What a ridiculously disappointing end — lacking in creativity and full of cowardice. No, I’m not talking about the finale of The Sopranos again. I’m talking about the management shake-up atop HBO that was a saga all its own. (I meant to post last week but illness interfered.) So, too, did Time Warner CEO-designate Jeff Bewkes cop out by de facto replacing HBO chairman/CEO Chris Albrecht with two insiders who each lack the creative and leadership nuts to do their new jobs. Albrecht, you may recall, was axed after his Las Vegas arrest for a drunken brawl with his girlfriend while on the company clock that led to the exposure of at least one other similar incident, an assault on a former girlfriend/HBO exec in 1991 that was kept quiet by — you guessed it — Bewkes. By elevating COO Bill Nelson to chairman/CEO and putting promoter Richard Plepler as top programmer — yeah, it’ll take virtually two of them to fill Albrecht’s shoes — Bewkes not only continued the ossification of HBO, he guaranteed that the geriatric pay channel is about to break a hip since its execs are all lifers. “I want to say to Bewkes, ‘Is there something wrong with the outside world?’” an insider railed to me. “Did they really talk to anybody who wasn’t inside the company? I doubt it.”
Among the missed opportunities was hiring HBO alum Peter Liguori, now the entertainment president for the Fox Broadcasting Company who used to explain he left HBO because people had to literally die before anyone got promoted. Under his leadership, FX rose from nothing to the edgiest of the top five basic cable networks with critically acclaimed programs like Nip/Tuck, The Shield and Rescue Me and the award-winning FX Original Movies franchise. Or NBC entertainment prez cast-off Kevin Reilly who eons ago as head of Chase’s management company Brillstein-Grey Entertainment was the unsung hero who carried The Sopranos torch through two years of rejections until it saw the light of day on HBO. (Thanks to Ray Richmond for reminding all of us about this.) Of course, the unbelievably overrated Colin Callender, the president of HBO Films who thinks he’s an auteur genius, was initially brought in as Albrecht’s heir apparent. But “the walking hissy fit,” as one of my sources derided him, generated so many complaints inside and outside the company that HBO had to fuhgeddaboutit. Even when Callender went ballistic because of it. As for Carolyn Strauss, she’s been phoning it in for a long, long time. But she’s not going anywhere now that Albrecht is toast and the beancounters and brownnosers have been kicked up the food chain.
Don’t get me wrong, perpetually tan Plepler is as great a promoter as he is a self-promoter. But he is not a programmer. He thinks he can get by, as one colleague told me, “because he’s worked with all the talent and has relationships with them.” So do security guards. “Richard is one of the most talented guys in getting close to people. He’s so far up Jeff’s ass you can’t see his head,” a source put it. It would be generous to say that Plepler’s learning curve will be enormous. As for Nelson, he’s a nonentity. “Bill was really a CFO as a COO,” a source relates. “Fine to make him the No. 2. But a CEO is a very different job. It’s a leadership position.”
It’s widely believed that, right now, Showtime is on the verge of whacking HBO. “They won’t make as much money, they won’t get as many Emmy nominations, but they have more distinctive programming than HBO,” one TV insider analyzed. Already, HBO’s replacement series are tanking: John from Cincinnati is getting panned, Rome, Deadwood, and Carnivale had their plugs pulled prematurely, and even the once-fun Entourage is sucking badly. Albrecht had been telling everyone he was desperate for a new hit. As an insider says, “There’s no reason why shows come on HBO and get thrown off after a year or two. Something is wrong. It’s not advertisers who threw them off. And it’s not ratings. And HBO has more money to work with than they’ve ever had before.” Nor let’s forget the 800-episode historical mini-series after mini-series being made with Tom Hanks’ involvement. In fact they should just friggin’ rename the place THO. But he’ll keep giving you boring Big Love, not Cathouse.
The general feeling is that HBO needs to wise up and get back to basics and again make the kind of unique even extreme programming that can’t air on basic cable or commercial networks. That’s what defines pay television. Look at the impact good programming like The Sopranos had on 11.9 million viewers. Without it, HBO’s off-the-rails future could resemble that fade-to-black finale. I say shake up the place and get rid of everybody, and start all over. The worse than can happen is Sex In The Eternal City.