Begun in 1972, HBO (or Home Box Office) has done more to change television in the last 15 years or so than any other influence. Home to wildly popular shows like Game of Thrones, the Sopranos, and Sex in the City, HBO has demonstrated the amazingly powerful, popular, and lucrative benefits to producing shows that are more than your average dime-a-dozen fares on cable networks.
Known for their high production value and deep storytelling, classic HBO shows have drawn record audiences, forcing other TV producers to take notice and adapt to these new standards being set in quality programming. One only has to look at AMC, home to Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead, to see that other networks have taken notice of HBO’s success.
As the first pay television service in the United States, for better or worse, HBO’s success has arguably changed the way that television is consumed today. Paid subscriptions to the channel, online access to HBO GO, and On-Demand services are all popular with HBO’s clientèle, all of which have now become common place staples of the television landscape.
Based on viewership, we will count down the 10 most popular shows that have made HBO the success that it is. This will not include one time specials or mini series (sorry Band of Brothers) – only HBO’s full series. Most of these shows are based in the last 10 years, this is not only because HBO itself has become more popular in this time. But also, more recent shows have an advantage over their older predecessors, as these viewership ratings count all platforms (online, On-Demand, DVR, and live), many of which were not available as few as six or seven years ago.
Each of these shows, whether romantic, comedy, adventure, action, or fantasy are all the most popular shows to have been broadcasted on HBO, and as such, each has left their mark on the history of popular culture so prevalent in today’s commercial world.
10: The Newsroom (7.1 Million Viewers)
After two seasons, The Newsroom has garnered critical acclaim, pulling in six awards and two Golden Globe nominations, including Best Actor. Begun in 2012, this show examines the behind the scenes life of a fictional newscast that covers events pulled directly from real news of the recent past.
In its first season, The Newsroom was able to hit its current peak of 7.1 million viewers; although this took a hit in Season Two, the show looks to rebound in its upcoming third and final season which begins this Fall. With an ensemble cast lead by Jeff Daniels, it would not be a surprise if this show was able to move ahead on this list and capture a spot higher than its current tenth.
9: Rome (7.3 Million Viewers)
One of the most popular historical dramas of all time, perhaps barring Band of Brothers, Rome brought to life the tumultuous transition between Rome’s Republican and Imperial eras. Only airing for two seasons, the first in 2005 and the second in 2007, Rome was the collaborative effort of three major networks: HBO, BBC, and Rai Fiction.
Rome was popular not only because of its violence, but because of its basis in true historical events, as actual historical figures brought to life the Eternal City at its peak. Since Rome’s cancellation, a renewed interest has been born in this show’s formula, with shows like Spartacus and even Game of Thrones, which although not at all historical, carrying on the tradition of extreme violence, graphic sexual scenes, and political intrigue to amazing ratings success.
8: Deadwood (7.3 Million Viewers)
Another historical drama, Deadwood took place in the Old West and starred Timothy Olyphant as well as a large ensemble cast. Lasting three seasons from 2004 to 2006, Deadwood pulled in its 7.3 million viewers by creating a mixture of historical fiction and fact into an engaging plot centred around the town of Deadwood, South Dakota in the 1870’s.
Winning eight Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe many fans have bemoaned its early cancellation. Even a hope of two TV movies to conclude this show have now seemed all but completely dead in the water. Nevertheless, during its run Deadwood was able to draw in enough viewers to warrant 8th spot on this list.
7: Entourage (8.3 Million Viewers)
With characters like Vince, E. , Johnny Drama, Turtle, and Ari Gold, how could Entourage not be on this list? A veritable cult for people of a certain age, Entourage followed the life of A-list actor Vince and his friends trying to make it big in LA.
Based loosely on Mark Wahlberg’s own climb to fame (he also served as an executive producer on the show), Entourage lasted 8 seasons, with its peak coming in 2009. Luckily for fans, despite the show being over for the last three years, the Entourage Movie began filming this February and should be in a theatre near you next summer.
6: Hung (9.3 Million Viewers)
Hung exemplified the liberating space that HBO became for many shows. Following the life of a high school teacher who has his finances devastated by a house fire, the main character, Ray, begins a life of prostitution to make ends meet.
This kind of plot was just not possible on basic cable. Lasting three seasons between 2009 and 2011, Hung peaked with 9.3 million viewers during its first season.
5: Sex And The City (10.3 Million Viewers)
Perhaps one of HBO’s most well known shows, Sex and the City not only lasted six seasons (1998-2004), but it also spawned two feature movies in 2008 and 2010, as well as a prequel series called the Carrie Diaries.
Centred on the love lives of four middle aged women living in New York, Sex and the City became a lightning rod for both acclaim and criticism. Some felt that Sex and the City glamorized sex without illustrating its potential drawbacks if not performed safely. Others, probably the large majority, remember this show as a fun, well-written sitcom which garnered a loyal following and 50 Emmy nominations (of which it won seven).
4: Boardwalk Empire (10.7 Million Viewers)
Produced by Martin Scorsese and headed by Steve Buscemi, this crime, period piece set in prohibition era Atlantic City had success written all over it well before it began. With Season 5 on its way, Boardwalk Empire is one of a few shows on this list still ongoing; although its peak viewership was hit in its first year in 2010.
Like HBO shows before it, Boardwalk has faired well at award shows with numerous nominations and a win in 2011 for Best Television Series – Drama. Although it appears the show’s end may be coming soon, there is still time to appreciate all the gritty gangster violence and intrigue that Boardwalk Empire does so well.
3: True Blood (13 Million Viewers)
Showing what a vampire show can truly be, True Blood takes place in Louisiana in a world where vampires have newly revealed their existence to the world. Touching on themes of minority rights, drug addictions, homosexuality, and identity, True Blood is not just Twilight in a more violent package.
Returning for its seventh, and final, season, True Blood peaked at 13 million viewers in 2010.
2: The Sopranos (18.2 Million Viewers)
For many, The Sopranos is synonymous with HBO as it has been its undisputed ratings juggernaut since the early 2000’s. Following the life of Italian-American mobster Tony Soprano, The Sopranos delighted audiences for six seasons.
Although it was marred by a controversial and often maligned series finale, The Sopranos is still considered one of the greatest television series of all time, and with two Peabody Awards, twenty-one Emmy Awards, and five Golden Globes, it certainly has the trophies to back up that claim.
1: Game of Thrones (18.4 Million Viewers)
It has only been in recent weeks that this cultural phenomena has been able to unseat the former king of HBO ratings, The Sopranos. Although Soprano’s fans will undoubtedly call foul as it did not have the aid of DVR, HBO GO, or On-Demand options when it reached 18.2 million viewers in 2002, the point still stands that Game of Thrones is the current ratings powerhouse for HBO.
Based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, Game of Thrones is violent, ruthless, surprising, and sexually explicit in its depiction of the fantasy world of Westeros and Essos. Currently in its Fourth Season, with Seasons Five and Six, green-lighted, this cultural juggernaut doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon.