HBO’s Richard Plepler, who rose from top corporate communications officer and exec VP to the company’s programming boss in a promotion that raised creative eyebrows, has decided to get some help from a source very familiar to him: The New York Times. Specifically, from Frank Rich, the NY Times weekly Op-Ed columnist and formerly America’s most powerful drama critic, who as of today keeps his day job in journalism but also signs on as HBO’s creative consultant (press release below). Rich, who’s about to turn 59, told me just now “it was not hard” to obtain the newspaper of record’s permission to do the showbiz deal once it was agreed that he would no longer even mention HBO. “I am completely out of covering HBO whatsoever.”

hbo_logo_240_0011.jpgAs Plepler told me this morning, “I’m a longtime fan of Frank’s, and HBO’s goal is to bring as many interesting voices and points of view to the table as possible. When you look at what Frank has done, and his sui generis talent, and his many relationships in the creative community, he has a very, very good instinct for quality. Because of that, he has a remarkable feel for what we see as a quintessential HBO brand.” The details of Rich’s deal, while confidential, sound typical for showbiz: a consulting fee combined with payments for projects that get made. Plepler made a point of stressing that while Rich will make suggestions, HBO execs “will have to make the final determinations of what fits and what doesn’t.”

Rich said that he and Plepler began talking around the first of the year about some sort of formalized relationship, and it took until now to firm up the deal. The journalist calls this “an unplanned and wonderful piece of serendipity where our interests merged. It’s the start of a new chapter in my life that’s fun, quite frankly. I’ve been stage and movie struck since high school. Both have been a passion of mine. And I’ve always been thinking I would love to be part of this world. At HBO I can do everything from a comedy to a docudrama at a high level where you don’t have to answer to sponsors.”

So the natural question is whether HBO programming will receive kinder treatment from NY Times critics because of Rich’s involvement. Actually, just the opposite may be true: the newspaper, for instance, is notorious for panning books written by its staffers.

Also, it’s interesting to note that another NY Times staffer has done showbiz work for HBO: TV writer Bill Carter, who in 1996 adapted his book about the late night war over David Letterman into the HBO teleplay Late Shift, but continued (and continues) to cover the pay channel. Carter also in 2002 adapted his book about Howard Cosell and ABC’s Monday Night Football into the TNT teleplay Monday Night Mayhem but continued (and continues) to cover both the cable channel and ABC. More recently, TV sources tell me that Carter has been saying he’d like to write a sequel to Late Shift about Jay Leno’s anticipated exit from NBC which he has been covering for the NY Times.

Here is the HBO press release about Frank Rich:

NEW YORK, May 23, 2008 — Frank Rich has signed on as a creative consultant to HBO, it was announced today by Richard Plepler, co-president, and Michael Lombardo, president programming group and west coast operations.

In this capacity, Rich will both initiate and help develop projects at the pay-TV network.

“Frank is one of the smartest and most astute observers of popular culture and we are thrilled that we can call upon his judgment and superb instincts,” said  Plepler and Lombardo.

Added Rich, “To my mind, HBO has always been the gold standard for some of the best work in television.  I’m excited to be a part of this collaboration.”

Rich will recuse himself from writing about HBO and Time Warner in his weekly OpEd column,  which is largely about politics and public affairs.