HBO: Who's Who in the Post-Albrecht CEO Race

Fight night in Sin City seems to bring grief to a lot of people outside the ring. In 1996, after a bout between Mike Tyson and Bruce Sheldon at the MGM Grand, an assassin felled hip-hop icon Tupac Shakur near the Las Vegas Strip, sending the entire music industry into mourning. The following year, when Mike Tyson bit off a chunk of Evander Holyfield's ear during a match, a postfight melee broke out. Last weekend, after Floyd Mayweather Jr. outboxed Oscar de la Hoya, a top television executive was the latest to meet a grim fate. In one drunken moment, HBO chief executive Chris Albrecht committed career suicide, landing in jail overnight after he was arrested in connection with an alleged altercation with his girlfriend outside the MGM Grand. And now in the wake of the incident, one of the most successful television networks of all time is left to contemplate its future without the towering creative figure most associated with its golden era of "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City" and "Six Feet Under."

Today, less than 24 hours after HBO-parent Time Warner announced that it forced out the 54-year-old Albrecht, speculation has mounted throughout Hollywood about who will succeed him. The focus mostly has been on HBO insiders, including the network's top marketing and communications executives. But considerable buzz is also circulating around one prominent outsider, Tom Freston, who was fired as CEO of MTV-parent Viacom last year.

Meanwhile, HBO officials have been struggling to control the damage from Albrecht's abrupt downfall after 22 years at the cable network. Speaking on background, they're accentuating HBO's management depth, while at the same time casting Albrecht's contributions in a more modest light than they had previously. Officially, HBO declined comment about the CEO post, referring inquiries to parent Time Warner. Time Warner's spokesman declined to comment on speculation about the vacant HBO post, saying only that "there are a lot of talented people at HBO." He wouldn't speculate on a time frame for filling the post. But others at HBO and Time Warner, speaking anonymously because they weren't authorized to comment, predicted that the job won't remain unfilled for long.

Albrecht's eventual successor is likely to be chosen by Time Warner president Jeff Bewkes, who preceded Albrecht at HBO and is now widely expected to succeed Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons next year. Bewkes, who was traveling earlier today, couldn't be reached for comment. Among the insiders said to be under consideration are HBO chief operating officer Bill Nelson, 58, who has assumed Albrecht's duties for now. Also considered to be in contention: Richard Plepler, 48, executive vice president, and Eric Kessler, 51, president of sales, marketing and business development.

The three are HBO veterans, each with different strengths. For example, insiders describe Nelson as a numbers guy who'd excel at handling the business side. If he were to get the nod, the thinking goes, Time Warner would almost certainly pair him with a creative partner, perhaps naming a top programming executive. If Kessler were appointed CEO it would be a tricky situation, Time Warner and HBO insiders say, because he now reports to Nelson, and a promotion would mean his boss would suddenly report to him—probably an untenable turn of events for Nelson. Still, Kessler's strength as a marketer with creative flair positions him as a strong choice for a bigger job in the looming management shift. Meanwhile, Plepler's prospects rest in large part on his long and close ties to Time Warner's Bewkes and deft political and communications skills. Plepler has a reputation for his smooth handling of Hollywood talent and as a crisis manager.

All three contenders, and other top creative executives, are apt to end up with broader responsibility and power no matter who ultimately gets the CEO post, observers at the network and Time Warner speculate. But they add that disappointment could lead some of the players to quit: some HBO veterans are almost certain to leave if Time Warner ventures outside for Albrecht's successor. In almost knee-jerk fashion, they declare that no outsider has the "HBO DNA" required to run the network. Still, for several reasons, Freston's name has surfaced. He's a widely popular and out-of-work executive who also enjoys a close friendship with Bewkes. "This is the first I've heard of it," Freston said when contacted by NEWSWEEK. "No one has had any discussions with me about it." He declined further comment.

After almost five years as CEO, Albrecht seemed destined for another tour of duty when his contract ended this year. According to Time Warner insiders, Bewkes was gearing up to begin what were expected to be tough, though successful, negotiations on a new employment agreement. That prospect began to disintegrate in the wee hours of last weekend. Albrecht, who's based in Los Angeles, had attended the Mayweather-De La Hoya fight with his girlfriend, landing a prime seat because the bout was an HBO event. After the contest, HBO held one of Sin City's many celebrity-studded, fight-night parties. For HBO, it was a time to be giddy: the super-welterweight match generated $120 million from HBO's pay-per-view telecast, making the boxing contest the richest fight in history, The Associated Press reported citing anonymous sources. At the party, according to witnesses, Albrecht slammed back tequila shots like a frat boy.

The incident with his girlfriend, who has been identified in various press accounts as a correspondent for Telemundo and HBO, happened around 3 a.m. at the valet entrance of the MGM Grand. Albrecht and the woman had been arguing when he grabbed her by the throat with both hands and attempted to drag her toward the entrance of the hotel, according to a report by Las Vegas police who witnessed the incident. A drunken Albrecht informed police that his girlfriend "had pissed me off" and that he was the CEO of HBO, according to the police report. Albrecht has yet to face any charges resulting from the incident, and the alleged victim told police she didn't want to press charges and wouldn't cooperate with their investigation.

With news of the incident splashed across headlines worldwide, Albrecht on Tuesday took a paid leave from his post, telling his colleagues in a statement that he'd fallen off the wagon after years of sobriety, and apologizing for the embarrassment. But the attempt to rehabilitate himself and save his job collapsed a day later when the Los Angeles Times published a front-page story reporting that it wasn't the first time Albrecht had been involved in an incident like this. In 1991, HBO had reached a secret $400,000 settlement to quash the disclosure of an assault by Albrecht on a colleague he was dating; she had alleged that Albrecht shoved and choked her, according to the Los Angeles Times. Last Wednesday afternoon, Time Warner announced that it had asked Albrecht to quit, making it clear that the company otherwise would have fired him. It was the kind of demise you'd expect to find in "The Sopranos," which itself is on the way out. And it's a tragic way to end a career.

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