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COMPANY TOWN : SHAKE-UP AT TIME WARNER : Fuchs Protege Comes Into His Own at HBO : Management: Few surprised that Jeffrey Bewkes will succeed ousted exec as chairman of cable network.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To those adept at reading corporate politics, the 1994 Time Warner Annual Report provided some food for thought. Jeffrey Bewkes, president and chief operating officer of HBO, was the only one pictured who was not a division head, an editor-in-chief or a chief executive.

Since that time, Bewkes, 43, has come into his own. The 16-year HBO veteran was promoted to CEO status when HBO Chairman Michael Fuchs was appointed head of Warner Music last May. And on Thursday, after Fuchs relinquished his post, it was Bewkes who was dubbed his successor at HBO.

If the Fuchs departure took Bewkes by surprise, being offered the chairmanship did not.

“Michael and I agreed that this would be the eventual outcome and had been moving in this direction since May,” Bewkes said in a telephone interview from New York. “Michael’s been busy and active on the music side so the day-to-day operations have been left to me. Michael was my mentor and, as president and CEO for four years, I was allowed to become a partner. Michael was an extraordinary talent and will land on his feet, but I find this very distressing for him.”

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Although Bewkes was named chief financial officer and senior vice president of finance and administration in 1986 and was given additional responsibility for all phases of HBO’s network operations four years later, to many in Hollywood he’s a relative unknown. It was Fuchs who propelled the fledgling HBO into the country’s leading pay-TV operation and whose name became virtually synonymous with pay cable.

“HBO was Michael’s vision, but for the last five years Jeffrey was executing it all,” a top studio television programming executive said. “And, for awhile, Michael was more the Queen Mother, a figurehead, than a day-to-day force. Though Bewkes is a smart, solid executive, he’s not yet a ‘name.’ That would be true of anyone working with a 1,000-pound gorilla, though. Michael was a larger-than-life boss.”

Whereas Fuchs specialized in policy, programming and scheduling, the personable Bewkes dominated the business end--cutting deals and leading HBO into the all-important international markets in South and Central America and Asia. In the last few years, key licensing agreements were signed with studios such as Warner Bros., Columbia and TriStar. After a sluggish period in the early 1990s, HBO’s earnings for the first three quarters of 1995, before taxes and dividends, were up 13.4% over the same period last year--the company’s best performance in more than a decade.

“For awhile, after the introduction of the VCR and the 1986 cable bill put a crimp in things, analysts were forecasting that pay TV would have a rough road,” Bewkes said. “The situation was compounded by the recession of 1990. But this year and last we’ve had record growth in terms of subscribers, which is the leading indicator of health. And we got three out of five nominations for TV movies at the Emmys last year--competing with networks who make a lot more movies than we do.”

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What concerns exist about Bewkes’ promotion revolve around original programming--an arena distinguished in recent years by projects such as “Barbarians at the Gate,” “And the Band Played On” and “The Josephine Baker Story.” Though the new chairman’s fiscal credentials are a given, his creative skills are still being honed.

“I don’t know what all this means,” conceded producer-writer Warrington Hudlin, who with his brother was responsible for “Cosmic Slop,” a limited series for HBO. “Michael was always very positive. He got it. I’m just hoping that HBO continues to do the kind of cutting-edge projects that we like to do.”

Brad Grey, an executive producer of HBO’s acclaimed comedy series “The Larry Sanders Show,” agreed. “Michael will be missed, very missed,” he said. “But Jeff and Chris [Albrecht, president of HBO original programming] are seasoned veterans who will carry on and do a good job.”

Not to worry, Bewkes insisted. “We’re intent on increasing the amount and quality and impact of our original programming,” he said. “Not trying to get the most oddballs in front of the set to sell a product like the networks but to give our subscribers something they can’t get somewhere else.”

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Times staff writer Greg Braxton contributed to this story.


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