A week ago, HBO execs were wondering how the channel would fare without Tony Soprano. Now they’ve got even bigger shoes to fill.
HBO parent company Time Warner moved quickly Wednesday to whack Chris Albrecht, the pay cabler’s chairman-CEO, in the wake of his Sunday arrest on suspicion of assaulting his girlfriend in Las Vegas and as allegations about an earlier incident involving Albrecht began to surface.
Industry execs had already started to speculate on Albrecht’s replacement even before the ink was dry on the press release announcing his departure.
For now, HBO’s long-serving chief operating officer Bill Nelson will act as interim CEO until the appointment of a permanent boss. But if no obvious candidates emerge, Time Warner could also opt to stay low-key and keep the low-profile Nelson in charge for the time being.
Internally, much of the speculation centers around HBO Films prexy Colin Callender as a possible successor. Also on the list, but seen as more of a longshot, is programming topper Carolyn Strauss.
Others say HBO may look beyond those two execs. While Albrecht came from a programming background in 2002, when he was promoted to the chairman-CEO slot after predecessor Jeff Bewkes was named Time Warner co-president, Albrecht had previously overseen all four of the pay net’s main divisions — series, films, docus and sports.
No current exec has that portfolio; Albrecht himself retained the role when he took the CEO reins.
Others in the mix include communications exec VP Richard Plepler; Harold Akselrad, exec VP of legal and business affairs as well as film programming; and sales and marketing prexy Eric Kessler.
A Time Warner spokesman said it was “premature” to begin discussing Albrecht’s successor.
Albrecht’s departure capped a stunning turn of events that began when he was arrested early Sunday morning by Las Vegas police for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend (Daily Variety, May 7) outside a hotel following the de la Hoya-Mayweather fight, which HBO televised.
On Tuesday, Albrecht announced that he would take a leave of absence and check into rehab, admitting that he’d resumed drinking two years ago after a 13-year stretch of sobriety.
But the final straw for Time Warner apparently came Wednesday with media accounts of a 1991 incident in which Albrecht was accused of shoving and choking a former employee — ex-HBO Independent Prods. senior VP Sasha Emerson — with whom he had been romantically entangled.
In a statement, Albrecht said he agreed to step down “with great regret, at the request of Time Warner.”
“I take this step for the benefit of my Home Box Office colleagues, recognizing that I cannot allow my personal circumstances to distract them from the business,” he said.
Albrecht’s contract was up at the end of this year; Time Warner declined comment on terms of the exec’s departure, including whether a severance settlement was reached.
At HBO, the mood was grim as execs and staffers were confounded by the sudden departure of their longtime leader.
On Tuesday, most inside the company still believed that Albrecht’s sabbatical was temporary and that he’d eventually return to running the ship.
Industry wags have long gossiped about the Emerson episode — and HBO’s subsequent payment to Emerson (which some say was as high as $1 million, though other reports pegged at $400,000). But until Wednesday, HBO had managed to keep the allegations under wraps, and it never received any ink.
At the time, Emerson reported to Albrecht, who headed up HBO Independent Prods. The two are said to have become romantically entangled while married to others. After the affair ended, Albrecht discovered that Emerson was involved with someone else — and allegedly pushed her to the ground.
In light of that event, HBO’s human resources department brought in a mediator to sort out the mess. The mediator eventually recommended the settlement.
Sixteen years later, with the Emerson whispers graduated to a loud roar, particularly inside HBO’s offices, suggesting that Albrecht’s alleged behavior on Sunday wasn’t an isolated incident.
With an upcoming Time Warner stockholder’s meeting next week — not to mention a critical slate of new programming on the horizon, as HBO attempts to maintain its aud post-“The Sopranos” — Albrecht was now seen as a liability.
Time Warner chairman-CEO Richard Parsons said he and TW prexy-chief operating officer Jeff Bewkes believe “this is the right decision for the company,” thanking Albrecht “for all of his contributions to Home Box Office over the years.”
The earlier incident that generated so much heat for Albrecht on Wednesday came during Michael Fuchs’ tenure as HBO boss. Bewkes at the time was the pay channel’s chief financial officer. It’s understood that after Sunday’s incident, the level of anger toward Albrecht within HBO’s East and West coast offices was rising fast, especially as stories about past incidents spread.
Some industry insiders think Bewkes could use Albrecht’s departure as an excuse to shake things up at HBO. While the cabler remains a monster moneymaker, many believe it could use an extreme makeover, both creatively and financially.
“Everyone loves to make shows there because they spend a ton of money,” said one exec. “But do they always have to spend so much? They renewed their Warners output deal until 2015. Why? Who else was going to buy it?”
And while HBO insiders see its internal stability as an asset — execs who’ve been there a decade are considered newbies — some wonder if it’s lead the network to suffer from a bit of creative myopia.
“It’s like Marie Antoinette’s court over there,” sniped one wag. “They’re out of touch with what’s going on.”
Regardless of the circumstances, Albrecht’s departure reps a huge blow to HBO. Under his watch, the pay cabler became an original series powerhouse, redefining itself through megahits like “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” even taking a chunk of viewership out of the broadcast nets — despite the channel’s much smaller distribution.
Prior to taking the top job, Albrecht had served as president of HBO Original Programming since 1995. He first joined HBO as senior VP of original programming, West Coast, in June 1985. A former standup comedian, Albrecht co-owned the Improvisation night club in New York in the late 1970s before becoming an agent at ICM, where he signed talent such as Jim Carrey and Whoopi Goldberg.
(Josef Adalian in Hollywood and Steven Zeitchik in New York contributed to this report.)