After a turbulent month at HBO, Time Warner on Tuesday took the diplomatic route, promoting five executives from within to replace Chris Albrecht.
All five come from outside the programming area, starting with Bill Nelson, the interim chief who was given the permanent gig as chairman-CEO.
Under him, Richard Plepler has been handed the top programming job in New York as HBO co-prexy, while Harold Akselrad and Eric Kessler were named co-prexies as well. L.A.-based Michael Lombardo will head up West Coast operations.
In a memo to HBO staffers, Nelson said he was pleased that “Time Warner has faith and confidence in our existing team and our ability to work together to drive HBO’s ongoing business success.”
The announcement silences speculation — at least for now — that Time Warner was looking outside the channel for a big name (such as Tom Freston or Kevin Reilly) to fill Albrecht’s hefty shoes.
Time Warner prexy and chief operating officer Jeff Bewkes said the new settup was inspired by a succession plan that had long been in place.
“It always involved these people in one configuration or another,” he said.
Bewkes said the decision to draw from business, legal and strategy backgrounds for the top jobs — a model that was partly in place when the exec himself ran the company from 1995-2002 — is a function of the paycabler’s deep bench.
“Chris was a programming guy, so when he was running the company, you had Bill Nelson running all the arms except for programming,” Bewkes said. “With Chris not here, you need someone running programming, but that person doesn’t need to be CEO.”
As a result, under Plepler and Lombardo, the company’s four programming divisions — all well-oiled machines — will continue under longtime leaders: Sheila Nevins, HBO Documentaries; Colin Callender, HBO Films; Carolyn Strauss, HBO Entertainment; and Ross Greenberg, HBO Sports.
HBO is known for execs with long tenure, and by sticking with the team put into place and nurtured by Albrecht, Time Warner has managed to soothe nerves frayed last month by the former CEO’s sudden departure.
But with the pay cabler about to enter uncharted waters post-“The Sopranos,” some pundits believe HBO could have benefited from a fresh face or two willing to shake things up.
Nevertheless, Time Warner decided it wasn’t the time to make more waves, one industry insider observed.
“Bewkes is trying keep this all low-profile and let the Albrecht mess blow over,” he said. “Now, everybody has some responsibilty, and everyone is sort of happy.”
A senior HBO exec admitted that every ego wasn’t perfectly stroked in the new hierarchy, but that the tight, insular network’s brass felt the need to quickly “persevere, protect and defend this place.”
“This has been a funky period, certainly the first 10 days (after Albrecht’s departure),” the exec said. “We all love Chris, and this was unexpected and difficult. But there was a real feeling that this place is a jewel, and we’re not fucking this up. So after a proper mourning and lamenting over Chris, it really came together structurally.”
The decision may have also been as much a matter of politics as anything else.
Strauss and Callender had, over the past few weeks, cropped up as potential candidates for the top programming job. Had an outsider blown into the CEO gig, he or she would have likely tapped their own lieutentants — causing more shuffles and further upsetting the network during a critical period in its history.
“You do that and you risk losing people like Colin and Carolyn,” said Gavin Polone, who exec produces “Curb Your Enthusiasm” for HBO. “If they had lost Carolyn or Colin and even Mike, c’mon, it would be ridiculous.”
Also, if, under another scenario Callender been upped, as a number of TV execs had believed would happen, it might have created ill will among the toppers at HBO’s other programming divisions.
One insider compared the new structure to Little League, “where everybody went home with a trophy,” but noted that “keeping the status quo allows both the entertainment and sports teams in place. Had Carolyn Strauss or Colin Callender been given the post, would the other have left?”
Strauss told Daily Variety that the new structure was “definitely the best of all the potential outcomes.”
“I’m happy about it,” she said. “It’s a formalization of a way that we worked all along. I’ve really worked side by side with Mike for as long as I’ve been in the L.A. office. We’ve grown up together working in the original programming area. I’m really excited to be out about it. And I think it’s exciting for Mike to get the kind of recognition that he deserves for his involvement in the work.”
Indeed, Lombardo has kept a low profile but is touted as a key figure behind all of the net’s programming deals.
“I’ve been totally impressed with his intelligence and his understanding of what a show is about, the soul of a show,” said Alan Ball, the “Six Feet Under” creator who’s currently shooting the pilot “True Love” for HBO. “Certainly when we would discuss ‘Six Feet Under’ he would pick up on the deeper aspects of it. He’s kind of like the target audience for me.”
“John from Cincinnati” creator David Milch called him “a dream date” and Bernie Brillstein said simply, “I love him because he mixes business and creativity, and if you need anything he gets it for you right away.”
Some bizzers suggested Tuesday that Lombardo, who had been a key dealmaker for Albrecht and a member of the influential programming planning committee, might serve as the new Albrecht.
But Bewkes emphasized that “Richard will be doing what Chris did,” and Lombardo will stay on as more of a financial and business liaison for creators.
Meanwhile, with a suddenly top-heavy structure, the prospect of a system in which division chiefs like Strauss and Callender would be three levels removed from the CEO could cause some concern.
Brillstein, who has worked with the net on a number of projects, noted, “A lot more people are in the middle than there used to be,” comparing the transition from previous programming topper Michael Fuchs to Albrecht with the current status as going from “an emperor to a consul to a lot of serfs and vassals.”
David Simon, creator of “The Wire” and net’s upcoming miniseries “Generation Kill,” said he thought some showrunners might be worried about the added levels in HBO’s new hierarchy.
“If they all stick a finger in my eye at the same moment it could be like working for a network, and it could be bad,” he said. “But I’m not sure it will be that.”
Strauss dismissed those concerns, adding that she didn’t get “hung up” on the new organizational chart.
“I think it seems more hierarchical than it really is,” she said. “We’ve worked as a collective for a long time. That’s how we’ll continue to work. The programmer-CEO that Chris was is actually an anomaly in the business. This is a structure that everyone will be comfortable with.”
Meanwhile, Tuesday’s announcement marks Plepler’s official elevation out of the communications world — making him the latest exec to transition to a top network/studio job from the P.R. side (20th Century Fox TV’s Dana Walden and NBC’s Beth Comstock are other examples). But it’s not a surprise; Plepler has been a key strategist at the channel for quite some time, and founded HBO’s Program Planning Group.
Akselrad, meanwhile, will incorporate tech initiatives and the net’s critical film-output deals into his portfolio of legal and biz affairs, while Kessler will add global distribution, domestic syndication and HBO video to his previous responsibilities of sales and marketing.
Before a no-contest plea on battery in Las Vegas spelled an abrupt end to his tenure, Albrecht was known for his energetic showmanship. But this time around, the net took a more low-key approach with the buttoned-down Nelson. The exec is seen as a savvy businessman who was often by Albrecht’s side but who is much more smooth and corporate — in the style of Bewkes.
Playtone partner Gary Goetzman said an outsider “wouldn’t understand what makes HBO a great place to work,” and “the fact that nobody new is coming in means that the HBO culture that Chris instilled will hopefully continue smoothly in his absence.”
(Michael Fleming and Josef Adalian contributed to this report.)