Cinemax is an American premium cable and satellite television network owned by the Home Box Office, Inc. subsidiary of WarnerMedia Studios & Networks Group. Developed as a companion “maxi-pay” service complementing the offerings shown on parent network Home Box Office (HBO) and initially focusing on recent and classic films upon its launch on August 1, 1980, programming featured on Cinemax currently consists primarily of recent and older theatrically released motion pictures, and original action series, as well as documentaries and special behind-the-scenes featurettes.
Cinemax—which, in conjunction with HBO, was among the first two American pay television services to offer complementary multiplexed channels in August 1991—operates eight 24-hour, linear multiplex channels; a traditional subscription video on demand platform (Cinemax On Demand); and a TV Everywhere streaming platform for Cinemax’s linear television subscribers (Cinemax Go). On digital platforms, the Cinemax linear channels are not presently accessible on Cinemax Go, but are available to subscribers of over-the-top multichannel video programming distributors, and as live streams included in a la carte subscription channels sold through Apple TV Channels, Amazon Video Channels and Roku, which primarily feature VOD library content. (The live feeds on the OTT subscription channels consist of the primary channel’s East and West Coast feeds and, for Amazon Video customers, the East Coast feeds of its seven multiplex channels.)
Cinemax’s operations are based alongside HBO inside WarnerMedia’s corporate headquarters at 30 Hudson Yards in Manhattan’s West Side district. As of September 2018, Cinemax’s programming was available to approximately 21.736 million U.S. households that had a subscription to a multichannel television provider (21.284 million of which receive Cinemax’s primary channel at minimum).
Development and early expansion; ventures into comedy and music programming (1980–1989)
In an effort to capitalize on the swift national growth that Home Box Office (HBO) had experienced since it began transmitting via satellite in September 1975, Home Box Office, Inc.—then owned by the Time-Life Television unit of Time Inc.—experimented with a companion pay service to sell to prospective subscribers—including existing HBO customers—with Take 2, a movie-centered premium channel marketed at a family audience that launched on April 1, 1979. The “mini-pay” service (a smaller-scale pay television channel sold at a discounted rate) tried to cater to cable subscribers reluctant to subscribe to HBO because of its cost and potentially objectionable content in some programs. Take 2, however, was hampered by a slow subscriber and carriage growth throughout its just-under-two-year history. By the Spring of 1980, HBO executives began developing plans for a tertiary, lower-cost “maxi-pay” service (a full-service pay channel sold at a premium or slightly lower rate) to better complement HBO. On May 18 of that year, during the 1980 National Cable Television Association Convention, Home Box Office announced that it would launch a companion movie channel, to be named Cinemax. Billed as the cable industry’s “first true tier,” Cinemax was designed to complement HBO (designated as a higher-tier “foundation [premium] service”), and avoid difficulties associated with bundling multiple “foundation” pay services; it was also intended to act as a direct competitor to The Movie Channel (then owned by Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment, operated as a joint venture between WarnerMedia predecessor Warner Communications and American Express), maintaining a movie selection format chosen for their appeal to select audience demographics.
Cinemax launched on August 1, 1980, over 56 cable systems in the Eastern and Central Time Zones; a West Coast feed for the Pacific and Mountain Time Zones launched on September 1. Initially airing nightly on an open-ended schedule dependent on the length of the evening’s programs (usually from 1:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. ET/PT), Cinemax’s programming centered on theatrical feature films, emphasized by on-air spokesman Robert Culp, who told viewers that Cinemax would be about movies and nothing but movies. Movie classics were a mainstay of Cinemax at its birth, presented “all uncut and commercial-free” (as Culp said on-air), focusing mainly on movies released between the 1930s and the 1960s, mixed with films from the 1970s and up to eight recent titles per month that were chosen to limit programming duplication with HBO. (At the time, HBO featured a wider range of programming, including some entertainment news interstitials, documentaries, children’s programming, sporting events and television specials consisting of Broadway plays, stand-up comedy acts and concerts.)
Cinemax would go on to experience far greater success its early years than Take 2 (which Time-Life shut down in February 1981). Cable television subscribers typically had access to only about three dozen channels because of limited channel capacity offered at the time by cable headend systems. Partly because of HBO, its national competitors (Showtime and The Movie Channel) and regional pay services in certain markets, customer demand for uncut broadcasts of theatrical movies was also high among cable subscribers at the time; this made Cinemax a palatable offering for cable systems with the necessary space to offer four premium channels and an attractive add-on for HBO subscribers, as it would show classic films without commercial interruptions and editing for time and content. HBO traditionally marketed Cinemax to cable operators for sale to subscribers as part of a singular premium bundle with the former, available at a discount for subscribers that elected to subscribe to both channels. (The typical pricing for a monthly subscription to HBO in the early 1980s was US$12.95 per month, while Cinemax typically could be added for between US$7 and $10 extra per month.) In many areas, cable providers declined to offer Cinemax to customers who did not already have an HBO subscription.
On August 28, 1980, Time-Life announced that Cinemax would transition to a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week programming schedule at the start of 1981. (The Movie Channel was the only national premium service at the time to offer a 24-hour-a-day schedule, doing so on December 1, 1979, following its transition from a timeshare service on Nickelodeon’s transponder to operating on a standalone transponder as an independent service.) On January 1, 1981, Cinemax began offering a full 168-hour weekly schedule (except for occasional interruptions for scheduled early-morning technical maintenance), adding programming full-time from 6:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. ET/PT. (HBO ran only twelve hours of programming a day from 1:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. ET/PT until September 1981, when it adopted a weekend-only, 24-hour schedule that ran from Friday afternoon until late Sunday night/early Monday morning; Cinemax and rival Showtime [on July 4]’s transitions to such a schedule and The Movie Channel’s existing 24-hour offerings resulted in HBO going forward with implementing a 24-hour schedule week-round as well on December 28, 1981.)
