HBO, Showtime & the Rapid Growth of Cable TV

It’s 1985 and you’re sitting in front of your tv. On top of it is a new device you haven’t seen before called a cable box. As you flip through the many channels, your excitement grows as you see a whole new world of entertainment. There are sports, music videos, and some kid’s shows that will go on to become some of your favorites of all time. But how is all this happening? How did we go from having just a few channels to a new era of home entertainment?

Overview of cable television and its history

Let’s set the stage by starting with the difference between network TV and Cable. That may seem arbitrary but those differences are very important for this story and we tend to intertwine the term cable with all TV. 

Network TV is the traditional form of television broadcasting that uses over-the-air signals to transmit programming to homes with TV antennas. The long-running North American major broadcast networks include the American Broadcasting Company or ABC, The Columbia Broadcasting System or CBS, the National Broadcasting Company, or NBC. Here in Canada, we have channels like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation or CBC. These networks have specific channels and schedules for their programming, and they are available to all homes with a TV antenna. It’s easy to forget that network TV really is free. 

 Cable TV is a type of television broadcasting that uses a cable or satellite connection to transmit programming to homes with cable or satellite subscriptions. 

And there are two more significant differences. Here’s the first one. Have you ever wondered why content-wise, it seems like anything goes on cable while Network TV can’t even step one foot out of line? This is a huge piece, and it’s because cable isn’t regulated by the federal communications commission or FCC the same way networks are. So why is this? Why does cable have free rein on profanity and adult content, but the networks have to watch every little thing they do? Well, this actually goes all the way back to the days of radio and, specifically, radio advertising. 

Networks like NBC, ABC, and CBS all began as radio networks and radio was so popular and powerful so quickly that there was concern that they not be abused. And that includes advertising. Advertising over the airwaves was new and The networks had concerns that the advertisers might offend listeners who would turn the radio off. NBC was proactive and created a continuity acceptance department. 

This department combed through the ad scripts to make sure they were ok for broadcast. Anything deemed offensive was censored. So since advertisers were sponsoring the radio programming, and the programming was now so widely accessible, the FCC decided everything broadcast needed to be appropriate for all listeners. Basically, they had to keep it clean and that meant no adult content or anything that looked like propaganda. 

Little Jimmy or sally could walk into the parlor and turn on the radio and shouldn’t be exposed to anything too adult. But didn’t this violate first amendment rights? Shouldn’t they be able to broadcast whatever they wanted? Since radio beamed everywhere, it was an uncontrolled medium. Because of this, radio was deemed to not have full first amendment protection and couldn’t just broadcast anything they wanted. Again, it had to be for all ages. Failure to follow could result in the FCC taking away the network’s license. 

These radio stations eventually turned into television networks, but the rules remained in place. Because network television broadcasts over the electromagnetic spectrum, and has always been so widely accessible, they have to keep it clean. That’s why they’re subjected to more standards and limitations to this day. Because cable tv used an actual cable, it didn’t exist everywhere and wasn’t accessible by everyone, and didn’t have to abide by these regulations. To sum this up, with cable, you subscribe by choice; Networks use public airwaves, which are technically public property. In 1984, this was further solidified with the Cable Communications Act. We’ll get back to this a little later on. 

One more significant difference and it’s the way both generate revenue. Network TV relies heavily on advertising revenue, while cable TV generates revenue through subscription fees paid by viewers. This allows cable TV channels to offer more specialized programming that may not attract a broad enough audience for advertisers to pay for commercial time.

Since the 50s, Network TV ruled the roost and, for a short while, there were four networks: NBC, CBS, ABC, and the short-lived Dumont Network. Going into the 80s, those first three controlled the airwaves. It would be a few years until the Fox network began, so it was a three-horse race. 

So network uses the airwaves, but the concept of cable actually goes back to the 1950s. One of the first examples is when an appliance store salesman simply hooked a cable up to a hillside antenna to receive signals from farther away. The cable could then be run through the town to various TVs in different homes and charged them a monthly service fee. This community antenna television of CATV really is the birth of cable. Basically cable brought broadcast television to remote areas and places with poor reception. 

This is a brief overview as we now fast forward to the 70s and on into the 80s, but 

Eventually, this cable television concept split into basic cable and premium. One of the first basic cable channels was the Turner Broadcasting System, or TBS. And two of the first big premium channels were HBO and Showtime, which will be a big part of the focus here. 

