Michael Fuchs - Oral History
Interview Date: Thursday June 03, 1999
Interviewer: Joel Fleming
Interview location: New York City
Collection: Hauser Collection
FLEMING: My name is Joel Fleming and I'm speaking to you from Manhattan, New York City, specifically from the offices of Michael Fuchs, a true pioneer in the field of cable television. My mission is to interview Michael for the audio/visual library of The Cable Center in Denver, Colorado. The date is June 3, 1999. I have to say that if you didn't interview Michael Fuchs in the compilation of the history of cable, you'd only have a storefront with nothing in the windows. Michael was not only a pioneer, but also a remarkable innovator. In a recently published book, Distant Signals, by Tom Southwick, it says in reference to the early days of the first pay service, HBO, "A young attorney from the William Morris Talent Agency, Michael Fuchs, was hired to develop original programming at HBO." That was some hire, but before we get into all that, let's talk a little bit about the man. Michael, where were you born?
FUCHS: First, I should say, Joel, you were my favorite affiliate. I just want to go on record.
FLEMING: Thank you very much, Michael. I am touched.
FUCHS: I was born in the Bronx, in 1946, two blocks from Yankee Stadium.
FLEMING: And where did you grow up? In the Bronx?
FUCHS: We moved to Westchester County when I was five and a half.
FLEMING: And then you went on to college?
FLEMING: Which one?
FUCHS: Union College, in Schenectady.
FLEMING: Then to law school?
FLEMING: Where was that?
FUCHS: I went to Georgetown, but graduated from NYU law school.
FLEMING: And that's where you coached young Patrick Ewing on how to play basketball?
FUCHS: That's where I actually initiated the Georgetown basketball program.
FLEMING: Bless you.
FUCHS: In my spare time from law school.
FLEMING: What was your first job?
FUCHS: My first job, full time job, was as a lawyer doing corporate law in a law firm in New York.
FLEMING: And what was your first big job?
FUCHS: Well, I'd have to say my first big job was with HBO, if I understand what big means. You mean big ego job?
FLEMING: Yes. What was your first job in the entertainment business?
FUCHS: Well, I began to do some entertainment law at the first law firm that I was in, went to another firm that did entertainment law exclusively, and then went to William Morris, which was moving away from the law a little bit, but obviously was show business.
FLEMING: Negotiating contracts?
FUCHS: I did everything. I had a pretty good, varied background. I did a lot of negotiating and interestingly, when I was at William Morris, I did the first bunch of contracts with HBO. They had just started to shoot some stand-up comedians, a lot of whom were William Morris clients, so we negotiated deals with HBO that in all fairness were very imbalanced in our clients' direction. HBO was inexperienced. So when I finally came to HBO, in order to move forward and do further deals, because very often you sign a new artist and they say, "I'll take the same contract that David Brenner had." Well, what did David Brenner get? And those deals now from HBO's point of view, now that I was on the other side of the table, were a bit onerous for me, so I had to unwrap the original deals in a sense. Not renegotiate those deals, but change the precedent of what had gone on, because I realized that we were in a position to take advantage of HBO, which was why, I guess, HBO went looking for me.
FLEMING: Who did you represent at William Morris?
FUCHS: Well, of the early HBO people who did shows at HBO, I think Robert Klein may have been a client, David Brenner was a client, a few others. I don't remember; it was a long time ago.
FLEMING: One time you told me a story...
FUCHS: I'm sure it wasn't true.
FLEMING: ...about Marlon Brando tracking you down.
FUCHS: At the airport in East Hampton.
FLEMING: The story went, as I recall, you were with this crowd that had just landed in South Hampton, the crowded little airport.
FUCHS: Well, East Hampton. It was a very small airport. I had this phone relationship with Brando. We just always spoke to each other. He loved HBO and he used to call me to talk about everything and he called one day on a Friday afternoon when I had left for the Hamptons already and my office thought it was important enough so they called the airport. When we landed I get off the plane and the woman comes outside the building and if they announced something outside the building you could hear it all over the airport. And she says, "Is Michael FUCHS: here?" and I said, "Yes." And she says, "You have an urgent call from Marlon Brando. Call him right back." What I wanted to say to her was "What was that again? Can you repeat that louder?"
FLEMING: Why did you leave William Morris?
