Home Box Office, Inc.

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Home Box Office, Inc.

1100 Avenue of the Americas
New York, New York 10036
Telephone: (212) 512-1000
Fax: (212) 512-1000
Web site: www.hbo.com



Founded in 1972, Home Box Office (HBO) was the oldest and largest premium pay television channel in the United States. Unlike network television and most other cable channels, which raised revenue by selling advertising spots during programming, HBO relied exclusively on subscribers' monthly fees to generate income. As consumers' entertainment choices multiplied dramatically over the years, HBO strove to construct a distinctive niche for itself and to stand out amid competitors, which included other television channels, movies, home video rentals, and the Internet.

In 1996 HBO launched an innovative $60 million television advertising campaign in an effort to draw attention to itself and to strengthen its brand recognition. The spots, conceived by ad agency BBDO New York, sought to reflect the spirit and the programming of HBO. Instead of previewing upcoming events or providing a traditional "tune-in" message, the "It's Not T.V. It's HBO" campaign attempted to present the viewer with a sample of HBO's programming. The five spots making up the campaign deliberately strove to be humorous, creative, and original.

According to the company, based on surveys prior to and following the launch of the campaign, "It's Not T.V. It's HBO" achieved its goal of increasing the network's brand image and awareness among consumers. Further, the campaign earned praise from the media and advertising industries. "Chimps," the first commercial of the campaign, was awarded the first ever commercial Emmy. In 1997 the "Chimps" spot received a Gold Clio Award in the Television/Cinema category. As the campaign continued, its focus shifted, and the slogan evolved into the network's mantra, setting HBO apart not only from other pay television channels but also from all TV networks. The Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing (CTAM) named the campaign its Hall of Fame winner in 2003.


In its early days HBO primarily showed Hollywood movies and high-profile sporting events such as boxing. In the mid-1980s, however, HBO began to emphasize original productions, which included critically acclaimed made-for-HBO movies such as And the Band Played On and From the Earth to the Moon, comedy shows such as The Larry Sanders Show, and dramatic series such as Oz. The shift toward original programming was fueled in part by the arrival of the VCR, which enabled viewers to rent at their convenience the same Hollywood movies broadcast by HBO. By the mid-1990s the network also offered original documentary films, animation specials, children's and family programming, extensive sporting events and shows, and coverage of contemporary music concerts. At the time of the "It's Not T.V. It's HBO" campaign, 30 percent of HBO's programming was original. By 1997 HBO reached roughly 23 million subscribers, approximately one-fourth of the viewing public. That same year it also won 19 Emmy Awards for its original films and shows, the most ever garnered by a cable television channel.

HBO's programming was recognized for being innovative and daring. The New York Times lauded the channel's "willingness to take a chance on unconventional programming and to allow writers and directors to operate with minimal interference." HBO produced movies dealing with such issues as abortion, AIDS, and racism. As a pay television channel independent of advertisers' pressures and demands, HBO had the flexibility for controversial and bold programming. "We're not selling ads," Jeffrey Bewkes, the company's CEO, told BusinessWeek. "We're not selling our audience to advertisers. We're selling our programming service to you." HBO's mandate, and the key to its survival and profitability, was to continue to expand its subscriber base.

Like the cable industry as a whole, HBO was subject to "churning," the phenomenon of tremendous fluctuations among subscribers. Each month a huge number of viewers disconnected their HBO service for a variety of reasons. Some signed up for a specific event, such as a high-profile tennis tournament, and then disconnected the next month. Others subscribed to HBO only during the winter months, when they knew they would spend more time indoors, and canceled the service in the spring and summer. Some lost their jobs or suffered other financial hardships, and some disconnected when they moved. Despite the constant drain of viewers, however, an even greater percentage signed up either as first-time or repeat subscribers.