On October 18, 1983, Tulsa 23 Limited Partnership—then the locally based owners of Tulsa, Oklahoma independent station KOKI-TV (now a Fox affiliate)—filed a federal trademark infringement lawsuit against Home Box Office, Inc. and Time-Life Inc. in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma; the lawsuit sought $4 million in damages (totaling more than $1 million in personal, and $3 million in exemplary damages) and a permanent injunction against Cinemax’s use of “We Are Your Movie Star” as its promotional slogan, which, in similar fashion, had been used by KOKI at the time (billing itself as “The Movie Star” or “Oklahoma’s Movie Star” to highlight the nightly movie presentations that the station had been offering since it signed on in October 1980). Attorneys with Tulsa 23, L.P. stated that they had issued a cease and desist request to Home Box Office, Inc., asking it to stop using the Cinemax promotional campaign—which launched nationally on June 9—on August 16. On November 22, 1980, U.S. District Court Judge James O. Ellison ruled in favor of Tulsa 23, issuing a preliminary injunction ordering Cinemax to discontinue the campaign slogan on grounds that it infringed on the KOKI campaign. HBO/Time-Life appealed the lawsuit to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, which on December 5, upheld Ellison’s order enjoining Cinemax from continuing to use the slogan.
As additional movie-oriented channels launched on cable television, Cinemax began to change its programming philosophy in order to maintain its subscriber base. First, the channel opted to schedule R-rated movies during daytime slots (HBO would only show R-rated movies during the nighttime hours, after 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time, a policy that network largely continues to adhere to as of 2015); Cinemax then decided it could compete by airing more adult-oriented movies that contained nudity and depictions of sexual intercourse, launching the weekly “Friday After Dark” late-night block in 1984 (which also featured the short-lived adult drama Scandals, and a series of anthology specials under the Eros America and Eros International banners). During the network’s first decade on the air, Cinemax had also aired some original music programming: during the mid-to-late 1980s, upon the meteoric rise in popularity of MTV, Cinemax began airing music videos in the form of an interstitial that ran during extended breaks between films called MaxTrax; it also ran music specials under the banner Cinemax Sessions as well as the music interview and performance series Album Flash during that same time period.
The mid- and late-1980s also saw the addition of a limited amount of series programming onto Cinemax’s schedule including the sketch comedy series Second City Television (whose U.S. broadcast rights were acquired by the channel from NBC in 1983) and the science fiction series Max Headroom (which had also aired on ABC from 1987 to 1988). Comedy specials were also occasionally broadcast on the channel during the late 1980s, under the Cinemax Comedy Experiment banner, featuring free-form sketch and improvisational styles from various rising and established stand-up comics (such as Howie Mandel, Chris Elliott and Eric Bogosian). Although its programming had diversified, Cinemax had foremost remained a movie channel. In February 1988, the network premiere broadcast of the 1987 action-comedy Lethal Weapon became the highest rated telecast in Cinemax’s history at that time, averaging a 16.9 rating and 26 share.
Time Warner ownership; original programming efforts (1989–2016)
On March 4, 1989, Warner Communications announced its intent to merge with HBO parent Time Inc. for $14.9 billion in cash and stock. Following two failed attempts by Paramount Communications to legally block the merger, as Paramount was seeking to acquire Time in a hostile takeover bid, the merger was completed on January 10, 1990, resulting in the consolidated entity creating Time Warner (now known as WarnerMedia), which as of 2018, remains the parent company of Cinemax and HBO.
By 1990, Cinemax limited its programming lineup mainly to movies. However starting in 1992, Cinemax re-entered into television series development with the addition of adult-oriented scripted series similar in content to the softcore pornographic films featured on the channel in late night (such as the network’s first original adult series Erotic Confessions, and later series entries such as Hot Line, Passion Cove, Lingerie and Co-Ed Confidential), marking a return to adult series for the channel.
From 1992 to 1997, Cinemax aired daily movie showcases in set timeslots, centering on a certain genre which differed each day of the week; with the introduction of a new on-air presentation package in 1993, the genre of a given showcase was represented by various pictograms that usually appeared within a specialized feature presentation bumper before the start of the movie; the symbols included: “Comedy” (represented by an abstract face made up of various movie props, with an open mouth made to appear like it is laughing), “Suspense” (represented by a running man silhouette within a jagged film strip), “Premiere” (represented by an exclamation mark immersed in spotlights), “Horror” (represented by a skull augmented with a devil horn and a gear-shaped eye, overlaid in front on a casket), “Drama” (represented by abstract comedy and tragedy masks), “Vanguard” (represented by a globe overlaid on a film strip), “Action” (represented by a machine gun and an explosion) and “Classic” (represented by a classic movie-era couple embracing and kissing). The particular film genre that played on the specific day (and time) varied by country.
In the United States:
Monday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time: Comedy
Tuesday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time: Suspense
Wednesday (originally Friday), 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time: Vanguard
Thursday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time: Drama (originally Horror)
Friday (originally Wednesday), 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time: Premiere
Saturday, 10:00 p.m. (originally 11:30 p.m.) Eastern Time: Action
Sunday, Noon Eastern Time: Classic
In Latin America:
Thursday: Horror / Suspense