HBO’s Family Business

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While anticipating the demise of The Sopranos, I’ve been wondering if HBO might be losing an even more valuable commodity: its mojo.

Consider that the final Sopranos season removed any doubt that it’s as outstanding as anything the medium has ever produced. A host of shows, from Larry Sanders to The Wire, also set a way-high bar for excellence and spurred a flurry of creativity everywhere from ABC to FX.

How could HBO ultimately not be a victim of its own success?

Like all dynasties, it had a fine run, but it’s also dealing with the requisite implosion issues. When a new team was announced last week to replace Chris Albrecht, who had to resign after his high-profile arrest for his recent drunken brawl, rumblings grew louder that HBO could no longer sell itself as “not TV.” Wasn’t Albrecht the straw that stirred the HBO cocktail?

Time Warner COO Jeff Bewkes responded to the hiring challenge by going against current convention and doing something old-school. Instead of reaching outside the company, he elevated HBO COO Bill Nelson to chairman/CEO. Plus, he raised four other longtime executives—most notably, Richard Plepler to the top programmer slot—to bolster the new regime.

HBO’s new leadership quintet—the crew also includes Harold Akselrad, overseeing business and legal affairs; Eric Kessler, in charge of sales and marketing; and Michael Lombardo, to head the West Coast operation—has more than 90 years of experience working at the company. The only face that has been around less than 20 years is Plepler, who arrived in 1993.

So why no new blood? No series the network has launched in the last two years has reached the water-cooler status of programs past—think Six Feet Under or Sex and the City—and some haven’t even made it past a rookie season. Early notices for HBO’s latest offerings John From Cincinnati and Flight of the Conchords—I like the former, not the later—imply they’ll be lucky to find niche success, if that.

On the surface, it appears HBO is creatively stalled. In fact, they’re not. Like Tony and his crew, they’re gearing up for their next killer move. After seeing two pilots HBO is looking to launch early next year—the viciously funny and infinitely accessible 12 Miles of Bad Road about a filthy real-estate-rich Dallas family, and In Treatment, which puts you inside a psychoanalyst’s (Gabriel Byrne) session with patients—I think Bewkes had good reason to believe he didn’t need to look outside the family. Other shows, which will augment such HBO stalwarts as The Wire and Curb Your Enthusiasm in coming months, such as Tell Me You Love Me—which is sexually explicit, even by premium-cable standards—sound like they all have potential to be appointment viewing.

Bewkes is smart. Chances are, he saw the revolving door of creative executives at other networks over the last decade, most recently at NBC, and concluded that, in quality television, as in the mob business, stability and loyalty can be assets.

The Sopranos teaches lessons HBO should heed. Among them: It’s always helpful to invite some new, less senior voices to sit around the big table. And Bewkes could learn one more thing: When you see a colleague in trouble, do something about it quickly, before he gets everyone in hot water. Or, like someone else named Chris, he may require an ugly, unceremonious exit.

E-mail comments to bcrobins@reedbusiness.com

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