Since its inception, HBO has had a love-hate relationship with sex

This month marks the 50th anniversary of HBO, which launched on November 8, 1972. In our “HBO at 50 Years” retrospective, Primetimer follows the evolution of cableman from fledgling network to high-profile programmer and magnet for rewards.

There were many great days for sex and nudity on HBO, but the first — and for many longtime subscribers still the greatest — came in the first half of the 1980s. At the time, producers independents mass-produced cheap slasher films and teen sex comedies, and for households without one of those expensive VCR contraptions, premium cable channels were the best way to view adult material from the comfort of his own house. Teens in the 1980s would surreptitiously watch the monthly HBO guide when it arrived in the mail, mentally noting what to watch late at night when the adults were asleep.

But by the end of the decade, HBO began adding more original programming and courting industry prestige. The sexiest films began to be unloaded on its sister channel Cinemax… colloquially nicknamed “Skinemax”. HBO, for a while at least, declared itself too sophisticated for smut.

HBO’s history, from 1972 to the present, has more or less followed this cycle: pushing the boundaries of what people were used to seeing on television in terms of erotica, then backing off somewhat sheepishly. To some extent, HBO programmers have followed societal trends. At a time when moralists, religious leaders and concerned parents were sounding the alarm about what children were watching – as in the second half of the 1980s, after President Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election – big media companies played it safe.

But it’s also true that “class” has always been an integral part of the HBO brand, and the people running the company never wanted anyone to assume they were peddling foolishness. Their content may sometimes be rated R, but it will never cross the X line. HBO’s original business model involved asking people who already paid for cable TV (itself a bit of a hard sell at first) to pay a little more for a channel with uncut, commercial-free movies plus access to comedy specials, concerts, sporting events and live theater recordings. The proto-HBO basically presented itself to potential customers as a more exciting PBS.

Nonetheless, for long stretches, one of the channel’s main selling points – openly acknowledged or not – was that its library of movies and TV shows offered something that subscribers could never get on the networks. diffusion. Even during HBO’s first wave of original scripted series in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the basic idea behind shows like 1st & Ten and Dream was that they were like the viewers they were used to, only with a few topless women and swearing per episode.

Gradually, the channel’s approach to scripted programming evolved; and by the time the “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO” era came around the turn of the millennium, mature content was less gratuitous and better integrated into series like The Larry Sanders Show, ounces, sex and the city and The Sopranos, all of which have taken legitimately new approaches to TV storytelling. These shows and others from the HBO lineup of the late 90s and early 2000s reflected real life, sometimes in its rawest, steamiest form. There was nothing lustful or exploitative about them.

For mockery and exploiters, subscribers at the time had to tune in to unscripted programming. The next big pinnacle of sexually explicit content on HBO spans this era, when three docuseries – real sex, Taxi Confessionsand Cathouse – were all in production. These shows blurred what had previously been fairly rigid boundaries between the simple titillating and the quasi-pornographic. They all featured candid discussions of sex acts and sometimes even quite revealing depictions of them, with careful camera angles and judicious blurring to keep the content from becoming actual porn.

When HBO Go (now replaced by HBO Max) launched in 2010, these sexy reality shows could be found, alongside some of the very low-budget softcore movies Cinemax was showing after midnight at the time. However, they are no longer available to stream; and neither HBO nor Cinemax broadcast anything like Pornucopia Where Prostitutes in focus these days. For whatever reason – changing company values ​​or simply changing times – some of the oldest and most popular HBO Originals have gone down the memory hole.

That’s not to say HBO in the 2020s is completely chaste. Following the example of The Sopranos and so on, the service has continued for the past decade-plus to produce mature dramas and comedies laced with nudity and sex. (He’s even been criticized at times for overdoing it with the likes of game of thrones and Euphoriawho have found ways to slip a bit of bare skin into scenes where it may not be strictly vital to the plot.) And you can’t talk about HBO history with sexually candid and not to mention shows like Girls and The devilwho have been incredibly honest about human sexuality in a way that would surprise even those who surreptitiously stayed up late to watch Private lessons and screw balls in the early 80’s.

Still, something has been lost from HBO in recent years. Call it “obscenity for obscenity’s sake.” Certainly, there is no shortage of actual X-rated content available on the internet for anyone who wants it. But throughout its history, even if it’s been reluctant to make the unsavory a priority, HBO has generally provided a home and even a context for the sex graphic. Programming the sexy stuff alongside groundbreaking comedy specials and award-winning dramas has been a way of asserting its greater social value. (This approach has clearly had an influence on Netflix too, which, in trying to offer something for everyone, has made sure to import racy foreign TV and support raunchy documentaries.)

The good news is, if the past is any guide, it’s only a matter of time before the pendulum swings and HBO starts getting a little dirty again. In the meantime, if anyone who works at HBO Max wanted to sneak a quiet real sex or a range of 80s Canuxploitation films on the service would be awesome. We promise not to tell our parents.