Strauss Picks HBO Hits
The exec behind Sex, Sopranos and Deadwood lives for creative challenges
By Anne Becker -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/16/2005 7:00:00 PM
When critics laud HBO for innovative programming, they can thank the network's entertainment president, Carolyn Strauss. It was she who green-lighted and developed Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Da Ali G Show, among others.
An 18-year veteran of the acclaimed cable network, Strauss began her corporate assent there in 1986, as a humble temp in the documentaries department. And she has been at HBO ever since, helping to carve out a distinct programming vision for the network.
“On every step of the corporate ladder here, you could just put a little stiletto heel print next to it, and I've done it,” she says. “Well, make that a sneaker. I don't wear stilettos.”
Yet the ever-casual Strauss had no intention of getting into TV while studying history at Harvard University. At the time, she wasn't sure what career path she would pursue.
After graduation, she returned to New York, her city of origin, plowing through a series of temp jobs before landing, by sheer chance, the assignment that led to a career.
“I thought, 'This seems like a much more stimulating thing to do,'” says Strauss. “The environment was great. The people were smart. It had a lot of kinetic energy to it.”
Within 10 months, she had landed a full-time job at the network, assisting the head of original programming.
Her unwavering loyalty to the cable network is rock solid. Unlike other programming execs, who routinely move from job to job and network to network, Strauss has had an impressive tenure at HBO.
One reason, she says, is that on-the-job boredom was never an issue with her. She has been consistently challenged by the intellectual caliber of her colleagues, all of whom she describes as “really, really smart.”
An added bonus: Strauss regularly works with Hollywood's top writers and producers, including Sex and the City's executive producer Michael Patrick King and The Sopranos' creator David Chase.
“To talk about these projects means I have to be at the top of my game,” Strauss says. “It keeps your creative and mental acumen as sharp as you can make them. HBO is not the kind of place where I feel I can rest on my laurels.”
According to her boss, HBO Chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht, the two share a “common language.”
“Carolyn possesses the strengths you wish you could find in everyone you work with,” he adds. “She is smart, loyal, passionate and has great creative instincts.”
Strauss is now busy using her sharp instincts to help refuel HBO's programming engine, a challenge due to last year's curtain call of perennial fan-favorite Sex and the City, and The Sopranos' absence from the screen until 2006.
Sifting through endless pitches for new shows and esoteric “passion products” from writers is no easy feat, Strauss admits.
Sometimes, a hit is immediately apparent, but at other times, a little digging is required. Occasionally, an idea just needs some tweaking to make it click. She cites a pitch from David Milch.
Over lunch, Milch, co-creator of NYPD Blue and the executive producer of Emmy-winning Hill Street Blues, pitched a show about lawlessness, to be set in Rome during the time of Nero. Strauss and Albrecht exchanged a furtive glance. They already had a similar, $100 million epic project, called Rome, in the works.
But Milch's enthusiasm and the intelligence of his pitch struck Strauss, who quickly decided she wanted to be in business with him. So aided by the two execs, Milch neatly shifted his focus to America's wild West, circa 1876—and Strauss deemed Deadwood good to go.
Given her knack for picking winners, what typically attracts Strauss to a project?
A great story, engaging characters and a unique perspective, she says. Rather than being a slave to trendy, cutting-edge fare, Strauss favors an off-kilter approach.
“It's really about point of view and storytelling, less of what is of the specific moment. A great HBO show is a timeless show,” she adds.
HBO's latest originals are Unscripted, the recently premiered pseudo- reality show from George Clooney's Section Eight production company, about actors struggling to make it in Hollywood, and The Comeback, a comedy from Friends' Lisa Kudrow that is set to debut in June 2005.
For now, Strauss is busy enjoying family life on the West Coast. She made the move to California from New York in 1990, when she was promoted to director of original programming.
A move from HBO, however, is not in the cards for Strauss.
“You're constantly hearing of the perils of staying in one place for so long,” she says, smiling. “A breadth of experience is one thing, but I'm wise enough to know when I have it good.”
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