There were other factors that made it challenging for HBO to attract and retain subscribers. Potential customers had a wide array of entertainment choices. Network and cable television, premium cable channels like HBO, Showtime, and the Disney Channel, and video rentals, movie theaters, and even chat rooms on the Internet—all vied for the consumer's entertainment time and dollars. It was in this competitive situation that HBO developed the "It's Not T.V. It's HBO" campaign. The goal was not only to distinguish HBO from its competitors but also to reflect the originality of much of HBO's programming. The commercials, with their quirky humor, compelling plots, and high-tech execution, were intended to encapsulate the strengths of HBO and keep the channel prominent in the consumer's mind.


With its huge base of subscribers, HBO had a diverse viewing audience. For that reason the "It's Not T.V. It's HBO" campaign did not target a narrow demographic group. HBO hoped to reach all segments of the American consumer market from ages 18 to 49. The image ads conceived by BBDO were considered an ideal means to reach this broad-based target. Because the spots did not focus on one aspect of HBO's programming but instead tried to hone the overall image of the channel, the campaign could appeal to all viewers. "The campaign tries to convey that we are a total entertainment package—that there is something for everyone," said Chris Donlay, HBO's manager of corporate affairs.

"We were not looking for a market share or Nielsen ratings," said Nancy Parmet, HBO's vice president of marketing, who oversaw the "It's Not T.V. It's HBO" campaign. "We were looking to break through the clutter." USA Today acknowledged the competitive and multifaceted state of the entertainment industry when it declared that to thrive "HBO must remain top-of-mind with consumers."


In striving to establish a strong brand identity for HBO, the campaign had to differentiate the channel from its competitors. HBO's most direct competitors were other pay television channels. Although it was by far the most watched pay television station, HBO faced stiff competition from other cable channels. Networks such as Showtime and TNT followed HBO's lead in offering more original programming. "There was a time when HBO's programming was the only thing worth watching on cable, but that's not the case anymore," a television industry analyst told the New York Times.


Jane Goodall agreed to the "Chimps" commercial only when HBO and BBDO New York pledged to film wild chimpanzees, not captured, "entertainment," animals. Despite the fact that she only charged her normal speaking fee, Goodall was criticized for entering the commercial realm. She stated, however, that her goal was to help the plight of chimpanzees through the exposure of the commercial.

HBO's long-term success involved more than simply staying afloat in the premium channel television industry. The channel was also competing against different types of entertainment sources. HBO felt that it could not compare itself only to other TV channels. It had to get people's attention. In an era in which the average person could choose to watch a sitcom on network television, tune in to CNN on a basic cable package, rent a movie from a local video store, drive to a nearby theater to see the latest Hollywood film, or pay for HBO's movies and shows, the image ads were intended to equate HBO with entertainment. According to Parmet, "The ads needed to be cutting edge. We wanted to make the kinds of ads that people would talk about the next day at work."


HBO gave BBDO New York the project of creating a memorable campaign. After HBO briefed the ad agency on its specific needs and concerns, BBDO took over the creative aspects of the campaign. In a brainstorming session, Michael Patti, the vice chairman and executive creative director of BBDO, and Don Schneider, the agency's senior creative director, hit upon a striking concept. The two envisioned a commercial in which a parrot would recite famous movie lines because it saw into a neighboring apartment, where a television was tuned to HBO. The idea quickly evolved into the award-winning spot featuring lip-synching chimpanzees steeped in movie lingo.

The 1996 spot, titled "Chimps," featured renowned primatologist Jane Goodall and a group of wild chimpanzees in the Gombe preserve in Africa. Frame-by-frame animation made it appear as though the chimps were actually speaking famous lines from classic Hollywood movies. The premise of the spot was the powerful impact HBO exerted on its viewers. The commercial opened with a proud chimp uttering lines spoken by Marlon Brando in The Godfather: "He never could have outfoxed Santino. But I didn't know until this day that it was Barzini all along." Another chimp replied with lines from Forrest Gump: "Mama says that stupid is as stupid does." As a third chimp tossed a stick to the ground, he repeated a line from Network: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." A father chimp spoke Darth Vader's well-known line from Star Wars—"The force is with you, young Skywalker"—as he patted a small chimp on the head. After a group of chimps chanted, "Toga! Toga! Toga! Toga!…" from Animal House, the camera panned to a bewildered Goodall writing in her journal. Her voice-over said, "September 19: Their inexplicable behavior continues." A chimp then bellowed, "Yo, Adrian, I did it," a line from Rocky. The camera cut back to Goodall's cabin, where her television was tuned to HBO, and she continued, "Got to go now. Braveheart is on." A black screen followed with a graphic and the campaign's tagline, "It's Not T.V. It's HBO."

