Home Box Office's tastemaker to millions of viewers

''The greatest show in television'' is the way Seth G. Abraham, one of America's top tastemakers, refers to his pay-TV organization, Home Box Office. With around 14 million subscribers, HBO can reach an audience of nearly 70 million viewers. Since Mr. Abraham was designated senior vice-president for programming operations and sports last year, he has played the role of a major tastemaker, because HBO choices tend to dominate the pay-TV market.

HBO subscribers, by the way, pay anywhere from $5 to $10 a month for the service, a fee that is split with the cable system. So for HBO each cable subscription has been described as a bit like an annuity: As long as there is no cancellation, the money pours in every month. Multiply 14 million by $5 a month and you've got a $70 million-a-month-minus-the-system's-share ''annuity.''

In an interview conducted in his sparse but somehow still sumptuous office in the headquarters of HBO's parent company, Time Inc. - just before he moved to HBO's reconstructed headquarters building at the corner of 42nd Street and Avenue of the Americas in New York City - Mr. Abraham quoted Barnum:

''When P. T. Barnum came out of retirement in the 1870s, he built a three-ring circus. 'Why?' a reporter asked. 'Nobody else even had two.' 'I don't want the biggest show on earth,' he said. 'I want the greatest show on earth.' That's how the expression was born. And I guess our philosophy is we'd like to provide our subscribers with the greatest show on television.''

Unlike the commercial over-the-air networks, Mr. Abrams says, his company has a 12-month season. He is happy that HBO doesn't have to compete for advertising dollars. ''The commercial networks are not in the entertainment business, they are in the commercial business - all they care about is how many eyes watch the commercials. It's the commercials around 'Dallas' where the networks make their money. We have a one-to-one relationship with our viewers - there's no Madison Avenue agency in the way. The concept of viewer network loyalty has broken down - the viewer now turns the dial constantly. If I were an advertiser, I would be thinking: Who's watching my commercial? Remote control devices allow the viewer to sit in his chair and zap away at the dial.''

Mr. Abraham admits that the growth of new HBO subscribers is down but attributes that to a slowdown of cabling in the major cities. But he insists that HBO is still growing, although at a slower rate. ''From the standpoint of usage of our service, it has been a rousing summer for us - the Olympics were very good to HBO. The other two commercial networks conceded the time to ABC, but we put first-run programs on. So HBO was the No. 2 network in HBO homes.''

Two major original programs air on HBO this month - ''Countdown to Looking Glass'' (Oct. 14, 18, 24 and 29, 8 p.m.) and ''The Guardian'' (Oct. 20, 25 and 29, 8 p.m.).

''Countdown'' is a fact-based melodrama on the order of ''The Day After'' and focuses on the start of a nuclear war originating in the Middle East. It utilizes Eric Sevareid and Nancy Dickerson, playing themselves, to give the dramatization more authenticity. For me, this use of real figures in reality-oriented drama sets a dangerous precedent - the line between fact and fiction become increasingly vague. Based upon a geopolitical scenario created by Dr. Lincoln Bloomfield of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the story is a shocker, a step-by-step move to the brink of disaster.

''The Guardian'' stars Lou Gossett Jr. and Martin Sheen in a timely drama about urban crime and vigilantism.

HBO has been criticized for showing films with too much violence and comedy routines with a great deal of obscenity. Is that planned?

''HBO does not play X-rated movies. If there is vulgarity in some of the ''Live In-Person'' performance shows, we schedule them very judiciously. We pay attention to what time it goes on, what's on before and after. We want people to know it is strong adult stuff.

''We play only selected R-rated movies at 8 o'clock, after making a determination of why it got the 'R.' If it's a hard 'R' because of violence and nudity, we'll play it later in the evening. If it's softer because of a couple of four-letter words, we may decide to play it earlier. But in the cradle of 4 to 8 p.m., we don't play any R-rated movies at all.''

Will the popularity of video cassette recorders (VCRs) change HBO policy on the future?

