You know the HBO “Static Intro” as soon as you hear it. There’s the sound of a TV powering on. It’s followed by the appearance of a white line that spreads across the screen, and it fills in the darkness with the static snow of an old black-and-white TV set. The electric snowstorm is joined by a single tone that ascends like a gospel choir singing to the heavens. One that revs your emotions.
Since 1993 HBO’s Static Intro for original programming has been like a Pavlovian experiment that’s been conducted on millions of people. We hear the sound of that TV flip on, and we salivate for the red meat of well-made fiction. We crave it.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the HBO Static Intro itself has become an object of fascination. As with seemingly all things pop culture, it is now the subject of academic thought. In her assessment of modern television, “Tele-Branding In TVIII”, Catherine Johnson of the University of London analyzed HBO’s genius use of branding and focused on its static intro for original programming. She identified how that cozy, fuzzy, black-and-white logo conveys a very powerful message in the subliminal space of a few seconds.
“The HBO logo suggests that your television is switching over to a uniquely ‘HBO’ place for the duration of the programme, and hence the logo exemplifies the brand value of providing programmes not found elsewhere on television.”
HBO’s slogan for years was: “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” The sense that HBO is special has long been part of its marketing. Its static intro makes that statement elegantly. More than just taking us somewhere special, into a uniquely HBO place, static (ironically) breaks up our mundane moments and creates a place for us to escape.
“As a representation of a television switching on at the beginning of the programme and off at the end, the HBO logo evokes the impression of an appointment to view with each programme, creating a separate and special place in which its programmes are encountered.”
It’s more than just branding. HBO’s Static Intro is an incantation for our emotions. It signals us to get ready to feel.
“In addition, the placement of the logo at the beginning of each programme provides an aural and visual trigger that indicates to the potential viewer that their programme is starting, and over time becomes a powerfully evocative trigger for the emotions associated with watching HBO programming.”
Bruce Richmond, the senior executive vice president of production at HBO, was integral in the creation of the static intro logo back in the early 1990s. “We had a bunch of pitches on storyboard before we started any of the production,“ he told Playboy.com. "Everybody kind of gravitated towards this idea of a TV turning on, and out of this static comes this resolved HBO logo that lifts itself out of normal television series.”
Working with that kernel of an idea, Richmond recalled the moment it all came together. “We spent about a week creating the static and doing all the layering of the type and making sure that it resolved. After that we went into sound design. It got more exciting once we got into sound design. When we started working on that kind of nice bass-y hum that comes out of the static, there was this moment when five or six people in a room, who had been up for two days working on it, we all said, “Oh, that’s it.‘”
At what point did HBO realize it had created a slice piece of pop culture?
"At some point you revisit these things, and you ask, 'Should we re-do it?’ That was the moment. It’s iconic,” Richmond said. “We watch like everybody else does, so we knew that it was an iconic piece. But you never set out to do iconic things. You set out to do the best work that you can do with the talented people around you. The programming is extremely lauded by all of us. This is a piece that supports that programming.”
It’s not very American to keep a piece of branding around for 20 years. We often prefer newness and innovation to simplicity and tradition. But the HBO Static Intro logo does its job so well that technology and innovation can’t beat the deeper appeal.
Like the shows that follow it, HBO’s Static Intro is so beloved by fans that audiophiles online discuss it in online.
Some just like to appreciate the beauty of the shape of its sonic waveform.
Fans with a talent for After Effects have even figured out how to make their own version.
HBO-lovers on Twitter like to sing its praises in 140-character love songs.
the sound of the static hbo intro brings comfort like you can’t imagine— Ambar Navarro (@gogobionicgirl) April 28, 2014
You could put that HBO static intro thing in front of some old Filenes Basement security cam footage and I’d probably watch it.— Damian Chadwick (@damianchadwick) February 3, 2013
the hbo static intro is my favourite sound in the world— hip baby (@biperman) June 19, 2014
When asked if HBO intended to create such a response from viewers, Richmond said, “Did we know that, ‘Oh my god we’re making something that everyone will get conditioned to hearing?’ No, but I think we knew it was Pavlovian when we realized, 'Oh, the minute that ‘kssshhhzzzztzztzzz’ sound goes away we risk losing something.’ People have been conditioned to know that their HBO program is literally going to start in the next second.”
The HBO Static Intro has an appeal similar to the sound of a zipper opening on a woman’s dress. It’s the promise of good things to come. It doesn’t matter whether you expect to hear the first few notes for the opening song from “The Sopranos,” “Game of Thrones” or “Silicon Valley,” when you hear that fuzz of static you get psyched.
You’re about to be teleported into a happy place. The intro can’t be separated from what comes after. Hence, we’ve come to love the intro because of the consistent quality of HBO’s shows.
How powerful is it? When you hear the HBO Static Intro, what show do you expect to start? If you have an answer to that question, then it’s still working its magic.