FUCHS: Again, similar to being a lawyer, you were in an organization – I was doing primarily business affairs. I was learning a lot but I was a support person. An agent would make a deal and you would go in and make sure the deal was tight and good and correct, and I was anxious to be, if you will, on the front lines a little bit more and HBO seemed like a promising, if not struggling situation, and there was something about it. I don't want to say that I was so prescient, because I'm obviously using after the fact knowledge, but there was something about HBO that really caught my fancy, that maybe there was an opportunity here to define what it would be.
FLEMING: Who was running HBO at the time?
FUCHS: Jerry Levin was there. Nick Nicholas had just come in that June with Austin Furst. So the three of them were the three top people and I started interviewing in August, so they had Austin and Nick, who really were instrumental in turning the company around. '76 was a rocky year. Thereafter, we did pretty well. So I came in a month or two after what I've always considered was the birth of the modern HBO, which was that summer in 1976.
FLEMING: In the book I referred to, you told Austin Furst, then head of HBO programming who was looking for somebody, "I hear you're looking for some talented people. Why don't you save time and money and just hire me." Is that correct?
FUCHS: That is accurate. I said, "I hear you're making a search. Why don't I save you some time and money."
FLEMING: Has this lack of self-confidence always been a problem with you, Michael?
FUCHS: Well, you know those things are complicated, Joel, but as it turned out, and I was just saying this to Austin on the phone... I had some great times with Austin; he was a great, wild, crazy guy, but he loved aggressive young operatives, you know. And I really think by saying that, I almost clinched the job because I remember him on the other side of the phone saying, he used to have an expression, oh God, I can't remember it. He just said something like, I love that, or some... What I learned later when I worked for him, when he said that, he was in love. So he heard that and that's clearly what he wanted and I came to HBO and I can't say I was in love with all the jobs that I had previous to that, but I really felt like I was a duck taking to water or something. I felt immediately in rhythm and I had a vision, at least for what I was doing and I had a little bit of a bigger vision in the back of my head, as to what I thought this company could be. Of course I was focusing on content at the time because that's really what the consumer was – we spent a lot of time doing other things, from transponders to affiliate relations, etc, etc, but eventually the product was going to be what the consumer saw and I had a very firm vision of what I thought that could be and should be.
FLEMING: Just stepping back in time – there's an oft seen picture of a famous politician, Ed Muskie, who cried during the New Hampshire presidential primary because of an insult to his wife. I understand you were his advance man at the time. Is that correct?
FUCHS: Well, my footnote in history was that Saturday morning when he cried on the steps of the Manchester Union, because they had been in the newspaper insulting Jane, it took a lot to get permission to do that event, get it staged, get cooperation from the Manchester Union. I was the person who did that. It took me ten days and I was quite proud that we would be able to have Muskie answer on the steps of the newspaper. Little did I realize at that time that it was going to destroy his political campaign. Now today, he was a terrific guy, Muskie, and today if he had cried, he would have been right in fashion with what politicians are doing, but back in 1972 it didn't go over so well.
FLEMING: A sensitive man who let his emotions just flow. Did you like working in politics?
FUCHS: I did. I don't do as much as I used to, obviously. I'm a little less passionate about American politics, but it was fun to advance in those days. It was really a rock'em sock'em side of it.
FLEMING: When you went to HBO, let's call it "back in the old days"...
FUCHS: You mean the good old days.
FLEMING: The good old days, was there a personality to the company?
FUCHS: Well, if there was a personality to the company, you would have to say it was a Time, Inc. personality, because a lot of the personnel in the company, I don't mean recycled people, but had come from different divisions. Nick came from Manhattan Cable; Austin came from CTI, which was a Time venture at one point, and many of the other people. I think Jim Heyworth had been somewhere in Time, Inc. There was a fellow there by the name of Bruce Sawyer. So, it was a sort of eclectic construct of different Time, Inc. people. Tony Cox and I started the same week. Tony had been in the magazine division. So that was the personality, if you will, at HBO at the time.
FLEMING: Conservative, based on those fellow's names you mentioned, except for Tony.
FUCHS: Yes, I guess conservative, but I'll tell you, it became, and I would say I brought a little bit of that to the company, it became a pretty irreverent, fun loving, less than conservative place pretty quickly.
