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
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
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
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
Given her knack for picking winners, what typically attracts Strauss to
A great story, engaging characters and a unique perspective, she says.
Rather than being a slave to trendy, cutting-edge fare, Strauss favors an
“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
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.”