Most of the people coming to Geek Snack are from the United States, and you may not be familiar with how popular culture looks like in Central European countries. To some growing up in the 90s, stealing HBO through cable was their initiation into box office cinema and high-quality series. My father always used to say that we’re not stealing, it’s accidentally coming through the cables, we’re lucky people, living near these brown bears rummaging in the dumpster on the alleyway. At least, our relationship with nature was better than most people’s in urban areas. So HBO wasn’t really recommended for me, being about 7 in 1998 when I first found HBO in our TV channels. I was lucky to have the English Cartoon Network and Fox kids growing up and HBO added greatly to my childhood and in hindsight, to my development.
While spending my childhood learning English from cartoons, HBO was introducing me to box office movies and series like nothing I had ever seen. Young and Restless was the height of TV series at the time, so you can imagine the level of quality channels had back then. The channels we normally had access to had a huge delay when it came to box office – showing movies after three years or so, they had superficial shows, a lot of bad reality TV, corporate manipulation, unethical media and a bland selection of actual international cinema. We did get the gems eventually, but commercials were bad – and they still are. HBO was an expensive service many couldn’t afford and stealing cable was easy and rarely had any negative consequences, so people didn’t mind having it, especially kids. We all managed to get our hands on HBO somehow, and as the rebellious kids we used to be, loved it. Besides helping us learn English as a second, third or even fourth language, the channel helped tweens and teens get a taste for international cinema. National cinema and series were at their height in the 90s, but young people wanted to see more of the world outside their countries – and we couldn’t really do that without HBO.
At the end of the 90s and throughout the early 2000s, Central Europe kept an eye on HBO, having only minimal access compared to what it offered to someone living in America or Canada for example. Slowly, however, HBO developed and brought these countries up to speed with their entertainment. Nowadays, the network has a lot of good content available, but it’s not nearly as appreciated as it was in those years. Having HBO paid for or otherwise, was a big thing to many people and it shaped development that later came to help communities evolve and grow. It’s a jungle out there, and popular culture plays a big role in history, whether we like it or not. HBO might be a part of how countries like Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Poland evolved alongside the world, but there were, of course, many other factors involved.
“It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” was the slogan the network used back then, and I still think it’s the best slogan since. There wasn’t much of a selection of programs back then, but it was no doubt better than what Hallmark had at the time. Hallmark was more of a source of cheesiness and it offered cinematic creations that were difficult to understand for kids, while HBO brought modernity and box office into the spotlight of Central European pop culture, meaning gore, fright, erotica and all that juicy jazz teens and tweens always want to see. Since then, the network was our only source of good international cinema, that is until cheap internet came around. What you might not know about most Central European countries is that corruption is their main problem, and has always been one of their biggest problems, and that factors into how citizens consume media. Piracy is something natural in these countries, but it has subsided considerably thanks to foreign services designed for cable cutters. Pirate Bay and private torrent services used to be the bomb, and in some areas, they still are. Netflix has expanded its service to more countries at CES 2016, which will no doubt impact piracy in these countries sooner or later.
HBO was a way out of torrenting, and it was a pretty comfortable choice, seeing as there weren’t any advertisements served to us at the time. The network was bundled with others if you wanted to get a paid channel, but it was expensive. While it wouldn’t seem expensive to most of the people reading this, the countries we’re speaking of have minimum wages of less than $200 a month, even still. That number used to be much lower in the 90s and early 00s, and people could not afford luxuries like paid HBO. But wow, are we thankful for having the option of stealing cable at hand.
Growing up with Six Feet Under, Oz, The Chris Rock Show, The Sopranos, Da Ali G Show, Deadwood, Entourage, Rome, The Wire, Carnivale, True Blood, Spartacus, Bored to Death, Curb your enthusiasm and Perversions of Science was interesting, to say the least. Obviously, our parents were not aware of what type of programming HBO really had in the evenings, and they didn’t really care. Most of our parents thought that exposure to more mature cinema was a good thing that taught us a thing or two about making it on our own. In a country where corruption takes the place of democracy and equality, the modern societies we saw on HBO and the modern takes on ancient societies helped us, as children, better see the world we lived in – and many moved out of these countries as soon as they turned 18. Others stayed and tried changing things, getting at least some of their inspiration from their childhood HBO experiences.
Another very big part that HBO played in these countries meant that it could introduce entire generations to good music. Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead, Janet Jackson, U2, Carlos Santana, New kids on the block and many more. The concerts that we could see broadcast on the channel brought delight to many who did not like to listen to advertisement-filled radio or to the crappy music channels that we had access to. Learning about Metallica through HBO is a unique experience, and getting a chance to enjoy music without having to ask someone to rip a CD for you was priceless at the time. We grew a lot since those times, but HBO’s role is undeniable when it comes to Central European pop culture. With internet becoming cheaper and more readily available, we turned towards the online and found our way through VPN services to get access to international programs, movies, series, animations, music and talk shows.
HBO is no longer what it used to be. We grew up with an HBO that howled at the moon, not one that sparkled in it. The network still has a variety of media up for grabs and it has a lot to offer, but I remember HBO as the only channel I wanted to watch: it had no ads, there were always good movies, series, talk shows and concerts and I wasn’t supposed to watch it. Those three reasons were good enough for me, but only now do I realize how much of an impact all the content I accessed through HBO truly had on my life. I attribute my love for cinema and video to HBO, I hope they don’t mind I wasn’t paying for any of it. I still savor their originals, but I don’t watch the channel anymore – it’s still too expensive to add to my already high bills and stealing cable no longer sits right with me.
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