The titles easily slip off his tongue. “Roy Rogers … ‘Sky King’ … ‘Tales of the Texas Rangers.’ “
Chris Albrecht recites a litany of Westerns, the ones he watched during his city slicker childhood in Queens, N.Y.
” ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’ … ‘Maverick’ … ‘Cheyenne’ … ‘Sugarfoot’ … ‘Wagon Train’ … ‘Restless Gun.’ ”
“We all watched Westerns early on,” he says. “I certainly wanted to be a cowboy probably from the first six or seven years of my life.”
This kid, who revered television’s most outmoded and conventional of genres, came to thrive in a career built on bucking convention. Spurred by then HBO chairman Jeff Bewkes, Albrecht — as HBO’s chief programmer — greenlit “The Sopranos,” with a suburban dad protagonist who moonlighted as a cold-blooded mob killer. He gave a go to “Sex and the City,” a sitcom centered around four single women, all in their 30s and 40s, and shot with no laughtrack; and he developed the family drama “Six Feet Under,” encouraging writers to emphasize esoteric over saccharine plot points.
With all of this has come unprecedented reviews, Emmy nominations and other plaudits, not to mention a network with profits that are expected to surpass $900 million this year.
But after producing shows that have been hailed as cultural benchmarks, Albrecht faces fresh pressures. A year into his job as chairman-CEO of HBO, there’s a need to increase profits and boost the rest of AOL Time Warner.
With the success of programs and their sales in ancillary markets, talent has made new salary demands. And critics are watching closely to see if some of HBO’s new product, like the upcoming “Carnivale,” matches the quality of “Sex and the City” and “Sopranos,” two shows that are in the twilight of their day.
It’s the topsy-turvy of the business, one very familiar to any head of a conventional broadcast network. But the stakes for HBO are higher. It can’t just produce a modest success, but a hit that gets not just viewers and new subscribers but that elusive thing called buzz.
“I always feel pressure,” Albrecht says. “Last year we got 94 Emmy nominations. Then I said, ‘OK, now what do we do?’ This year we got 109. Some year I am sure we will get 80. So you always feel pressure.”
In his triangular-shaped corner office, high above Century City, he’s dressed in the uniform of blue suit and tie. On the wall is a poster from a Museum of Modern Art exhibit of the William S. Paley collection.
On an end table is a photo of Ronald Reagan, on a show horse in the 1950s at his ranch in Agoura, Calif. It was a gift from one of Albrecht’s friends, Patti Davis, and reflects Albrecht’s hobby of riding and owning show horses.
In his new role atop HBO, Albrecht also is responsible for the button-down side of the business: dealing with cable and satellite ops; planning marketing strategies; selling HBO programming in ancillary markets, like DVD, syndication and video-on-demand.
He admits that it surprised him how complicated the business side of HBO is, especially as cable and satellite operators concentrate their energies on such new products as Internet access and digital television.
“All of the great programming in the world won’t matter if the cable and satellite operators aren’t aggressively marketing us to their customers,” he says.
The divorced father of two daughters, Albrecht splits his time between Los Angeles and New York. Although HBO is based in Gotham, Albrecht opted to keep an office in L.A. to stay close to the creative community.
“The big challenge for me is how not to let the CEO mentality …,” he pauses, clearly fatigued at the end of a long day, searching for the next right phrase. “I guess it is to balance the business realities with the creative ambitions of the company. That is the biggest challenge. Not to get carried away. To realize it is still important to take a risk.”
Even as a TV-bred kid, Albrecht never dreamed of being in this position. The son of a tool-die machinist and a housewife, he had little idea of what he wanted to do even into his years at Hofstra U.
“I was pretty much floundering, and sort of in the middle of my college career I thought I may want to be an actor or do something else,” he says. “There was never one particular thing I aspired to.”
When he was doing summer stock theater in Manfield, Pa., he became friends with Bob Zmuda, who had just graduated from Carnegie Mellon U. They moved to New York, shared an apartment and each got jobs at Theater of the Riverside Church. Convinced that they could become actors by first perfecting standup, Zmuda took Albrecht to the Improv.
“It was ’73 or ’74,” Albrecht recalls. “Freddie Prinz, Gabe Kaplan and Jimmy Walker had just gotten shows on the air.”
So Albrecht and Zmuda went, watched a couple of shows, went back to the apartment and put together an act. They got accepted at the Improv and Catch a Rising Star, and started performing.
“We had a lot of props,” Albrecht says of their routine. “We had a big suitcase we brought up onstage. And we did a lot of commercial parodies, movie parodies and stuff like that.”
They struggled, working as waiters while performing at clubs. In 1975, perhaps spotting Albrecht’s ability to keep things organized, Improv owner Budd Friedman asked him to manage his club for three weeks while he went to Europe with his wife. “He gave me either $200 or $225 a week,” Albrecht says. “I needed the money.”
Friedman came back and then asked Albrecht to manage his place again, while he looked into setting up a venue in Los Angeles. He eventually offered Albrecht the chance to manage the Gotham club, and to own a small piece of it.