The Home Box Office, or HBO–which was almost called the Green Channel at first–was one of those first premium channels launching back in 1972. Fun fact: the very first show aired on HBO was actually a hockey game between the New York Rangers and the Vancouver Canucks. Speaking of Canucks, Canada will play a huge part in the success of HBO in the early 80s, so stay tuned to see how that plays out.. Showtime followed a few years later, debuting in May of 1976. These two channels were a key part of the driving force behind the cable revolution of the 1980s. Not surprisingly, these unique channels started with smaller audiences. They were niche, premium–and expensive. If you adjust for inflation, HBO would cost you an extra $43 a month. Just for one channel. By the end of its first year, Showtime only had 55,000 subscribers.

In the late 70s, to attract new subscribers, HBO tried to air more movies, but FCC regulations made these films difficult to obtain. HBO sued to allow cable to show movies that had then been limited to networks. This was pretty significant and the court of appeals awarded them what has been known as the HBO decision. 

The Growth of cable TV subscribers in the US

Going into the 80s, a shift began in cable. The first big move was going to a 24-hour programming schedule. Showtime led the way with this, with HBO quickly following. And then there was a shift in the programming itself. Instead of just trying to purchase films for broadcast, more focus was made on creating original content. This is how they would stand out from the networks. Increased production values, better scripting, and more originality would separate them from all the cookie-cutter content you’d see on the airwaves. 

In 1981, there was also a focus on more high-brow entertainment on cable, such as theatre, jazz concerts, and documentaries. It was all about separating themselves from the networks, and these premium channels wanted to draw in wealthier viewers. But in the 80s, the original programming era was truly underway. In 1982, Showtime released its first made-for-cable movie, a film called Falcon’s Gold, an archeological adventure story. 

But the cable channels also recognized something that was missing: quality family programming. Yes, there was Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers on PBS. Here in Canada, we had Polka Dot Door on Television Ontario or TVO and Mr. Dressup on CBC. But with just a few networks–and limited time slots–quality children’s programming was somewhat limited. Parents who wanted alternatives to kids’ cartoons, such as The Kid Super Power Hour With SHAZAM or the New Adventures of Zoro, were looking for alternative–and responsible–programming. 

We’re still a few years before the tidal wave of commercials masquerading as cartoons such as GI JOE, Rainbow Brite, He-Man, and Transformers, and believe it or not, there was actually the idea going into the 80s that children had been long neglected by network television. Cable wanted to corner this market and Family Programming would be a big part of the direction in the early 80s for both Showtime and HBO. Another newer cable channel called Nickelodeon would also capitalize on this–we’ll get back to them in a bit. But Showtime’s very first original series was actually a children’s program, and this is a deep cut, called Faerie Tale Theatre. 

If you grew up with Faerie Tale Theatre, this should bring back immediate memories. This original series is equal parts bizarre and creative but featured many elite performers. Faerie Tale Theatre was created by Shelley Duvall aka Wendy Torrence from the Shining. The idea with this original series was to take classic fairytales and create live-action adaptations of them. Basically, a retelling. The entire series was conceived by Duvall, who also served as executive producer. The series first debuted on September 11, 1982, and 27 total episodes were created. But what’s truly amazing about this series is the incredible amount of talent involved with the episodes. This was a massively important project for showtime and they didn’t want to leave anything to chance. 

Here are some examples of that talent. Jerry Hall, Anjelica Huston, and Mick Jagger were in the 1983 Nightingale story episode. The Sleeping Beauty Episode stars Superman himself Christopher Reeve, The great Carol Kane, and Beverly D’Angelo who played Ellen Griswold in the National Lampoon movies. The Goldilocks and the Three Bears episode from 1984 stars Tatum O’Neil, John Lithgow, Carole King, and Alex Karras who played George Papadopoulos on Webster.

The Three Little Pigs episode from 1985 stars Billy Crystal, Fred Willard, and Jeff Goldblum. A few more? The Aladdin Episode from 1986 stars James Earl Jones, Valerie Burtanelli, and Leonard Nimoy–and was directed by Tim Burton. Francis Ford Coppola directed the Rip Van Winkle Episode. Over the series, you also saw Robin Williams, Liza Minnelli, Terri Garr, Vincent Price, Jeff Bridges, Carrie Fisher, and Roddy McDowell.

