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Rush to judgment

Scrutiny, scramble hasten Albrecht's exit

Did Chris Albrecht get a raw deal?

In the wake of the HBO topper’s ouster just three days after an alleged assault outside the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, some in Hollywood were questioning the hasty exit.

Ari Emanuel‘s comments in the Huffington Post — “I’m appalled at the way he has been treated by the press,” he wrote in an impassioned defense. “If Hollywood is going to give Mel Gibson a second chance … why not Chris Albrecht?” — reflected the sentiments of a number of producers and agents around town.

Albrecht has worked with a large number of execs and creators in his two-decade career at HBO, giving him a large base from which to draw. (The media were less supportive, in part because Albrecht had a sometimes contentious, if refreshingly direct, manner of talking to the press.)

It’s unlikely there will be a talent defection in the wake of Albrecht’s departure. HBO has a roster of execs, like original series topper Carolyn Strauss and HBO Films prexy Colin Callender, who have won over the creative community by giving writers and producers a wide berth.

But the pro-Albrecht stances (which of course all came with the proper condemnations of his alleged behavior) raised the issue of what it was exactly that prompted Time Warner to fire him so quickly.

It’s an especially pointed question given that the company appeared to be granting their longtime employee a second chance on May 8, when it announced he would take a leave of absence, only to reverse course 24 hours later and ask him to step down.

Speculation focused on an incident 16 years ago in which Albrecht allegedly attacked an employee with whom he was having an affair. But it was likely a far more complex set of factors, ranging from the internal politics of Time Warner to the current cultural climate.

Observers last week were noting that in the post-Imus age, when every controversy is amplified and regurgitated by a pervasive media, PR debacles have to be dispensed with quickly — sometimes too quickly.

HBO first attempted what MSNBC tried with Don Imus — granting him a leave of absence — hoping it could buy time for reaction to cool down. With Albrecht having nowhere near the public recognition that Imus did (and with HBO not having any advertisers to turn up the heat) why wouldn’t it?

But, perhaps mindful of the Imus example, the company changed course.

Sources say there were splits within the TW ranks, with pro- and anti-Albrecht camps debating the exec’s future. The pro camp won the initial reprieve, but the anti-Albrecht camp — a group that may have included Time Warner No. 2 and Albrecht mentor Jeff Bewkes — eventually won out.

The Time Warner chief operating officer had handpicked Albrecht to run HBO when Bewkes was upped in 2002. But Bewkes is expected to be named CEO-elect of the conglom, and he may have wanted to resolve the Albrecht situation before he became the official head of the company.

He may have also wanted it resolved before the May 18 TW board meeting, which would have been an open invitation for stockholders to tee off on the company for its inaction.

It’s a no-win situation for companies in the media glare: If they wait too long to discipline an exec they’re seen as enablers; if they do it too quickly, they’re on a witch hunt.

Still, the quick disposal of Albrecht, who is not only a talented exec but generally well-liked by his creative partners, struck many as premature.

Not everyone who worked with Albrecht was critical of the move, however.

David Milch, who created HBO’s next big hope, “John From Cincinnati,” said as a recovering alcoholic he praised TW’s move and criticized Albrecht’s backers for enabling his alcoholism.

“All of those people who think they’re coming to Chris’ defense need to step back and realize this is a cry for help,” he said.

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