FLEMING: This was what you might call at that time, the experimental pay TV business, HBO. You had movies without censorship, movies and events without commercials, truly revolutionary, and of course Angie Dickinson in Big, Bad Mama, polka parties and boxing matches. I mean, that was the heart and soul. As I recall, the first semi-naked woman I saw on my TV set was Angie Dickinson.
FUCHS: The first semi-naked woman you probably saw anywhere outside of your marital situation.
FLEMING: That's right, absolutely. I don't know what to say to that Michael. You two-upped me on that one. But that was the HBO before you really got there and what was your job when you got there?
FUCHS: Well, really HBO was sporadically doing what was called special programs, you know, occasionally. I think the Pennsylvania Polka Festival was the first one they did, but they had done some and really, I think Austin decided, or it was decided, that number one, the movie companies had far too much leverage over HBO because it was really almost our only source of product and that we should try to get a little independence from them and try to manufacture our own programming and also add some different kinds of things and personality. We did have some flexibility on the content, so we could do things that you couldn't do on broadcast television, which became a bit of a mantra at the company, things you couldn't do on broadcast television. You mention Angie Dickinson. Initially, people thought of pay TV, one of the things was, oh, we can see nudity and we can hear obscene language, or profane language, and yes, we took advantage of some of that. I'd like to think we did it in a classy way very often, but very quickly I didn't want that to be the only calling card for the network because I thought that was a very short term approach. We've seen in the opening of any of these new media, whether it's home video, or even the Internet now, that the pornography, hotel television, very often at the beginning is the big money winner but then it fades as a business matures, and I didn't want that to be HBO. I thought, yes, we had certain advantages, but those advantages also meant you could be provocative and political and I thought comedians, whether they used strong language or not, were more relevant and provocative than our politicians in the '80's, for instance, so that was something you could get from HBO. Very early on I wanted us to be more candid, more open, more fresh, more experimental, more daring than the networks, who to me, homogenized; it was canned entertainment, it had no guts.
FLEMING: Robert Klein was one of your first comedy shows?
FUCHS: Yes, I think he was the first stand-up; it was done on New Year's Eve from Hamilton College, I believe.
FLEMING: And also you went back to the old comedians, like Henny Youngman.
FUCHS: We did everyone. We did literally, we must have done 99% of the comedians. Ironically, in the beginning, we didn't do Gary Shandling. He was done by Showtime, but Gary then came on to do what I consider HBO's greatest sitcom, greatest series ever, "Larry Sanders". So we missed one or two, but the HBO comedy series revived the comedy clubs in America. That franchise was sort of going out of business and we brought it back.
FLEMING: What was your title at that point?
FUCHS: I came into HBO as Director of Special Programming. I added sports to that rather quickly. So that was my early title.
FLEMING: And what were the successive titles that you had on your way to the top?
FUCHS: Well, I became a vice-president, and I don't know when we began to call it original programming instead of special programming, but I became a vice-president. I moved up, I've certainly had other titles, senior vice-president and I became an Executive VP of the company. Tony, Frank Biondi and myself were Exec VPs. Tony was in sales and marketing, Frank had legal and finance reporting to him and some other things, and I was doing the programming and then Jim Heyworth left HBO, Frank became President, well he became CEO, I eventually became President under him and then Frank left and I became CEO.
FLEMING: Reporting to Jerry Levin, at the time?
FUCHS: When I became chairman, I reported to Nick Nicholas, who was back as head of the video group.
FLEMING: Out of all the original programming that you got involved in, what's the one thing of which you're most proud?
FUCHS: I'll tell you, I really couldn't point to one thing because there was so many different types of programming. It's hard to compare a movie to a documentary to a comedy show. I had quite a few favorites. I think the favorite thing about it to me was that we were able to, despite the cynics, and I would say when HBO really announced to the cable industry that we were doing original programming, there was a little bit of confusion and skepticism as to what could we possibly do that would be of value compared to what the networks were doing, compared to the motion pictures you were playing. So it didn't take us long to convince people that we could make a difference and I think HBO's programming had a point of view, a philosophy, it stood for something in a lot of ways and that's not something you accomplish in entertainment that easily. I'm proudest of that as opposed to being able to name an individual show.