And possibly the most incredible–and bizarre–is the Pinocchio episode from May 14th, 1984. It stars Carl Reiner as Gepeto, Vincent Schiavelli, who you may know from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Ghost, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as the priest, and Paul Reubens aka Pee Wee Herman as Pinnochio. Rebuens basically plays Pinnocio like a younger version of Pee Wee. If that’s not enough, the two main bad guys are played by Cosmo Kramer himself, Michael Richards, and Jim Belushi. All in all, this was a pretty remarkable series. But Faerie Tale Theatre was important for Showtime as it generated critical acclaim which brought more eyes to the channel. Faerie Tale Theatre won them a Peabody Award, CableAce award, and a television critics association award. 

As Faerie Tale Theatre was launching, HBO was coming up with its own original programming, which was also family centered. They came up with a show that would become a cornerstone of the channel and one of the most beloved kids’ shows of all time. 

Fraggle Rock Begins

Fraggle Rock is the story of an underground species of creatures called Fraggles. Originally called Woozles, the Fraggles live in our human world but share their own world with a species of miniature construction workers called the Doozers, and some giant humanoid creatures called the gorgs. There is also Doc and his dog Sprocket along with Uncle Traveling Mat who shares his journeys from the strange outside world. 

Back in the late 70s, HBO had success with a Jim Henson program called Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. This beloved special was one of the first awards HBO won in the brand new CableAce awards. This Henson guy may be on to something, so HBO wondered if he had another gem up his sleeve. That gem was Fraggle Rock, and it debuted on January 10th, 1983. Fraggle Rock was a truly international collaboration. It was a Henson and associates creation, co-produced by television south in England and also co-produced and filmed here in Canada.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation or CBC recorded the series at the CBC studio in Toronto. As a kid, I had no idea that one of my favorite shows was being created only a few hours away from me. IN my household, Fraggle Rock was required viewing on Sunday nights. The weekend began with Saturday morning cartoons and finished with Fraggle Rock. Fraggle Rock really was a Canadian program with HBO having exclusive rights to air it in the U.S. I wouldn’t call Fraggle Rock educational programming per-se, but this was definitely quality programming that was at least trying to convey a positive message. The underlying theme of Fraggle Rock is how people of different backgrounds can all co-exist together despite their differences. It had an environmental message and looked at issues of tolerance and understanding. 

Fraggle Rock didn’t punch down to kids, but tried to show the world in an honest way. Whereas GI Joe, Heman, and Transformers were based around war and conflict, Fraggle Rock took the exact opposite approach. Ultimately, it’s a show about harmony. But What seemed like a simple and fun puppet show would end up being one of the most important shows in the history of HBO. Cable TV was about to really explode. 

Fraggle Rock ran for 5 seasons and was a massive worldwide hit broadcast in an astonishing 95 different countries. Depending on what country you’re listening from right now, you may have grown up with different humans on Fraggle Rock. In England, instead of Doc, you may remember The Captain. And in France, Doc is a chef with a dog named Croquette. Despite the international collaboration, Fraggle Rock technically was HBOs first original weekly series. So it’s original, but it’s not. But This was an exclusive show, and to watch it, you needed to sign up for HBO. Fraggle rock was a key component in the growth of HBO in the 80s and was called “critical to the network’s development.” Here in Canada, the show attracted 2 million viewers a week.

And possibly the most remarkable things about HBO and this groundbreaking kids’ show? In 1989, Fraggle Rock was the very first North American TV show broadcast in the Soviet Union. I’m not saying Uncle Traveling Mat helped to end the cold war, but….

HBO Continues to Grow

Shayne Pepper, an associate professor in the department of communication, media and theatre at Northeastern Illinois university says in the Journal of Cinema and Media studies how The success of Fraggle Rock revealed an ideal strategy for HBO: find quality shows, license them for HBO, and use the newly found critical acclaim these shows garnered to attract new subscribers. Then just rinse and repeat. This is a model not unlike what Netflix does today. Not long after Fraggle Rock, HBO launched BrainGames, which was a true in-house production. A more educational show, Braingames featured brain-teasing animation and stop motion. Most kid shows were truly passive-watching, Braingames required thinking. 

In 1983, HBO released its first made-for-cable movie, the terry fox story. In case you don’t know who terry fox is, I have a previous article all about this remarkable Canadian hero. 

The approach by HBO and Showtime to feature more family and kids programming was paying off. Their programming was getting critical praise and winning them more awards for children’s programming than the networks. This created yet more attention, which led to even more subscribers–which is the whole point of all this unique programming. HBO made sure to balance the children’s programming with more adult-themed documentaries. This way, they could draw the entire family to their subscription service. But the key word here is family and HBO promoted the fact that most of their subscribers joined because of their family programming. HBO was the warm and cozy cable channel.  

