Book Review: ‘Tinderbox’, by James Andrew Miller
There is enough animosity, jealousy, settling of scores and murderous gossip in “Tinderbox,” the mountainous new oral history of James Andrew Miller on HBO, to fill an Elizabethan drama. Still, the tone of the book is largely affectionate.
The people who made HBO have done something they’re proud of. They are happy to have been there, to have had a piece of it, during the first decades of coasting. Most know they will never have it so good again.
HBO went live on November 8, 1972, streaming to a few hundred homes in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. The first thing you saw on screen (cry for screams from future Time Warner shareholders) was Jerry Levin, sitting on a couch. He greeted viewers, then kicked off a Madison Square Garden hockey game, which was followed by Paul Newman in “Sometimes a Great Notion.”
Levin was an ambitious young lawyer who had been hired by a cable company, Sterling Communications, to lead HBO’s startup programming. “Tinderbox” explains how Sterling ultimately ran cables to all of these buildings in Manhattan and elsewhere, sometimes via sub-legal methods.
Levin, of course, would become the architect of the most reckless merger in media history. At the height of the dot-com bubble in 2000, he attempted to combine Time Warner, of which HBO was a subsidiary, with Steve Case’s already sinking AOL. In the ruinous wake, Levin looked like the proverbial hedgehog, the one who climbs down from the hairbrush sheepishly muttering, “We all make mistakes.”
If you’re going to read “Tinderbox,” be prepared for a landslide in corporate history. Students of power will find something to interest them. HBO has had many in-laws over the years. Following these chords is complicated, like following the lyrics to “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly”.
In reverse order, Miller describes how HBO – the fly, more or less, in this scenario – was consumed sequentially from 1972 to today: “Warner Bros. Discovery saved it from AT&T, which had it. engulfed Time Warner, who rescued him from Time Warner AOL, who sort of took him away from Time Warner, who artfully dominated Time Inc. for it, after Time overwhelmed Sterling Communications a long time ago.
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Miller, who has previously compiled oral histories from “Saturday Night Live,” ESPN, and the Creative Artists Agency, digs into the machinations and bruised egos behind these deals.
These guys (they were mostly guys) all seemed to want to stick together and throw enemies in the back of a van. Miller gets good quotes: “The only way for me to sit in front of a table with Jerry was to jump over and grab him by the throat”; “He’s a dog, he’ll follow whoever feeds him.”
HBO’s famous bumper – The Static, The Heavenly Chorus – didn’t debut until 1993. But the channel had an aura long before that. He started making his mark in popular culture in the late 1970s and early 1980s when I was a teenager.
My family didn’t have HBO, but a friend did. This is where you clicked to see George Carlin say the Seven Words You Couldn’t Say on TV, to watch movies with naked people and chuckle your ribs seeing comedians (Robert Klein, Bette Midler, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams) make material they would never get away with on Carson.
HBO was so sexy that people would go to hotels to watch it. The channel had no advertisers, so no one to complain about brash or scorching content.
Before HBO, television in the hands of the Big Three was a wasteland – “a vast exercise in condescension,” as Robert Hughes put it, “by people smart enough for millions of others they suppose to be. much dumber than they actually are. “
Sheila Nevins was a significant first hire, stolen from CBS to lead HBO’s now-legendary documentary unit. A concert by Barbra Streisand was an early success. Boxing was vital to HBO’s initial growth, as were the midweek broadcasts of Wimbledon. The chain has launched a million comedy clubs. If you were a comedian without an HBO special, you weren’t on the map.
HBO has embarked on original films, some of which I have been delighted to see remember: “Gia”, with Angelina Jolie; “Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story”, with Ben Kingsley and “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned”, based on the novel by Walter Mosley, with Laurence Fishburne, among others.
“Tinderbox” slows down and deliberately lingers around the turn of the century, when the so-called golden age of television began to emerge. With shows like “Sex and the City,” “Six Feet Under,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and most importantly “The Sopranos,” HBO changed notions of what television could be and stole the film’s cultural conversation.
“The Sopranos” was not an immediate success, but it was appreciated internally. “We were putting on a husky guy with a hairy back wearing a female drummer in the lead role,” says Jeff Bewkes, a former CEO of Time Warner. “No one else would do that.”
HBO got lucky with its early executives. He was the kind of guy who knew what a debenture was, but who had programming skills and knew enough to hire good people and leave them alone. HBO gave people the ability to run.
Often the only directive given to directors and producers was: Don’t do anything that you would see elsewhere. Winning prizes was more important than grades. Before HBO, elite actors didn’t come close to a TV show.
HBO staff members sometimes struggled to define what HBO was, but they knew what it wasn’t. A planned special of Howie Mandel has been killed.
HBO’s luck held for a while after signing to “The Sopranos”. Lena Dunham’s “Girls” and “Game of Thrones” were backstage. But the souk that is the modern television world was increasingly crowded.
HBO was no longer the headlong insurgent. He transmitted shows – “Mad Men”, “House of Cards”, “Orange Is the New Black”, “Breaking Bad”, “The Crown” – which became crucial hits for Netflix and other cable services. and streaming.
Oral history is a strange form. It gives you a jerky series of micro impressions, as if you are looking through the compound eyes of a fly. George Plimpton, who helped edit the best-selling oral biography “Edie”, was a fan. He liked “the reader, rather than the publisher, to be a jury.”
Elizabeth Hardwick hated form. She thought the oral histories were full of irresponsible drive-thru shootings. The result, she wrote, was that “you are what people say about you”.
I am more and more a fan of the genre. I have a special affection for “Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011” by Lizzy Goodman, and I await the oral histories of Chez Panisse, Balthazar, Death and Company (the bar ), n +1, Anna Wintour’s tenure at Vogue, Monster Energy Drinks, directing of “Dusty in Memphis” and the Styles section of this journal.
Miller is a good interviewer, but a nerdy writer. Its interstitial material is assaulted by phrases like “tons of ambition” and words like “ginormous”. These really bothered me at first. But this book is so vast that in the weary end, those touches of cold margarine slapping my face were the only things that kept me awake.
There are a lot of winning moments in “Tinderbox”. But going through its nearly a thousand pages, I often felt empty and exhausted, like it was 4 a.m. on the third night of one of those endurance contests and I had to keep my hand on the van.
HBO has retained much of its magic. “Succession”: what a treat. The sound of this bumper – the static, the chorus – remains Pavlovian in its promise. But our overly amused eyes have more options, and the chain’s rivals, Miller says, have long, sharp knives.