Producing the spot proved to be quite a challenge, however. The chimpanzees were filmed at their feeding sites in the Gombe preserve. Frame-by-frame animation was then used to create the illusion that the animals were reciting movie lines. Sherri Margulies, a film editor who worked on the spot, told Shoot that, while other commercials had used similar effects, "the elaborate attention to detail … on this spot [was] completely unique." All told, the special effects took approximately 20 to 30 hours per chimp, requiring the ad agency to work around the clock for a month.

In 1997 HBO followed "Chimps" with four new television spots, each intended to elevate the HBO brand. Using tongue-in-cheek humor, the spots attempted to convey the uniqueness of HBO's programming. In "Haircuts" the men of an idealized American small town sported bizarre, patterned haircuts. It turned out that Carl, the town barber, had become engrossed in HBO's programming as he cut his customers' hair, the result being freakish haircuts. In another spot, "Roach Motel," an enthusiastic pest exterminator was unable to rid a home of its roaches by using sprays or bombs. He succeeded only by luring the cockroaches into a roach "motel" with a neon sign that advertised "Free HBO." The campaign's ironic wit continued in a spot featuring a sadistic repairman who tormented an entire town by plugging in and unplugging their cable in the midst of a captivating HBO program. A final commercial, "Glee Club," related the tale of a disgruntled neighbor who gave the local barbershop quartet free HBO in the hope of distracting them from practicing at all hours.

In order to reach the maximum number of potential viewers, HBO aired the commercials during its own programming, on other cable channels, and, most notably, on network television. All five spots ran during prime-time network shows, including top-rated programs such as the 1997 World Series, Seinfeld, Chicago Hope, and ER. The network commercials were intended to reach both current HBO subscribers and those who had either never subscribed or had allowed their subscription to lapse. HBO hoped that the commercials would remind current subscribers of the quality and value of the channel's programming, while at the same time reaching millions of other viewers who had not signed up for HBO. "We wanted to inform nonsubscribers of what they are missing," said Parmet.

In 1998 the network continued the campaign with two new spots, including one that debuted during a Monday Night Football game. HBO also reported that the spots would be shown on as many as 20 other cable networks. Like the original spots, the new commercials relied on humor and high production values to assure that they would stand out. One spot, "Guardian Angel," showed a person hit by a falling piano when his guardian angel was distracted by a television in a store window. The mishap was explained by the campaign's tagline, "It's not T.V. It's HBO." The second spot starred actor George C. Scott serving as the general of an army of germs fighting for control of a television remote. The campaign's focus shifted in 1999 from the original brand strategy. Although its emphasis remained on the central theme, "It's Not T.V. It's HBO," the advertising spots became focused on marketing specific HBO programming.


HBO pronounced the "It's Not T.V. It's HBO" campaign an unequivocal success. In the company's estimation, the campaign achieved its primary goal of elevating the brand's image in the market. Extensive precampaign and postcam-paign surveys indicated that the commercials had made viewers more aware of the HBO brand. According to the December 8, 1997, edition of USA Today, HBO's membership increased from 21.1 million in 1996 to 22.7 million in 1997. But HBO stressed that it was difficult to correlate the number of subscribers with its high-profile ad campaign because of the variety of factors that influenced fluctuations in membership. For 25 years HBO had seen the number of its subscribers increase each year.