FLEMING: In your relations to Hollywood, had your time at William Morris built up a familiarity with the Hollywood terrain, so to speak?
FUCHS: One of the things I tried to accomplish at William Morris, I was only there sixteen months, was to learn the industry so when I did go to HBO, I really knew who was who. I knew that if we wanted to deal with such and such an artist what the best way in was. It was a little bit of "in the kingdom of the blind, the one eyed man is king" because there were so few people at HBO who really knew, at least this side of the business. So I had it pretty easy at the beginning. They thought I was some wunderkind.
FLEMING: Were they difficult to deal with? The Hollywood crowd, so to speak.
FUCHS: Certainly the motion picture studios, which wasn't my responsibility in the beginning, but eventually became my responsibility, were always difficult to work with. They're difficult to deal with for everyone. The rest of the community just didn't know what HBO was. We had to do a lot of selling to get people to take a check to work on HBO. We did a good job with that and eventually it came around. I think we also did a pretty good job with talent relations and we did a pretty good job with the material we were doing so that we were viewed as artist friendly and we were viewed as a place where you could do something with some teeth, with some guts.
FLEMING: As far as costs go, was it more cost effective to originate a program or to go to Hollywood and buy a movie?
FUCHS: Well, it's a hard answer because it depended on what kind of movie. Sometimes you could buy movies inexpensively from Hollywood that didn't do well that do well on pay TV and sometimes you could make rather expensive original programs that hit the spot. So rather than say what was more cost effective we really knew early on that we needed both. Hollywood movies were expensive, so on a pure cost without other considerations, original programming was less expensive but Hollywood movies were two hours and you repeated them over and over and when you were a 24 hour service it ate up a lot of time.
FLEMING: Speaking of 24 hours, I don't know what year HBO went 24 hours, and other services, that was an incredible leap of something...
FUCHS: A leap of faith!
FLEMING: Or foolishness, but to say we're going to put something on 24 hours a day!
FUCHS: Well, I guess on one hand yes, on the other hand, pay TV was clearly a repeat business, which I think at the time seemed quite out of the ordinary and quite different, but I think as we see the fragmenting of television and what's going on, you'll see more repeating.
FLEMING: Most customers then used to say, it's the same thing on. It's all the same; they keep repeating. I think you hear less and less of that.
FUCHS: Well, I would say, I bet they hear that less and less now because of the fragmentation. What you hear now is, I didn't get a chance to watch, you know, I didn't know when it was on. You hear that more than the repeat complaint, probably.
FLEMING: When did Cinemax become part of HBO?
FUCHS: I think Cinemax, I somehow have a recollection that Cinemax came not far after 1980. I may be wrong. I should remember because it was an instrumental thing in my career in that I was chosen, the significance of which I didn't quite realize at the time but it eventually dawned on me, to run this Cinemax task force to decide, it was really the new channel task force, to decide whether we could launch a second channel and it was an across departmental task force, not just the programmers, but the sales and marketing people, finance people, whatever. Like any other company, there were rivalries in the company. Some of the more entrenched people in sales and marketing didn't really want to work for me on that task force, so I went to the next generation of people – John Feahy, John Billock, people like that, and we pretty much put together the model for what became Cinemax. I think Peter Gross, our old attorney, was the one who actually came up with the name Cinemax. That group of people that helped me on the Cinemax front all went ahead and did pretty well at HBO. They were in a sense the next generation of leadership. So that was a crossroads for me, a bit of a crossroads for the company. The company then got the reputation that is you did well on a task force, you had a good career, but when I took over I didn't like that way of doing business, so I sort of discouraged that. I didn't think that one should build their career based on presentations.
FLEMING: After you left, I would assume the concept of for services, now HBO is for services.
FUCHS: Well, multiplexing occurred while I was there. A little bit it was our response to the mini-pay. People were adding channels based by making mini-pays and I didn't want us in the mini-pay business and I think in retrospect that's proven to be a pretty good decision. Within the company, in a group that was sort of put together by John Billock and Louis Devore, they invented multiplexing, which is what the industry to some extent, pretty much the pay channels, they keep multiplexing and multiplexing and it's a shelf space and a value attribution concept that I think has worked pretty well for the operators.
FLEMING: What's the definition of the word "churn" in your mind?
