At HBO, veterans rise to the top

Times Staff Writers

In choosing a new HBO chief executive, Time Warner Inc. on Tuesday opted for corporate stability over bringing an outsider into the famously insular cable network.

Last month the media giant was forced to find a replacement for former Chief Executive Chris Albrecht when he was fired after assaulting his girlfriend in Las Vegas.

But instead of bringing in a creative visionary like Albrecht, the force behind such iconic programs as “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” Time Warner promoted five senior business veterans who have worked largely behind the scenes at HBO.

None have the big personality, the high profile or the programming expertise of their predecessor, leading some to wonder whether the management arrangement might be temporary.


“You need someone with a creative vision who can rally the troops,” said media analyst Harold Vogel. “I think they just didn’t have anybody for now. You’ll have another story on this by the end of the year.”

HBO’s realignment comes at a time when the network has struggled to find a broad-based hit to replace its blockbuster “The Sopranos,” which ends its six-season run Sunday.

In filling the void left by Albrecht’s exit, Time Warner created a top-heavy structure headed by Chairman and CEO Bill Nelson, 58, a 23-year HBO veteran and chief operating officer for the last five years.

The new structure adds a second layer of senior management: General counsel Harold Akselrad, marketing and distribution head Eric Kessler and corporate communications chief Richard Plepler become co-presidents.

Of the trio, Plepler was given the most power, overseeing programming, which drives the channel’s profitability.

Michael Lombardo, a lawyer who has been head of business affairs, was named president of the programming group and HBO’s West Coast operations, reporting to Plepler.

That means HBO’s top two L.A.-based creative executives, Carolyn Strauss and Colin Callender, will now have two layers separating them from Nelson. They previously had reported directly to Albrecht.

Some in Hollywood wondered whether the new hierarchy diminished the authority of Strauss and Callender and would lead to internal strife. But Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment, said the arrangement formalized existing roles.

She said she was glad an outsider wasn’t hired. “Given all the potentials and all of the personalities, this is a very good result,” said Strauss, who has been at HBO for 21 years.

Callender, president of HBO Films, said he planned to remain at HBO. “I’m here to stay,” he said. “The most important thing is that all of the creative heads get to maintain their sovereignty and their autonomy.”

Time Warner President Jeffrey Bewkes said promoting from within was a better way to go. “HBO is clearly on a winning streak, and we’d like to keep that going,” he said. One of Time Warner’s most profitable assets, HBO made $1.2 billion last year on $3.4 billion in revenue.

Bewkes saw no reason to rock the boat and chided rivals for doing so. “The loss of momentum, distraction and disruption that goes on at other networks hurts them,” he said. He said that though Nelson and Plepler did not come up through the traditional creative ranks, that was not unusual for HBO. Bewkes himself was chief financial officer before becoming COO of HBO. He’s now in line to succeed Richard Parsons as chairman and CEO of Time Warner.

Several producers and writers on HBO shows said they were comfortable with the post-Albrecht regime.

“The fact that Carolyn Strauss and Colin Callender are still there should give the creative community a lot of comfort -- it certainly does me,” said Darren Star, creator of “Sex and the City.”

David Simon, creator of HBO’s popular show “The Wire,” said he too was pleased the network had kept it in the family. He said he had never met Nelson.

An outsider, he said, might have turned HBO into a pressure cooker in a futile search for another mega-hit. “ ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Sex and the City’ were blessings for HBO, but they were also a curse.”

After two years of soul-searching, he said, HBO has come to terms with edgy shows like “The Wire” that resonate with viewers but don’t pull in huge mainstream audiences.

Both Simon and David Milch, executive producer of “John From Cincinnati,” which premieres Sunday, said Plepler had helped shape their projects.

“He has done everything possible to make sure that my work is seen by as many people as possible,” Milch said.

Yet some in Hollywood worried about navigating HBO’s crowded executive suites. “Who do you call?” one agent asked. “Before, it was pretty clear.”