By 1983, HBo already had 12 million subscribers. But it wasn’t just HBO and Showtime that helped grow the cable market in the 80s, other channels were springing up. Ones that also went after the children’s market. Named after the 5 cent movies–or Odeons–from the early 1900s, Nickelodeon was the very first pay television channel for kids. A big draw right away was that there weren’t any commercials and the channel could keep kids engaged for a longer period of time. Like HBO, Nickelodeon spent the early 1980s seeking out quality kids’ shows and then licensing them for their own channel. 

Some of those early shows included Pin Wheel, Danger Mouse, Mr. Wizards World, Today’s Special which is another Canadian creation that aired here on TVO, and the beloved You Can’t Do That on Television. 

This is yet another Canadian series that started here and then debuted in the US in 1981. You Can’t do That on Television–a show that helped shape a big part of my personality growing up–is a kid’s sketch comedy series partly influenced by Second City Television. And it wasn’t even trying to be educational–it did anything to get a laugh. The early years featured a young Alanis Morissette and by 1983, it was the highest-rated show on nickelodeon.

A cornerstone of You Can’t Do That on Television was being slimed. This is when a performer would be covered in green slime after saying the phrase, “I Don’t know.” The green slime gag lives on to this day as it’s still used at the Kids Choice Awards. 

In 1983, The Disney Channel got in on the action. Launched on April 18th, The Disney channel attempted to capture a portion of the now more competitive children’s cable tv space. This is such an interesting time as these brand-new cable channels are launching nationwide. Regional programming was no longer an issue and these premium channels could attract a country-wide audience. In just 9 months, The Disney Channel had over 600,000 subscribers. By 1985, Built on the back of shows like Contraption, Welcome to pooh Corner, You and Me Kid, and Good morning Mickey, they had 1.75 million subscribers. By the end of the decade, this grew to 5 million. The Disney Channel followed in the footsteps of HBO and Showtimes children’s programming and began to win CableAce awards and Emmys, which drew in even more subscribers. 

But the rapid growth of cable in the 80s wasn’t just about kids and family programming. One of the biggest was a music-only station called MTV. Launched on August 1st, 1981 with Video Killed the Radio Sat by the Buggles, this revolutionary channel changed the way we consumed media and pop culture. With these new mini-movies, artists could present themselves in a whole new way. MTV exposed us to new music we never would have heard on top 40 radio. I have an entire article all about the history of this groundbreaking channel.

But MTV was also unique in that a cross-promotion began between movies and music. Now, movie soundtracks–and the movies themselves–could be further promoted through music videos. Ghostbusters, Flashdance, and Top Gun–just for example–all featured singles that had massive success on MTV, giving even more exposure to the movies. The point of music videos was to sell an album–now, they could also sell a movie. 

New Cable Channels Make Their Mark

But there were other unique channels on the cable television landscape. In 1980, Ted Turner tried something new. We had always been used to watching the news at specific times of the day. Usually around 6 pm or in prime time. What about a new channel that ran 24 hours a day? The Cable News Network or CNN launched on June 1st, 1980. The idea of an all-day news channel seemed absurd, but this innovation from the 1980s is now a regular part of our media landscape. Some early events that brought more attention to the round-the-clock news channel in the early years were the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981, and the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster in 1986. 

Not long before CNN debuted, another unique all-day channel debuted. This one devoted to sports. Founded by Bill Rasmussen and his son Scott, The Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, or ESPN, also seemed like an extremely risky project. Going into the 80s, one of the big acquisitions for the new sports cable channel was a deal with the NBA. The NBA was still finding its footing at this time and wasn’t close to the level we now know it. 

The two organizations both helped in the growth of one another. In 1983, ESPN took a chance on a new football league called the USFL. The league didn’t last very long but was able to make a splash thanks to this new cable channel. In 1985, the channel tried something new. At 28 and 58 minutes past every hour, they ran a shorter segment covering the scores and news of the day. This became ESPN Sports Update. By 1987, ESPN hit full legitimacy and had partial rights to the NFL. ESPN Sunday Night Football would run for 19 years. 

Over the 80s, several other notable cable channels emerged. Bravo, Cinemax, The Home Shopping Network, Spectrum, Telemundo, The Weather Channel, BET, TNN, A&E, VH-1, and AMC. Here in Canada, we also had The Sports Network or TSN, and Much Music. All of these channels debuted in the first half of the 80s, are still with us, and continue to drive a huge part of our TV entertainment. 