FUCHS: Well, churn was very simply, and in the beginning of our business it was an enormously important concept, and that was the fact that people connected to a pay service subscriber and then dropped it. That was what we called churning out, they disconnected. We eventually realized that the cable population was a very mobile population. Americans are generally more mobile than most societies, but that cable population which was younger and more family oriented than the median family in America, or the median population, that the churn numbers were so high that what was included in a churn was if you moved and reconnected across the country of course it was a churn. If you had HBO and you signed up for HBO and Cinemax, very often the operator would report a disconnect on HBO and a connect on HBO and Cinemax. The churn numbers in an aggregate over the years were so high that every American would have had to disconnected one and a half times and we knew that every American didn't have HBO, and yet those numbers were still important because we had to sell ourselves to the consumer every month. And so original programming played a role in that also in that we wanted things that offered retention, where the viewer had some expectation that if they like this series or they were boxing fans, they would stay on because they knew they would get in addition to movies and that became even more important after the VCR came in because the exclusive franchise on uncut movies in the house was cut into, obviously, and undercut by the VCR and the home video window.
FLEMING: Did multiplexing reduce the churn?
FUCHS: I would say so. I don't remember specifically, but certainly that was one of the intents, of which you had more access and more volume and more convenience.
FLEMING: In today's world, what percentage of cable subscribers subscribe to a pay service?
FUCHS: You know, I don't know in today's world exactly. I would guess that it is probably about two thirds.
FLEMING: Speaking of cable services...
FUCHS: Maybe less. I'm making a speculation.
FLEMING: I always think of the names that the cable system has adopted, like head end, meaning an antenna site, or pay per view, or churn. We really misnamed our own businesses for some odd reason.
FUCHS: Sort of an aggressive terminology, don't you think? Penetration, sort of military terms.
FLEMING: Speaking of pay, obviously you know that there's Showtime and The Movie Channel, and oddly enough, or perhaps not so surprising, many of the executives who were with HBO went on to Viacom, Showtime, The Movie Channel. How would you describe the difference between, let's say, HBO and Showtime?
FUCHS: Well, on a very simple basis, HBO was always bigger than Showtime, made more money and put more on the screen for that reason. I could sit here and say we were far more talented and smarter, but why say things like that? We really had more to invest. We always spent more on programming, we had more movies, we had more original programming, we had better sports. There's always a leader in a category and we were the historic leader. We were there first and we took advantage of that. We never gave up the pole position. We leveraged the brand; we leveraged the name. HBO became almost a generic, became the Kleenex of the cable business in a sense.
FLEMING: As opposed to a channel that had dirty movies on it. I think that definition went by the wayside.
FUCHS: Yes. Here's a little historic footnote: at one point in time, when we were partial owners of TBS along with TCI, Nick Nicholas came up with the idea that maybe we should merge HBO into TBS, which would have made quite an interesting company and we met with John Malone and he was interested in it, he thought it was a good idea.
FLEMING: With TBS?
FUCHS: TBS, the whole Turner organization, Turner Broadcasting, which at the time was CNN, I'm not quite sure that TNT was around at that point, TBS, TNT may have been there, and Ted was questioned about whether he would be interested and his response was, "I don't want to be associated with those dirty movies." Now we know Ted, through an ownership in New Line, has been involved in theatrical motion pictures which were the very pictures that HBO was running, so obviously his philosophy has changed a little bit.
FLEMING: Onto the business side, and keep in mind this may be something that twenty years from now, somebody going for their doctorate in communications might be watching, I'd ask the question: who owns HBO?
FUCHS: You're asking this question in terms of...
FLEMING: Just for the educational purposes of someone watching the tape who might not know who in the heck HBO is owned by.
FUCHS: Well, HBO was originally an idea of Chuck Dolan. It was owned in some kind of joint venture between Chuck and Time, Inc. Time Inc. then assumed full ownership of HBO and as we sit here in 1999, HBO is owned by Time Warner. Time Warner, technically there is a Media One investment and part of HBO is technically controlled by Media One, but it is really controlled and owned by Time Warner.
FLEMING: For educational reasons, let's say someone pays ten dollars a month for their HBO service. Now, I assume that HBO splits that with the operator that puts it on their cable system.
FUCHS: Yes, that's true.
