HBO: Regime new but familiar

Cabler sticking with Albrecht's team

The good news for HBO: The cabler has avoided rocking the boat by keeping its core team intact.

The bad news for HBO: The cabler has avoided rocking the boat by keeping its core team intact.

By sticking with the team put into place and nurtured by Chris Albrecht, Time Warner last week calmed tense nerves — those of creators who work with the net and those of execs who work at the company — but also opened itself to criticism that it wasn’t being more aggressive.

Many of those execs have served at HBO for decades; the average tenure of new CEO Bill Nelson and co-prexies Hal Akselrad, Eric Kessler and Richard Plepler is 20 years.

That has allowed HBO to say that the tradition of success will continue in the (sort of) new regime.

“We’ll work in very much the same way we’ve always worked,” says HBO Entertainment prexy Carolyn Strauss. “We’re a home for creative people and creative work, for good stories well told, and that’s not going to change.”

But that hasn’t stopped some in the biz — especially rivals, of course — from wondering if the conglom missed an opportunity to inject fresh blood into HBO’s insular culture.

“The danger at any network that has many people who’ve been there such a long time is they start to think the same way,” said one exec at a rival net. “You could make the case that’s happened at HBO.”

As the net enters a post-“Sopranos” era, these critics wonder if the net could benefit from fresh thinking.

Then again, the current regime already appears to be shaking things up. With shows like mystical-surf skein “John From Cincinnati,” explicit relationship drama “Tell Me You Love Me” and the high-concept therapy half-hour “In Treatment,” the net already has plenty of experimentation in the works.

Also fueling some of the chatter is the elevation of Plepler. The exec has taken an increasingly important role at the programming table (he and “John” creator David Milch, for instance, are very close), but the New York-based strategy guru has chosen to keep a low media profile, making him more of an enigma to some bizzers.

Plepler’s first public appearance at TCA next month, then, will serve as an important early gauge of HBO’s next phase.

The decision to keep the team essentially in place was driven at least partly by Time Warner realities. With Jeff Bewkes prepping to take the topper reins from Dick Parsons, it’s unlikely he or the board wanted a major shakeup.

Within a day after Albrecht’s ouster, in fact, the company was quietly putting out the word that it would probably be insiders who would take over the HBO reins, and that the new leader wouldn’t come from programming.

“He’s circling the wagons until he gets the big job,” one exec says, referring to Bewkes’ future at the conglom. “It’s a very conservative company.”

But in the long term, the moves announced last week may prove to be a stopgap measure.

Even before Albrecht was charged with battery in Las Vegas (which led to his ouster), whispers had begun that HBO was indeed looking to make some changes in programming — particularly given the fact that no show has popped in the vein of “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in recent years. (“Entourage” has perhaps come closest.)

To some degree, that’s because channels like FX have stolen a page from the HBO handbook and have been gunning for a piece of that edgy, critic-darling action.

As a result, some believe HBO could still eventually recruit a major name, in the vein of rumored recruits like Tom Freston or Kevin Reilly.

Still, it’s hard to know how much of that view comes from rivals and outsiders, many of whom are tired of HBO’s Emmy dominance and position as a cultural force that proclaims that “it’s not TV.”

The more simple truth may be that Time Warner doesn’t find it financially prudent to make major changes to the team that helped make the business what it is now.

After all, “It’s a $1.3 billion license to print money,” one observer says. “They just don’t want to fuck it up.”

(Josef Adalian contributed to this report.)

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