“I borrowed money from my grandmother’s credit union at United Airlines, paid Budd a small amount over a two-year period, and he moved to L.A. and I ran the club in New York.”
Albrecht became good friends with virtually all the young standup comedians of the time, people like Robert Wuhl, Mike Binder, Larry David, Bill Maher, Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal. When the comics went on strike in 1979, first in L.A. and then in New York, Albrecht pressed the Manhattan club owners to settle.
“These guys were friends of mine,” he says of the comics. “I was closer to them in age than I was to the other club owners. It seemed like the fair thing to do.”
Albrecht also had become friends with managers Roland Joffe, Larry Brezner and Buddy Morra. Albrecht’s ambitions changed: He wanted to become a manager, to do what they did. They pressed him to first get training as an agent, and helped set him up with a job at ICM.
“I never really loved being an agent,” Albrecht says. “I don’t really like arguing about money. But the idea of working with talent and believing in them and trying to sell them, that was fun. And it was the best way to learn about the business.”
While he worked the Improv, he had met an ABC executive named Bridget Potter. She signed him on to be talent consultant, to spot new comics. In 1985, she joined HBO, and recruited Albrecht.
Using his contacts, he put together the “Comic Relief” benefit show. Other original programming followed, first and foremost being “The Larry Sanders Show.”
But HBO’s core business continued to be theatrical movies, not series. “The prevailing wisdom was that there wasn’t any need for us to do that and it probably wasn’t even possible for us to do that,” he says. “Michael (Fuchs), who was a great leader of HBO, had the belief that HBO was an occasional-use medium that needed to be drastically different than everything else that was on television, which at that time was primarily broadcast networks, and that if you gave subscribers something flashy a couple times a month and movies (that was enough).”
That changed in 1995, when Fuchs was fired. New chairman Jeff Bewkes pressed for more original programming, believing that it would help the network become a regular part of viewers’ habits.
Outside the box
One show that already had been in developme
nt had been a prison drama called “Oz,” created by Tom Fontana. “We developed it and gave him a real hard time with the notes and made him rewrite it and rewrite it,” Albrecht says.
“Then Bridget and Michael left and I was left with the task of trying to figure out how to do this. I said to Tom, ‘Here is a million dollars. Go shoot 20 minutes and tell me what you think. Go back to your idea and just do what you want.'”
What he produced persuaded them to order eight episodes. The show earned enough critical praise and attention to merit additional episodes, and to spur the development of more pilots.
“We always knew we had to be different,” he says, “but not different just from an adult content point of view, but different in the essence of the show. What filmmakers or truly talented people usually have is a point of view about something. … Broadcast networks in particular tend to flatten out points of view, because those points of view are opinion and opinions might offend certain people. They don’t want to do that because they are in the business of not offending anybody.”
HBO started to attract talent, taking a gamble on pricey A-list dream projects such as “From the Earth to the Moon” in order to tap talents like Tom Hanks and Ron Howard. Mixed with series like “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos,” the network began to dominate Emmy nominations, lending cachet to the network that they could promote to subscribers. (At one time. Albrecht’s contract included bonuses for each Emmy nomination and win.)
“We just got more aggressive,” he says. “People came to us with ideas and started to see what is possible.”
Bewkes says he went along with many of the risky projects — for example, prison-set drama “Oz” and the $135 million mini “Band of Brothers,” about WWII soldiers, none of them played by stars — because Albrecht understood their complexities.
“One of the reasons I was able to go off the cliff with him so many times is he was able to explain the whole picture, the risks,” says Bewkes. “He’d take so much responsibility for it. He was able to see so many different aspects of the production.”
Not every project Albrecht set forth sprinted out of the gate. “Mind of the Married Man” never gained traction, and was dropped last year. One of his dream projects, a splashy miniseries called “Alexander the Great,” never materialized because producer Mel Gibson chose to go with another project. In the meantime, directors Baz Luhrmann and Oliver Stone have launched Alexander features of their own.
Discordant high notes
And his tenure as chairman has been marked by a very public battle with “Sopranos” star James Gandolfini. The actor sued HBO, which sued him back, and production on a fifth season of the show was delayed. Eventually, the two sides settled.
“I learned that when things get crazy everybody needs to keep a cool head and try to finds ways to build lines of communication,” Albrecht says. “Look, the price of success is increased costs and dealing with (talent) with different leverage than they had before. The really great thing is that as difficult as that got, it was resolved in an amicable, relationship-building way.”
So the show will go forward, not just for a fifth but a sixth season. After that, “Sopranos” is widely expected to go off into the sunset. By then, Albrecht will have launched a number of new series.
Among them is a Western, of all things. Early next year HBO will debut “Deadwood.” Producer David Milch of “NYPD Blue fame,” created the show, after Albrecht suggested he try out the genre.
“I just thought that given the 9/11 situation, given where the country was at, that a Western was something people were looking for, familiar and comfortable,” he says. “Westerns are great ways to tell stories of mythic proportions. They are such a part of the American consciousness and unconscious.”
But he is quick to add, “This show is one that you haven’t seen before. It is on HBO. It has a point of view. It is really about something.”