FLEMING: That's a negotiable thing between operators and HBO itself?
FUCHS: Yes, although I think that a ballpark, one would have to say the split was about two thirds operator, one third HBO.
FLEMING: I don't know what to say to that. I'm not going to judge it; the operator may think differently about the split. Now, there are now cable systems with 100 channels. Can the industry keep up with that never ending demand for more programming, different kinds of programming or are we going to be stuck with wrestling and re-runs of movies?
FUCHS: I would say on one hand, I am a little disappointed with the overall quality of cable programming. There are some really outstanding exceptions and some of them classic vertical cable channels, the old classic cable channels, the sports channels and documentary channels. I think those have done extraordinarily well. The ESPN's, Discovery Channels, etc... Obviously, I think HBO has been a well programmed service but I think the industry, between the advent of the Internet and potentially a convergence and the industry's strong push into digital television and at some point, maybe, video on demand, that will strangely enough, despite the advance technology, require less programming because the consumer then will be doing some of his own programming. They will be able to order and look at what they want, so it doesn't necessarily mean there won't be more programming. I would say the Internet could, if there's a true convergence between the computer and the television and broadbands bringing all of these things to the home, I think there could truly be narrow casting as well always talked about it. Cable was supposed to be narrow casting and maybe compared to network television it was narrow casting but when you have to pay 13 million dollars for a transponder, it's not really narrow casting. It's not an FM station where you put in a transmitter and a turntable and buy some records, but the Internet could truly be narrow casting in the future when it can be broadcasted in quality and Real Time video.
FLEMING: There's three excellent, award winning program series either recently on HBO, or currently: The Larry Sanders Show, Oz and Arliss. Were you involved in any one of those?
FUCHS: Well, I had a lot to do with The Larry Sanders Show. Arliss and Oz were developed at HBO while I was there and interestingly, all three of the shows follow a much more attention to reality-based situations, even though all of them are fictional. There is an effort in those shows to do things as realistically as possible. A lot of what happened on Larry Sanders really happens on talk shows. Arliss is the same thing. Of course there's some exaggerations going on and I think Larry Sanders does it best in that regard. Oz is probably a little more fiction oriented in terms of it's drama, but it is certainly a much more nitty gritty realistic kind of prison drama than you'd normally see on television.
FLEMING: Did you ever win an ACE award for outstanding cable programming?
FUCHS: Myself personally? Yes, I got, I think it was the Golden ACE or something. I got a governor's award for individual contribution. At HBO I won at least one Golden ACE that was an individual.
FLEMING: The shows have consistently won ACE awards.
FUCHS: The ACE awards are history now, but HBO dominated the ACE awards like no other service or network ever dominated any awards show, which probably had a little bit to do with the ACE's going away, but HBO's also held its own quite well in the Emmy's. When I was still there, we had a year in which we won more Emmy's than any other network, which you probably could have gotten 1000 to 1 odds on. I think it was our third year qualifying for the Emmy's. Of course, we made much less programming than the network, but my philosophy at least is let's make less, but let's make better.
FLEMING: I think the whole communications industry was shocked by the fact that HBO did so well in the Emmy's. It's changed the business.
FUCHS: I couldn't have done it without the cable operators though, Joel. I really have to underscore that. The support given to us by the cable operators...
FLEMING: Two-way street.
FUCHS: The largesse, the money they pumped back into our business in promotion and advertising.
FLEMING: And we, by golly, were grateful for what you were doing. If you were to describe yourself, Michael Fuchs, in one word, what would that one word be?
FUCHS: Well, I think that's difficult. Certainly one of the words you would use is provocative. I've never gone out of my way to mix it up a little bit, but I don't think people quite understood I have a rather, I think my sense of humor is prevalent at all times. The ordinary is not as interesting to me as the ability to mix it up and have some fun. I think that was reflected in HBO's programming philosophy.
FLEMING: It was. It reflected you. We've been talking to Michael Fuchs, one of the true pioneers in the pay TV and in the cable industries, a great innovator. A man who has one of the most interesting and creative minds in the business and after that flattery, I should say, it's been a pleasure.
FUCHS: Thank you Joel.
FLEMING: This oral and video history has been made possible by The Hauser Foundation Oral and Video History Project of The Cable Center Oral and Video History Program.