Television: A Whacking Leaves HBO in Crisis

Everyone at HBO knew they were about to lose a celebrated patriarch, a cornerstone of the network, and they even knew the date it would happen: June 10, the night of the series finale of "The Sopranos." But in the early hours of May 6, the HBO family was flattened by an incident no one saw coming: Chris Albrecht, the network's chief executive and creative visionary, was arrested in Las Vegas on suspicion of assaulting his girlfriend. The next day, Albrecht, 54, told HBO's staff that after 13 years of sobriety, he had resumed drinking and was taking a leave of absence to re-enroll in Alcoholics Anonymous. The day after that, the Los Angeles Times published a story uncovering a 1991 incident in which Albrecht allegedly assaulted a female subordinate with whom he was romantically involved. (HBO paid the woman $400,000 to settle the issue quietly.) Hours after the story broke, at the behest of Time Warner, which owns HBO, Albrecht resigned. Another patriarch, another cornerstone—sleeping with the fishes.

Suddenly, HBO is facing the biggest crisis of its 35-year history. The powerhouse cable network is losing its captain and the jewel of its fleet at roughly the same time, but the widespread sentiment in Hollywood is that Albrecht is the far greater blow. "He built HBO," says one top television agent, who asked not to be identified because he has business ties with the network. "Losing 'The Sopranos' is like losing a limb. Losing Chris is like losing your heart." Indeed, many at HBO were crestfallen, especially those on the talent side, who viewed Albrecht as a rare creative ally among TV executives. "All of this feels so sad. This is a good man caught in a bad moment," says David Simon, co-creator of HBO's critically revered "The Wire." "I don't think I'd be in television if not for him."

Nevertheless, Time Warner and HBO brass quickly shifted into damage control, with insiders downplaying Albrecht's role in a business that generated $1.2 billion in profits last year. To be fair, if any TV network can weather such a storm, it's HBO. "Were it not for the fact that I work for people Chris mentored, I'd be terrified this morning," says Simon. Almost everyone in HBO's executive hallway has been with the network forever, including interim CEO Bill Nelson. Other candidates to replace Albrecht include HBO's marketing savant Eric Kessler; Colin Callender, its president of films, and communications chief Richard Plepler. Given HBO's unique culture, most observers assume that Albrecht's successor will come from within, but buzz is gathering around one prominent outsider: former Viacom CEO Tom Freston, a close friend of Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes, whom Albrecht succeeded atop HBO.

Whoever replaces Albrecht will be fortunate to inherit a loaded pipeline of original programming, including five debut series over the next year and new seasons of returning hits "Big Love" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and the final season of "The Wire." Prior to Albrecht's ouster, HBO gave NEWSWEEK an exclusive look at episodes of all five new series, and while none seems capable of replacing "The Sopranos"—an admittedly impossible task—taken as a group they reinforce HBO's reputation as the chief destination for provocative TV. Debuting right after the finale of "The Sopranos" is "Deadwood" creator David Milch's new series, "John From Cincinnati," a quasi-spiritual drama about a family of California surfers that is sure to transfix some viewers and annoy the heck out of others. Also in the offing is "In Treatment," a half-hour series from author Gabriel García Márquez's son Rodrigo, and starring Gabriel Byrne as a therapist. And early next year HBO will unveil "12 Miles of Bad Road," a scabrously funny satire of real-estate magnates in Dubya's Texas. The network also has the eight-part, $100 million mini-series "John Adams," based on the David McCullough best seller and starring Oscar nominee Paul Giamatti, and "The Pacific," Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks's $200 million sequel to "Band of Brothers." Alas, Albrecht will be watching them all like the rest of us—on the couch. "I don't want to be dismissive of the issues involved here," says Simon. "But there's too much to Chris for this to be his legacy. Life is more subtle than that." And for Albrecht, more tragic, too.

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