When one thinks of “public service,” HBO is not typically the media entity that comes to mind. However, in examining HBO’s forty-year history, one notices an extensive list of socially conscious, politically engaged, and even outright public service programs. Over the years, HBO has brought a great deal of thoughtful (and sometimes controversial) cultural programming into American households. This group of films explores topics such as poverty, AIDS, women’s rights, and global injustice, often fiercely critiquing systems of inequality and oppression. Sometimes these programs even provide potential solutions and avenues of hope for some of today’s most important social problems. For example, the documentary Pandemic: Facing AIDS and the romantic comedy The Girl in the Café come in two very different forms but are clearly meant to be direct interventions in efforts to fight AIDS and global poverty. Importantly, these two HBO films are also each just one part of much larger multimedia campaigns by organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and The ONE Campaign. With an eye toward both current and historical HBO practices, this chapter analyzes a variety of HBO programs and programming forms that act as media interventions. While HBO original series such as The Sopranos or The Wire have been covered exhaustively elsewhere, this chapter examines a group of afterschool specials, public service documentaries, and lesser-known fiction films that have been an important, but often ignored, part of HBO’s history. These programs have diverse agendas and formats, but what holds them together is their aim to make substantive cultural and political interventions, and the fact that they all found a home on HBO.
The chapter available for download here is the post-print version.
Pepper, Shayne, "Public Service Entertainment: HBO's Interventions in Popular Culture" (2012). Communication, Media and Theatre Faculty Publications. 2.