HBO chief executive fired in wake of arrest

Times Staff Writers

Chris Albrecht, the powerful Hollywood executive credited with bringing “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” to American living rooms, was ousted Wednesday as head of Home Box Office in the wake of his arrest in Las Vegas on suspicion of publicly assaulting his girlfriend.

The firing cast a pall over the cable channel, which makes about $1.2 billion a year and is one of the most profitable units of Time Warner Inc. Under Albrecht’s direction, HBO not only minted money but also produced programs that left a lasting mark on American culture.

The upheaval comes at a time when HBO is uncharacteristically vulnerable, with no blockbuster to replace “The Sopranos,” now in its last season.


Albrecht, 54, had temporarily stepped aside Tuesday, telling co-workers in a statement that he had lapsed into drinking after years of sobriety but expressing hope that he would return to HBO. “I won’t let you down again,” he said.

On Wednesday, The Times reported that in 1991 the cable network had paid a major settlement to Sasha Emerson, a subordinate and love interest of Albrecht’s who alleged that he had shoved and choked her at HBO’s West Coast offices in Century City. The incident, according to four people familiar with the matter, had been kept quiet for 16 years by the management of HBO.

Time Warner President Jeffrey L. Bewkes, then a top HBO executive, blessed the payout of $400,000 to $500,000. Bewkes is in line to become chief executive of Time Warner next year, when Richard D. Parsons retires.

Also Wednesday, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department released details from its report of Albrecht’s 3 a.m. arrest Sunday outside the MGM Grand Hotel, where the executive had attended a prizefight carried on pay-per-view by HBO. The officers who arrested Albrecht said that he had grabbed his companion around the neck so hard that he left red marks, and that they had to physically break his grip to free her.

Police declined to identify the woman, but a person familiar with the events said she was Karla Jensen, 37, whom Albrecht had been seeing for several months. The New York Daily News reported Wednesday that she was a correspondent for HBO and Telemundo.

Wednesday night, after a day of near-paralysis among shocked HBO employees, Time Warner sent word that Albrecht was out.

“With great regret, at the request of Time Warner, I have agreed to step down,” Albrecht said in a statement released by 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.”

Parsons said in the statement, “Jeff Bewkes and I believe that this is the right decision for the company.”

HBO Chief Operating Officer Bill Nelson will assume Albrecht’s duties until the appointment of a new CEO, the company said. People close to HBO said internal candidates for the job included Nelson; Eric Kessler, president of sales and marketing; and Richard Plepler, executive vice president of communications.

The HBO staff was shaken by the public downfall of Albrecht, who joined the channel in 1985 and had been running it for nearly five years. Before Wednesday, it had seen only three regime changes in 23 years.

“It’s definitely hard to watch somebody go through this; it’s very, very painful for everyone,” Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO entertainment, said in an interview Wednesday before Albrecht was fired. “I’ve reported to him for 17 years. He’s been my mentor.”

It was largely Albrecht who led HBO into original programming and away from its earlier practice of mainly airing original and theatrical movies.

“Chris has been the architect of some of the greatest entertainment of the last quarter-century,” said Brad Grey, chairman of Paramount Pictures and executive producer of “The Sopranos,” who has known Albrecht for nearly 30 years. “I feel very sad today.”

Despite Albrecht’s importance to HBO, as more details of his behavior surfaced in recent days, executives at the cable channel and its parent company began acknowledging that his career there was probably over.

The details from the Las Vegas police report were especially damaging.

Officers at the site of the Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather Jr. boxing match came running when they spotted a man later identified as Albrecht grabbing a woman by the throat with both hands and dragging her toward the valet parking station at the MGM Grand.

Police said Albrecht was unsteady on his feet, reeked of alcohol and said of the woman, “She pissed me off.”

“At that time, he informed the officers that he was the CEO of HBO,” said Officer Martin Wright, a police spokesman, reading from the report.

The woman declined medical attention and repeatedly told officers that she would not cooperate with prosecution efforts, Wright said.

Jensen, who accompanied Albrecht to the “Entourage” season premiere at the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood this year, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. In a personal profile on the Internet networking site Friendster, she listed her occupation as a broadcast journalist-producer. In an “About me” note, she wrote, “I believe in treating people with respect and kindness, and I accept nothing less for myself.”

Albrecht’s newly hired spokesman, Allan Mayer, said Wednesday, “Chris Albrecht has not been charged with anything at this point and as far as we understand, the district attorney in Las Vegas is still in the process of deciding whether any charges would be appropriate.”

In 1991, when Albrecht was head of HBO Independent Productions, he had an affair with Emerson, his senior vice president. The two -- who were both married -- broke up before the physical altercation occurred. Albrecht allegedly assaulted Emerson after she told him she was seeing someone else.

The affair ended Emerson’s first marriage. A 1991 divorce filing stated that she would receive a “personal injury settlement award from HBO as a result of petitioner’s claim against HBO.”

Emerson, who left HBO after the incident, never spoke publicly about it until Wednesday, when she said, “It was a time of terrible sadness and frustration, but through the love and support of my friends, family and colleagues, I was able to move on in both my personal and professional life.”


Times staff writers Meg James, Lisa Girion, Lynn Smith, Greg Braxton and Maria Elena Fernandez contributed to this report.