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HBO’s Albrecht in vanguard of programmers

Exec now working on VOD, shoring up sked

Overseeing a cable enterprise, even if it’s HBO — the new Tiffany network — can sometimes be a pain in the neck.

Which is why Chris Albrecht, who is picking up the Vanguard Award for programming at the National Cable Television Assn. confab in Chicago this week, has pushed back some meetings and, after days of dealing with one serious crick, is finally heading to his doctor.

“I’ve been so busy,” says the type-A — but affable — chairman-CEO. “But it got so bad yesterday, I just said, ‘I’m going.’ ”

While Albrecht, 50, says the culprit of his condition is an old gym injury, he admits stress on the job certainly exacerbates the throbbing. After all, the subscriber-based HBO — mainly a movie channel at first — was barely a blip on the fledgling cable scene when he joined the company as a loose-leashed West Coast programming exec in 1985.

He rose through the ranks and was promoted from original programming prexy to head honcho last year, just as the cable cutie was building its brand with its version of video-on-demand and dealing with the topsy-turvy Time Warner-AOL merger, all while beginning to exhibit some growing pains of its own.

Who wouldn’t fret over the impending losses of trademark shows like “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos”? And don’t even mention the James Gandolfini fracas.

“Those programming guys have it easy,” titters Albrecht, who in his previous position was celebrated by writers, producers and brass for forging HBO’s quality stamp and championing fare such as “The Larry Sanders Show” that might have given other outlets a nervous tick. “My primary focus is now performance: creative and financial. Things are much more bottom line.”

The Long Island, N.Y., native is self-effacing enough to half-kid that the last time he needed to crunch numbers was “in my math science class” at Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School. The only son of a tool die machinist and housewife, he preferred watching TV Westerns like “Wyatt Earp” and making wisecracks. After graduating from nearby Hofstra U., where he majored in drama and literature, Albrecht dabbled in waiting tables and summer stock, but his bent for comedy led him to standup and a five-year stint co-running the Improv comedy clubs in New York and then L.A.

His showbiz chutzpah honed, he headed to ICM, where the neophyte agent signed such then-fledgling comics as Whoopi Goldberg and Jim Carrey. Albrecht’s sharp eye for comics earned him his HBO wings in 1985.

In 2001, HBO took in $700 million in revenue, putting the company — and Albrecht — in very good light at its otherwise shadowed conglom.

Original programming, from boxing and comedy specials to docu efforts such as “America Undercover,” accounts for 40% of the company’s schedule. Be it “Six Feet Under” or the up-and-coming “The Wire,” Albrecht says all shows are driven by the same fairly cinematic edict: “Try to make things good rather than popular, and everything takes care of itself.”

‘Bold and daring’

Despite evidence to the contrary, “I never think about hip or edgy, just bold and daring. We need to please a broad audience.” His dream: being in 80 million homes (right now, the number’s about 32 million).

Albrecht, a divorced dad with two daughters (ages 20 and 13), is focusing on the big picture, namely HBO’s blossoming VOD service and shoring up the schedule (upcoming series are the Depression-era drama “Carnivale” and “Deadwood,” a Western from “NYPD Blue” co-creator David Milch).

As for eventually losing “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos,” “We’ll miss those shows, but I’m confident we’ll be able to keep growing,” he says with his mix of true passion and corporate hyperbole. “We have an arsenal of attributes.”

Enough to threaten the old-school nets, which have tried to woo suddenly more seasoned viewers by promising they’ll be surprised that a show like “Boomtown” is on broadcast TV. While he admits he feels a little programming envy among his comrades (“I think they get frustrated because we have our own set of rules”), he notes that the autonomy that comes with advertiser-free economics doesn’t always translate to nirvana.

Results may vary

After supervising over big budgets, “it’s hard to quantify the results,” sighs Albrecht. Which is why he went to the mat with Gandolfini when “The Sopranos” star demanded more money and nearly did a Suzanne Summers-style split earlier this year. The actor ultimately nabbed $11 million a season — rather than the $20 million or so that some reports had him pushing for — after HBO countersued and threatened to ax the show.

Albrecht, whose job entails yo-yoing between L.A. and New York, lets off steam riding horses and via daily home workouts with weights and Pilates. In New York, old-style fitness guru Radu — who has shaped the likes of Cindy Crawford — throws him the occasional medicine ball.

“I’m pretty aggressive,” says Albrecht, who, away from the biz, also fights for land preservation.

‘Sex’ persona

Like a refined club bouncer, he exudes Zen — a happy Zen, not an Ovitz Zen. Borrowing from a cocktail party game, a reporter wonders which “Sex and the City” character Albrecht most identifies with.

“I’ve never been asked that before,” he laughs. So? “Well, I’d like to think I’m Big,” he quips.

In reality, he relates a bit more to the Nathaniel Fisher on “Six Feet Under,” the show’s resident ghost. Explains Albrecht: “Everyone on the show is in transition except him. I don’t feel in transition.”

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