What Michael Fuchs Wants You To Know

BECAUSE MICHAEL FUCHS, CHAIRMAN and spiritual founder of HBO, has an ego as big as the Ritz, it's a little painful to say nice things about him. Especially since the Michael-as-monster story was journalists' gospel in the 1980s, when Fuchs's sandpaper personality and HBO's power in Hollywood earned him labels like ""a phobia named Fuchs.''

But those days are gone. HBO has recovered from its late-'80s doldrums to be a major cash cow for Time Warner; it is creatively diversifying from a mature core business, and it is producing provocative programming (""The Larry Sanders Show,'' ""And the Band Played On'') that has aced the Emmys and set an example for television. Fuchs is on his way to a major image rehab.

But not without a side dish of gossip. Fuchs, 48, is emerging from a decade of self-imposed media exile -- his staff is offering him up for interviews and profiles -- at a time of turmoil for Time Warner. Chairman Gerald Levin is juggling a threat to cable-system profits from new regulations and a possible takeover challenge from Seagram. Because Fuchs is so driven, and because moguls are traditionally restless, there is speculation that he would like a new job, even Levin's. Fuchs denies it.

Just a few years back, he wouldn't have had to bother. In the late 1980s experts declared pay television and HBO moribund. HBO had roared ahead in the 1970s when cable was HBO and Fuchs drove hard bargains with Hollywood studios that had to be on it. But the VCR hurt badly, and HBO missed some big openings. Though it ran some of the first music videos, it didn't dream up MTV. And Fuchs still burns over the fate of his comedy channel; after alienating cable operators, he ended up with only 50 percent of struggling Comedy Central.

That happened in part because of Fuchs's infamous, take-no-prisoners negotiating style. During HBO's early heyday, he went for the jugular. If angry studio execs complained, he'd say things like, ""Stop being such a big baby.'' He wasn't inclined to forgive or forget. HBO original-programming chief Bridget Potter says it's the flip side of his intense loyalty. ""If someone has been disloyal or dishonest, he doesn't forget [it].'' Much of the antagonism, though, was Hollywood pique at an interloper.

In fact, Fuchs's confrontational style has helped HBO stay on the right path. With aggressive marketing, subscribers jumped by 3.5 percent last year after a long dry spell. HBO has moved into foreign markets, and it pioneered ""multiplexing,'' or giving viewers several feeds of programming with different schedules. It's diversified on the HBO network, by adding original programming, and outside it, by selling its own productions (Fox's ""Roc'') and getting into businesses such as sports licensing (the World Cup logo). Outside ventures accounted for 28 percent of revenues last year, up from 1 percent in 1982. HBO made $230 million, or 8 percent of Time Warner's pretax profit.

To keep this up, Fuchs must stay ahead of the multimedia revolution, especially the technology that will create home-video jukeboxes. His strategy is to make HBO a powerful brand name, signaling high quality on the cutting edge. Part of the current press drive is simply advertisement for the brand. But HBO's edge is in the very nature of pay television. Its revenues depend on the number of subscribers attracted to the network, not on the huge ratings advertisers demand. And because there are no advertisers, HBO has a freedom that Fuchs calls ""programming heaven.'' HBO can buy for film development books such as ""Soap Opera,'' which eviscerates Procter & Gamble, one of television's biggest and most feared advertisers. HBO's new show featuring the cerebral comic Dennis Miller won't get ""a 22 share,'' says Potter, ""but we're not asking it to.''

HBO still programs boxing and mediocre movies, but it has become a home for creative, politically minded artists; Fuchs has gone from bad guy to cultural benefactor.

Socially conscious programming is a smart strategic niche. But it's also a mission for Fuchs, who campaigned for Robert Kennedy, among others, in the 1960s. ""Since the time I was a kid, I wanted the true story on Roy Cohn,'' he says of HBO's film about Joe McCarthy's ruthless henchman. He says he hasn't bought Exxon gas since the Valdez spill, another HBO movie topic. Fond of the good life, Fuchs nonetheless lives in New York's East Village, not a tony address, and invites his high-school buddies to his parties, along with the Donald Trumps. He has extended his philosophy to the office, building a headquarters in troubled Times Square. HBO staffers who appreciate his style are fiercely loyal.

The latest word on Fuchs is that he is mellowing. He even appears to have made peace with his longtime rivals at Warner Bros. studio. That, of course, could help smooth his way to the top of Time Warner. Fuchs dismisses such talk in his characteristic style. ""I think Time Warner is an exciting company. I'm ambitious. I'm very good. I can do anything.'' Then he adds dryly: ""I don't think it's in the cards,'' and insists he has no such agenda. Only his PR man knows for sure.