Richard Plepler to CEO; Eric Kessler to prexy and COO

HBO is realigning its top management structure following the decision of Bill Nelson to step down after nearly 30 years as a key architect of the pay cabler’s empire, including five years as CEO.

In the reorg structure, Richard Plepler will become CEO while Eric Kessler has been upped to president and chief operating officer. Michael Lombardo will see his duties expand as president of programming. Kessler and Lombardo will report to Plepler.

In announcing the changes, Time Warner and HBO emphasized that the current HBO exec team has had a long and prosperous run of working together and stressed that the transition from Nelson to Plepler would be seamless.

Nelson has been a quiet but towering force during his tenure at HBO. An Army veteran who served in the 101st Airborne Division in the Vietnam War, Nelson was upped to chairman-CEO at HBO in 2007, after Chris Albrecht’s hasty exit from the company. Nelson began his career at Time Inc. in 1979 and segued to HBO in 1984.

“HBO has been my home for almost 30 years so this decision was an emotional one,” said Nelson, whose retirement was expected. “With my elevation to CEO more than five years ago, we set an ambitious agenda for HBO, and I’m proud to say that I feel the company has never been in better shape financially or creatively. I feel very comfortable in taking this step now because I know HBO will continue in its tradition of innovation and acclaimed programming and retain its superior position in our industry in the hands of Richard, Eric, Mike and the entire team.”

The top job now falls to Plepler, whose ascension to CEO will give him authority over all of the network’s divisions. Co-president since 2007, Plepler has had a strong partnership with Lombardo and the two have teamed for more than five years on all aspects of programming. Plepler’s promotion, however, will now give more programming authority to Lombardo.

Plepler and Lombardo have been powerful forces in greenlighting some of HBO’s most popular original series, including its current top three shows: “True Blood,” “Game of Thrones” and “Boardwalk Empire.” The pair re-energized the programming slate after the net had fallen in a fallow period after Albrecht’s exit and there was little left in the pipeline after hugely popular series such as “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos” were finishing their runs.

According to sources, one of Plepler’s strengths is that of a master collaborator, and similar to Nelson’s company mantra, will keep HBO focused on working as a team rather than independent fiefdoms.

Kessler is based in New York, along with Plepler, and is a 26-year vet of HBO. He leads the net’s digital strategy, including the successful launch of HBO Go. His other responsibilities include affiliate sales, marketing, HBO’s international channels, program licensing, DVD sales, technology operations and IT. With the rise to prexy, Kessler now has the net’s financial division under his purview as well.

When Kessler served as exec VP of marketing from 1995-2002, the net came up with the slogan “It’s Not TV. It’s HBO,” which remains in the small screen vernacular.

HBO has often prided itself on its exec team having risen through the ranks at the net — rather than coming to HBO from other networks — and understanding how the pay cabler operates. Because of that, there is little reason to believe these latest moves will cause any sudden programming shifts.

“Boardwalk Empire” got off to a solid start in its third-season premiere last Sunday with 2.9 million viewers for its initial telecast and 4.5 million over three plays; a renewal appear imminent.

Coming back for a second season in 2013 is Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom,” and “Game of Thrones” and “True Blood” will also be back. “Treme,” which has been ratings challenged but has been well supported by Lombardo and Plepler, returns for its third season Sunday.

Earlier this week, HBO ordered a drama pilot based on the BBC series “Criminal Justice.” Project stars “Sopranos” vet and HBO alum James Gandolfini as a lackadaisical attorney who tries desperately to find clients.

On the comedy side, skeins such as the Emmy-nominated “Girls” and “Veep” have given the network a boost in the laffer business. Net also gave season renewals to “Eastbound & Down” and “Enlightenment.” Several years ago HBO had a difficult time gaining traction with its half-hour comedies and were forced to cancel “How to Make It in America,” “Bored to Death” and “Hung.”

As for Nelson’s departure, the exec has often fostered teamwork among his team for the best cumulative result — a management mantra he developed through his military service.

“I believe that an enterprise can only reach its greatest potential with a team mentality,” he wrote in an essay for Variety last year. “So at HBO, I’ve spent my years trying to contribute to that concept, and the whole executive team and staff, right through to the entry level, has embraced that culture. It is a culture of collective spirit, collective wisdom, collective instinct and strategy.”

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