Cable was growing and growing fast. By the midpoint of the decade, the national cable penetration rate rose to over 45%. So why the rapid growth in the 80s? Was this all because of Shelley Duvall, Fraggle Rock, all-day sports, or 24-hour news? As usual, it wasn’t one thing, but several factors. The quality of the shows and the family and children’s programming were a massive part as they drew more attention to cable. With the attention came more competition and new channels, which made people realize there was something big going on with cable TV and they didn’t want to miss out. 

A lot of this was possible thanks to regulatory changes. IN 1984, the cable communications act went into effect. This act deregulated a lot of previous restrictions and promoted competition, which allowed for more channels and more programming. Cable prices may have gone up late in the 80s, but subscribers now got more value. Consumers got an average of 7 additional channels with their subscriptions. Under the new act, cable operators also had to provide channels for public and educational use. 

And the rapidly changing technology of the 80s made cable more accessible. Satellite technology and fiber optic cables improved both the reach and availability of cable and the quality of the signal. Going into the later 80s, a huge advancement was digital video signal compression. This allowed for the signal to transmit using a much smaller piece of radiowave frequency. This allowed for a big increase in channel capacity while also driving down costs. 

At the start of the 80s, 19.2 million households had basic cable. By the end of the decade, an astonishing 53 million households received cable programming. This was 58% of television households. Cable providers went from revenues of 2.6 billion at the start of the decade to nearly 18 billion by the end. They provided a valuable and premium service and people were willing to pay for it. Ultimately, I think the growth of cable tv in the 80s can be summed up as quantity and quality. 

 Built on the back of the success in the 80s, cable TV just continued its upward trajectory into the 90s, 2000s, and right into today. Just take American Movie Classics or AMC. They started back in 1984 and slowly grew. In our current era, AMC alone is received in more than 90 million households. Today, HBO has 130 million subscribers worldwide. 

The Impact of Cable on the TV Industry and Pop Culture

Simply put, the growth of Cable TV in the 80s changed the media landscape and has had a significant impact on society and pop culture. Being able to reach the entire country was a true game-changer, whether that be for family programming, sports, news, or music. An example of the power of cable tv in the 80s is it allowed for the spread and growth of the then World Wrestling Federation. Wrestling, which used to only be available through regional programming, could now reach a nationwide audience. Vince McMahon took advantage of this growing technology to take his product and compete against dozens of territories all at once. This nationwide exposure, built off the back of Hulk Hogan and a partnership with another new cable channel, MTV, led to the Rock n’ Wrestling Connection, the first WrestleMania and the enormous pro-wrestling boom of the 1980s. 

This is a very general overview of a massive topic, but the remarkable growth and success of cable television in the 80s changed the landscape for all of our at-home entertainment. 

It forced Networks to step up their game. They realized they weren’t the only game in town and had to elevate the quality of their content. Some of the greatest TV shows of all time come from cable channels. The success of cable channels like HBO, Showtime, and AMC led to some truly iconic and groundbreaking TV shows such as The Sopranos, GOT, The Newsroom, Madmen, Queer as Folk, Breaking Bad, Band of Brothers, Homeland, The L Word, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Walking Dead, and Succession just to name a few. Thanks to cable, we got a second Golden Age of Television in the 2000s and 2010s. In an interview with the Guardian in 2019, the legendary Francis Ford Coppola notes that this second golden age of TV came from kids of the 70s and 80s who loved movies of that era and used those influences to eventually make compelling, cinematic TV which was all possible thanks to cable. 

It may be a stretch to say, but did the success of Fraggle Rock all the way back in 1983 get us to this point? Did the increase in attention and subscribers for HBO through this fantasy musical kids’ show create an awareness that cable TV could be a viable business model that many other channels followed? Did Gobo, Mokey, Wembly, Boober, and Red pave the way for Tony Soprano?

I’m sure it would have got there on its own eventually, but these radish-eating little puppets helped set the table and gave HBO the ability to create more original programming. If Fraggle Rock hadn’t been such a hit, would we be here discussing these channels today? Or does this all go back to Showtime and Shelley Duvall and Faerie Tale theatre, which was one of the first true original programs for Cable that set this all in motion? Either way these kids’ shows were a big part of the cable boom of the 80s and a period in time when our entertainment options were changing faster than ever before.