level review of the fifty-plus year history of the HBO television network. The book is well-researched and includes interviews with many of the key executives and producers, but unfortunately the authors don't do much more than recite the facts. Nonetheless, their catalogued narrative highlights the trial-and-error nature of HBO's success, as the network was forced to navigate enormous changes in consumer preferences and delivery models. And there are several interesting anecdotes throughout, including HBO's successful defeat of pirate feeds through signal scrambling, the lasting influence of The Larry Sanders Show (not just on HBO's programming but on how they would finance later TV series), and the economics of international TV distribution:
[O]utside of the United States, Game of Thrones frequently aired on a cable or satellite channel other than HBO. In Australia, viewers watched it on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Showcase channel; in Germany, Italy, and New Zealand fans saw it on Sky; in France, the dragons flew on OCS; in Iceland, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) delivered his fine, jaundiced bon mots on channels operated by 365 media; and on and on.
The reason had to do with the network’s global strategy. Whereas in the U.S., HBO was hyperfocused on using its original programming to build up the HBO brand name and amass paying subscribers, internationally the network did the inverse. Overseas, HBO was happy to sacrifice brand recognition for something else: profits.
Sometimes the most efficient way to wring profits out of a particular region was to set up, build, and operate an HBO-branded channel. But often, the opposite was true. It was significantly more lucrative to license HBO’s most desirable programming exclusively to the highest local bidder. Incumbent media powerhouses would pay for HBO’s library of shows, and then use programs like Game of Thrones to promote the desirability of their own channels and networks.
Such deals freed up HBO from the usual obligations and expenses of operating a regional network, such as hiring a local staff, paying for office space, and marketing its new shows. It was a low-risk and high-margin setup. And from a purely bottom-line standpoint, it was an enormously lucrative setup for Time Warner.
But, over time, the strategy also had an obvious downside. Many of the most ardent fans of HBO programming overseas knew nothing about HBO. In large parts of the world, the HBO brand meant nothing to television consumers. As a result, even while enjoying the most popular TV show on the planet, HBO remained largely invisible.