The media and the advertising industry responded positively to the spots. On December 9, 1996, USA Today heralded the campaign as one of the "rare knockouts" in advertising. Trade publications such as Adweek and Shoot extolled the technical wizardry of the commercials. "Certainly there is something to be gained for an entertainment provider merely by being entertaining," declared the November 4, 1996, Advertising Age. In September 1997 "Chimps" received the first ever Emmy Award for a commercial. It beat out other well-liked campaigns, such as those by Nike and Levi's, to be named the best commercial of the year. Also in 1997 the "Chimps" spot received a Gold Clio Award. The Clios were international advertising awards presented annually in recognition of creative excellence and innovation in advertising.

Viewers also responded well to the campaign. USA Today 's Ad Track, a poll measuring the popularity and effectiveness of national campaigns, revealed that consumers consistently liked the HBO spots, often ranking them among the 10 best commercials. According to the newspaper, "the spots were especially effective with consumers aged 18-24." Larry Gerbrandt, a senior analyst at Paul Kagan, told USA Today on December 8, 1997, that "the ads worked well for HBO. The name HBO is practically synonymous with pay TV."

Yet the campaign's positive impact on HBO's subscriber figures was less clear. Although 33 percent of respondents in the December 29, 1997, Ad Track survey declared that they liked the HBO campaign "a lot," only 20 percent thought that the campaign was "very effective." In a similar vein, Advertising Age criticized the campaign for not providing enough information about HBO's actual programming.

"Chimps" in particular generated a great deal of controversy. Many journalists were outraged that the basic premise of the spot was false. Goodall did not watch HBO; in fact, the pay channel was not available in the remote region of Africa where she lived. The spot drew more criticism when it was learned that the voice attributed to Goodall was not hers. HBO, however, felt the media were taking the commercial far too seriously, and the company itself was pleased with the results of its efforts.

In 1998 the campaign was expanded to include print, radio, and direct mail. As the campaign morphed from a branding strategy for the network into its operating mantra in 1999, the marketing also shifted to specific programming. According to network executives, the strategy evolved based on the success of two of its shows—The Sopranos and Sex and the City—as well as of original movies that the network was producing and sporting events that it aired. The new marketing effort resulted in HBO being named Cable Marketer of the Year in 2000 by Advertising Age. The original "It's Not T.V. It's HBO" campaign was named to the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing (CTAM) Hall of Fame in 2003, which, according to the organization, honored the "finest and most influential campaigns in the history of cable."


Applebaum, Simon. "Hall of Fame. (The 2003 CTAM Hall of Fame Winner Goes to HBO for Its 'It's Not TV. It's HBO′ Campaign)." Multichannel News, July 21, 2003.

Berger, Warren. "At 25, Excellence and Big Budgets for a Late Bloomer." New York Times, November 9, 1997.

Bernstein, Paula. "Branding Bolsters Expectations. (HBO at 30)." Variety, November 4, 2002.

Eberle, Ed. "Sherri Margulies: Editor Explains Assembling HBO's 'Chimps.'" Shoot, September 19, 1997.

Enrico, Dottie. "HBO Ads Tickle Primal Funny Bone." USA Today, January 13, 1997.

Friedman, Wane. "HBO Finds Humor in Roaches." USA Today, December 8, 1997.

――――――. "HBO; Original Programming Choices Drive Viral Marketing Strategies that Include Word-of-Mouth, Touring Caravans, Parties in Major Markets, and Massive Direct Marketing Campaigns for HBO." Advertising Age, November 27, 2000.

Garfield, Bob. "Chimps Are Champs at Ad Entertainment." Advertising Age, November 4, 1996.

Hogan, Monica. "HBO Makes Heavy Cable Buy for New Spots." Multichannel News, October 26, 1998.

Stevens, Elizabeth Lesly. "Call It Home Buzz Office." BusinessWeek, December 8, 1997, pp. 77-78.

Wells, Melanie. "The Good, The Bad, The Ugly of 1996." USA Today, December 9, 1996.

                                             Rebecca Stanfel

                                               Rayna Bailey