Unease trails CEO's absence

HBO topper Chris Albrecht’s sudden leave of absence — and the uncertainty over his status at the pay cabler — couldn’t come at a worse time.

Already facing a crossroads as signature series “The Sopranos” prepares to say farewell, HBO must now deal with the internal unease that’s followed Albrecht’s early Sunday morning arrest in Las Vegas.

In a statement issued Tuesday, Albrecht acknowledged his struggle with alcoholism.

Time Warner announced Tuesday that Albrecht would take an indefinite leave of absence following the incident, in which he was allegedly involved in an physical altercation with his girlfriend.

How long Albrecht will be out and the status of HBO in his absence are open questions. For now, HBO chief operating officer Bill Nelson, who’s been with the channel since 1984, will oversee day-to-day operations.

Nelson, who handles business affairs, technology, acquisitions, homevideo and international distribution (among other departments), is seen as a solid but temporary solution. HBO insiders were adamant Tuesday that it was far too soon to speculate on who may be in line to replace Albrecht should the exec not return.

Nelson is known primarily as a business guru, so programming topper Carolyn Strauss and HBO Films president Colin Callender will be the primary decisionmakers on programming for now.

Insiders said it’s possible that Albrecht’s leave could become permanent if the Las Vegas district attorney investigating the incident moves forward with a case. But charges of domestic battery have not yet been filed.

And HBO will wait until all legal findings are revealed — a process that could take weeks or even months — before making a decision on whether to reinstate the exec.

Albrecht’s girlfriend is not expected to press charges herself, which would force prosecutors. to rely on police and eyewitness territory. Often in domestic assault cases a prosecutor won’t move forward if the alleged victim doesn’t cooperate with a lawsuit.

Timeline of the legal action is unclear, though it’s expected that any charges would be filed by early next week at the latest.

Albrecht’s attorney, the well-known Las Vegas counsel David Chesnoff, would say only that he is still gathering facts on the incident and urged against a rush to judgment. “There are two sides to every story,” he said.

Time Warner said that the leave comes at Albrecht’s request, as he will pursue alcohol rehab, but the company declined to comment on any timeline for Albrecht’s return.

Albrecht’s arrest and leave of absence threaten to overshadow the next few critical months for HBO, which is seeking a new breakout hit in the wake of a final hurrah for “The Sopranos.” Cabler will soon debut a raft of new original series, including the David Milch drama “John From Cincinnati.”

While the marketing plans for many of these series are in place, net will be in limbo as it enters the critical phase.

“All these new shows are unknown quantities,” noted one rival cable exec, who said Albrecht probably will lay low for some time and won’t be able to help push the shows at events such as the TV Critics Assn. press tour in July.

What’s more, net is in a period of robust production on the longform side; it’s either prepping or already shooting projects including a John Adams miniseries starring Paul Giamatti; Iraq mini “Generation Kill”; and Steven Spielberg-Tom Hanks 10-parter “The Pacific.”

Producer Gary Goetzman, who with Playtone partner Hanks does “Big Love” for the network, as well as “John Adams” and “The Pacific,” said he stood behind Albrecht and believes the exec is too crucial to HBO’s success to be allowed to leave.

“There is a tendency in Hollywood to enjoy seeing someone take a turn in the barrel for misbehaving, but this guy has been so decent, and he’s been such a good executive, that even contemplating him not running HBO makes me unbelievably sad,” Goetzman said. “Until proven otherwise, I don’t believe these allegations are as bad as they have been made out to be.”

Albrecht, who has been at HBO for more than two decades, is two months shy of his five-year anniversary as chairman-CEO. He had served as prexy of original programming for seven years before that and has been instrumental in many of the hits that have marked the net’s success over the last decade.

Albrecht is known as a programming-centric chairman-CEO, not a business-leaning one. Time Warner chief operating officer Jeff Bewkes, who ran HBO before Albrecht, was a business-centric CEO and, as an exec with a strong say over who occupies the chairman-CEO chair, he could decide to return to that model if Albrecht doesn’t return.

Albrecht was involved in the altercation just after 3 a.m. Sunday with the woman identified as a girlfriend outside the MGM Grand, from which HBO had aired the Oscar de la Hoya-Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight on pay-per-view. Albrecht only recently began dating the woman.

Albrecht sent a memo to employees Tuesday that attributed the incident to his struggles with alcohol but did not make any concrete reference to the alleged assault.

“I am deeply sorry for what occurred in Las Vegas this weekend and for any embarrassment it caused my family, the company I love and myself.”

He added, “This weekend was a wake-up call to me of a weakness I thought I had overcome long ago. I had been a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 13 years. Two years ago, I decided that I could handle drinking again. Clearly, I was wrong. Given that truth, I have committed myself to sobriety.”

Exec said he would return to AA and told employees, “I will not let you down again,” suggesting that he believed his final chapter at the net had not yet been written.

Albrecht’s very public embarrassment comes on the heels of the March debut of HBO’s docu production “Addiction,” which the net promoted heavily as a public service effort to enlighten viewers on the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.

The heat of the story was further fanned because of the timing. This week the cable industry gathered in Las Vegas for its annual NCTA confab. Around the show floor, the exec’s alleged actions was a primary topic of conversation.

On Tuesday, Time Warner chief Richard Parsons appeared as scheduled on a panel at NCTA’s annual cable show with conglom execs such as Viacom’s Philippe Dauman and News Corp.’s Peter Chernin but opted out of a post-panel meeting with the press.

Parsons said in a statement, “We take these matters very seriously and will monitor this situation closely.”

He flew back to New York immediately after the panel, presumably to manage the crisis.

Bewkes would still appear at a convention panel this afternoon, Time Warner said.

Meanwhile, the HBO booth had a somber, low-key feel on Tuesday. The absence of execs like Albrecht stood in marked contrast to the action at nearby booths, where cable-biz fixtures like Judy McGrath and Matt Blank were chatting with conventiongoers.

A number of television PR vets said that as a public company, Time Warner faced pressure to act decisively.

Still, the pay net’s business model of relying on subscriber fees, not advertising revenue, shields it from some of the heat that another net might have endured.

News comes as Time Warner enjoys relatively smooth sailing, with revenues up 9% and profit up 19% in the most recent quarter.

Before the Albrecht crisis blew up, Parsons noted at an NCTA dinner Sunday night that none of the divisions were currently facing any drama.

(Michael Schneider in Hollywood and Michael Fleming contributed to this report.)

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