First impressions at HBO

Execs put new face on network's prospects

The men who once ran HBO from behind the scenes found themselves front-and-center last week.

Richard Plepler and Michael Lombardo, long the cable net’s programming and dealmaking kingmakers, met the press for the first time on June 12, conjuring a tone that was by turns warm and formal, solicitous and, occasionally, defensive.

The stakes were somewhat higher for HBO than other nets at this TCA. The event is essentially meant for the consumer press, and the success of a net’s session often turns more on how its screen talent performs than on how its execs do. But previous HBO execs had become press darlings in their own right, and how Lombardo and Plepler come across now will go a long way to determining what kind of coverage the net receives in the future.

Since they were promoted to run the network last month, Lombardo, head of West Coast operations, and Plepler, the new programming chief, have kept a low profile.

The pair were no strangers to TCA, of course, with Lombardo often sitting in the audience and Plepler prepping execs backstage. But after the ouster of Chris Albrechtin May, the two execs suddenly found themselves on the hook for a TCA panel.

The appearance was an important indicator of how the net will present itself in the post-Albrecht era.

Albrecht was famously candid with the press — a quality reporters often admired — but he also could be contentious if he disagreed with the premise of a reporter’s question.

The Plepler-Lombardo act unveiled last week was more subtle: Lombardo, who admitted he was a little anxious being on the hot seat, came off as more the straight man, while Plepler was more willing to banter. He admitted, for instance, that he thought execs were playing a joke on him when he first watched the ending to the season finale of “The Sopranos.”

But the two execs were also a little touchy when buttonholed about a new direction for the cable net, repeating the line that there will be “no strategic shift” with the new regime.

The execs’ job at the presentation was a challenge, having to present a schedule and slate that had come of age under Albrecht.

They found a solution by saying, with unusual (and perhaps not entirely convincing) candor, that as much as they missed Albrecht, the CEO was not as much a driving force as some assumed.

“There wasn’t a Jeff Bewkes philosophy, there wasn’t a Chris Albrecht philosophy,” Plepler said.

For all the profile the execs suddenly had, Lombardo after the panel seemed in no rush to do it again. In that sense, he may have been blessed by timing: HBO doesn’t do an executive session at the winter TCA.

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