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Nonfiction in Brief

February 21, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

INSIDE HBO The Billion Dollar War Between HBO, Hollywood, and the Home Video Revolution by George Mair (Dodd, Mead & Co.: $17.95)

Turning about face from his former role as chief public relations counsel for Home Box Office, George Mair spotlights machinations in Hollywood and power plays at Time-Life, HBO's owner. "Inside HBO" begins with a straightforward description of the company's early days but soon becomes lurid and suspenseful, detailing the flurry of hirings and firings at HBO since 1983. Mair excels at painting colorful profiles of the heroes and (mostly) villains at HBO, though sometimes his emphasis on personality prevents us from understanding the decision-making process at Time-Life. As a result, we're often left wondering why executives are scurrying in and out of the revolving door. Mair does offer some plausible theories of his own, however. HBO executives, he argues, consistently ignored news reports in the early 1980s which showed that cable viewers were becoming "bored and unhappy with" pay TV programming.

Mair's theories about the executives' motives are colored by a Populist perspective. Throughout the book, Mair defends the average TV viewer against what he sees as "the imperial princes" running American media corporations. He argues that HBO executives ignored public demand because they thought their jobs were secure. Equally plausible, however, is the notion that HBO executives simply didn't know how to increase viewer interest--good new movies were hard to come by and HBO's own attempts at movie-making largely flopped. While profuse with tacky phrases (he's fond of calling HBO "the Cash Cow That Almost Ate Hollywood") and military terms like torpedo and skyrocket , Mair's writing is spunky. "Inside HBO" is a captivating story about an under-recognized entertainment giant and a familiar business cycle, Time-Life's transition from a company guided by a visionary leader to a corporation managed by MBA's.

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