''There's very little hard evidence about VCR usage patterns. People who are buying them are really active videophiles. They want the latest in video technology. And once they have it in their homes, there's a rush to use it. It's a bit reminiscent of the Cuisinart popularity - many have now fallen into disuse. We don't know what's going to happen in the future.

''As of this moment, our monthly schedule is roughly 65 percent theatrical movies, 35 percent original programming. If we see that VCR usage starts chewing up movies, we'll tilt toward more original programming and original HBO movies. But sports buffs will never be able to get the next big fight on cassette. They'll have to watch it on pay cable.''

HBO used to compete with the other pay-TV systems for movie exclusivity. That doesn't seem to be the case anymore - all services tend to show the same movies. Mr. Abraham explains that research shows that exclusivity is not a driving force for HBO subscribers. They don't care what their neighbor was denied. In fact, they may even like the idea of seeing what everybody else is seeing.

Any chance that HBO will start airing commercials a la network TV?

''No.Research shows us that twice the potential revenue would go out the door - with the people who would disconnect HBO.''

What is Abraham proudest of on HBO?

''The Premiere Films. It is a marvelous opportunity to pick projects that are meaningful, important, and entertaining on top of everything else ... things the commercial networks can't or won't do. All of us are very proud of 'Sakharov.' Our very first movie, 'The Terry Fox Story,' was important, too.'' (Another noteworthy Premiere Film is 'Gulag,'' starring Malcolm McDowell.)

Besides ''Countdown to Looking Glass'' and ''The Guardian,'' HBO has ''Reunion at Fairborough,'' ''The Park Is mine'' and ''Blackout'' in the works.

''I'm also proud of some of the original shows we've done - the first Robin Williams show, the first Bette Midler show. Of course, in the case of Buddy Hackett and Eddie Murphy we gave our viewers the chance to see these entertainers as they are and sometimes they went too far. But on the whole, I think if people want to see these talents uncensored at their creative best, they know they've got to have HBO.''

HBO has made some tentative steps into the documentary field with consumer specials and documentaries on such topics as homosexuality and capital punishment. Will there be more of these?

''Well, we are not going to be the documentary network. A lot of critics take potshots at HBO because we are not PBS. That's not what our viewers want us to be. Primarily they want us to be entertaining and innovative. But we want a broad portfolio, and documentaries will remain part of that if they are entertaining as well as informative.''

Abraham watches network television to find areas that are neglected there. ''Now, I think there is a real shortage of good sitcoms on commercial television. There has not been a funny hit since 'Mork and Mindy.' There's room there, and if we found a good sitcom, we'd probably move with it quickly. The networks are putting their emphasis on the mini-series, whereas their centerpiece used to be the sitcom.''

Abraham is proud that HBO has been able to sign major stars for its movies. ''We have bigger budgets than the networks usually, and we are able to draw on the screen pool as well as the TV pool of actors. So we can get Jacqueline Bisset for 'Forbidden' and Robert Duvall for 'Terry Fox' and Mary Tyler Moore for 'Finnegan Begin Again.'

What Abraham would like most to develop is a hit series with top scripts and top stars. ''We've got a few in development, and I would say that 1985 is the year to see if they pan out. We have a hit series in ''Fraggle Rock.' Now we'd love to have an adult series as good.''

Does Abraham consider HBO a tastemaker or a taste follower? Most commercial television executives make it very clear that they want to follow the public taste rather than lead it.

''Well, HBO has to be different than commercial network television. I've been here six years, and I'm enjoying this historical ride as I watch HBO change people's viewing habits. We are educating the American TV viewer to watch TV without commercials.

''An interesting byproduct of HBO may be the necessity for the networks to develop a less-intrusive way to present commercials. That would be a public service byproduct, wouldn't it?

''I like to think we can be tastemakers. We can expose talents and stories to American viewers that they haven't seen before. And do it in a nonexploitive way to help shape thinking. Surely 'Sakharov' did that.

''And there will be more. Lots more.''

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