A FEW YEARS back, HBO took a chance on a young heavyweight fighter, signing a multimillion-dollar deal to telecast his fights. That was Mike Tyson. It paid off in millions of new subscribers.
Earlier, in 1979, just a few years after HBO came on the air, itook a chance on a young comedian, giving him a special. That was Billy Crystal, who has gone on to produce several specials for the premium cable network, including last season's highly regarded "Midnight Train to Moscow."
Unlike Tyson, who has forsaken HBO for what he sees as the more lucrative world of pay-per-view, Crystal, who has become a pretty big movie star, as the current "City Slickers" attests, is sticking with the channel that gave him a chance way back when.
He's producing a series for HBO, "Channels," which stars Elliot Gould as a psychiatrist and Michael McKean as his patient. Its six episodes will debut on Oct. 14.
"I wrote what will end up becoming the first episode on the air about 13, 14 years ago," Crystal said in a press
conference here. "It wasn't quite ready to be shown anyplace."
Crystal brought the old script out of storage while talking to HBO about some television possibilities following the success of the Moscow comedy special.
"With my, I think, wonderful relationship with HBO, I thought that this was the place to do the show. So I said, 'Why don't you take a look at this. I think it could be really bold, and it shouldn't be any place but HBO. I don't want it any place but HBO.' In fact, if it wasn't made here, I doubt I would have pursued it any place else.
"HBO has always believed in me and trusted me. I'm not here to do a commercial, but they've always made me feel great. And when people show confidence in me, my work gets better. It just relaxes me.
"They trust us, we're making a really wonderful, unusual show, and it couldn't be any place but on this network. We didn't want this show to be interrupted by commercials, and we wanted to be able to do the subject matter and language that we wanted to talk in, the ideas to be provocative and give the person at home who's paying the money a real adult show. And that's what we're doing."
Though Crystal will not appear on the show -- which uses the sessions with the psychiatrist as an arena to explore the patient's life -- he has been very involved in the writing and production.
Having a talent like Crystal aboard is all the more important for a premium channel like HBO that can no longer count on commercial-free, uncut movies to attract subscribers willing to shell out a monthly fee for their service.
Michael Fuchs, HBO's chairman, noted that HBO ratings have remained fairly steady in the 18.5 million homes that subscribe to the service during a time of increasing fragmentation of the audience among the many TV channels and services available.
"In the heyday of fragmentation, we have stayed stable and up a little bit," Fuchs said. "Some of this has been accomplished by scheduling tactics on our part, and by original programming, which compensates for the declining theatrical scores, which are down."
Fuchs said the ratings for HBO's premieres of theatrical releases is down by 23 percent since 1986.
"Obviously that's a product of home video and the spread of movies on television," he said.
"Original programming this year, so far, has out-performed the -- theatrical movies on a premiere basis by a shade," Fuchs noted. "This is the first time that has ever happened."
That means that HBO movies like recent offerings on Josephine Baker and Jim Brady are getting more HBO viewers than big Hollywood releases. But a very important part of that mix has been HBO's two original series -- "Dream On" and "Tales From the Crypt" -- which have also been heavily watched in HBO homes. Clearly Fuchs hopes that "Sessions" will give people one more reason to subscribe to HBO and, perhaps as importantly, not to leave once they have signed on.
Fuchs noted that the growth of non-pay basic cable -- previously the industry's rising star -- has leveled off as everyone scrambles for viewers.
"There's a little bit of an overload," Fuchs said of the current plethora of cable, over-the-air and other offerings. "And we're looking into the teeth of what everybody's been talking about, a 100-channel environment."
HBO has a few tactics for fighting in that world, including an experimental plan called multi-plexing that would offer HBO subscribers two or three different channels that would run the same movies and programs but at different times.
But clearly, having someone like Billy Crystal making a series for you helps to differentiate you from the crowd.
All the cable channels -- pay and basic -- are leaning more and more heavily on their original programming. But along with the pluses of original programming comes the major minus that plagues the big three networks -- expense. It's cheaper to buy a big Hollywood movie that takes up two hours of air time than to produce an episode of a series that takes up only a half hour.
"And movies probably repeat a little bit better," Fuchs said. "They're a little bit more durable because you're looking at $20 million worth of production."
Billy Crystal might not be Mike Tyson, but in a crowded television environment, facing a recessionary economy, Fuchs is hoping that a series produced by this talented comedian might help you decide to subscribe to HBO, or, if you already have it, to keep it.