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Sun, Dec 29, 2002 - Page 12 News List

HBO chairman looks beyond `Sex and the City'

With his own feel for the industry, Chris Albrecht has led HBO to three Emmys, two Golden Globes and two Peabodys -- now he pushes himself to develop shows as successful as `The Sopranos'

By Bill Carter  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Christopher Meloni acts in the HBO series ``Oz.''

PHOTO: NY TIMES

In the six months that Chris Albrecht has occupied the chairman's office at HBO, about the only personal touches he has added are the three Emmy Awards, two Golden Globes and two Peabody Awards lined up on the otherwise empty bookshelf. New couches are on order, he said, as he tries to make himself comfortable in the corner office overlooking the Avenue of the Americas in Midtown Manhattan.

If he still seems a bit out of place in the setting, perhaps it is because his recent experience -- indeed, substantially all of his career -- has been in Hollywood, where he has been HBO's most important creative executive: the deal maker, the green-lighter, the programmer in chief for hits like The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The shows made on Albrecht's watch have helped make HBO very profitable. This year, he said, earnings will come in "north of US$800 million," or about three times what they were when he took over programming seven years ago, and very important to HBO's ailing parent, AOL Time Warner. By comparison, NBC, the most profitable broadcast network, will have earnings of just over US$500 million this year.

As he settles into his new role, Albrecht, 49, is trying to inject creativity into the business side of the network. While continuing to oversee the development of shows, he is looking for new places to sell HBO's old hits. That means everything from DVDs to video on demand -- and perhaps sales to other networks and TV stations.

"Really, Chris is like an old-time studio chief," said David Chase, who changed Albrecht's life five years ago when he put a script he had written for a series called The Sopranos into Albrecht's hands.

"He's the Harry Cohn of today."

The comparison with Cohn, who made Columbia Pictures a commercial and artistic success in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, goes only so far. Like Cohn, Albrecht runs a big, hard-nosed business while creating entertainment, chosen largely by a sense of personal taste, that significantly influences popular culture.

He does not, however, have the reputation for blunt, sometimes brutal leadership that Cohn had. Rather, he is known mainly as a cordial courter of talent, though some associates describe him as being, in the words of one, "somewhat inscrutable, not that easy to know."

Over the last five years, Albrecht's programs were not only hits but were also recognized by critics and viewers as cultural benchmarks. "I would have to say he is the top guy working in television right now," said the chief executive of a rival network, who spoke without attribution to avoid comparisons with his own employees. Only one other TV executive has as much power over a network's business and creative sides: Leslie Moonves, the president of CBS Television.

But Albrecht's promotion to the job formerly held by his mentor, Jeff Bewkes, surprised some people in the industry precisely because he had been so important in building HBO's programming. They have wondered whether AOL Time Warner's chief executive, Richard D. Parsons, might be diluting Albrecht's creative skills by asking him to run the business end of HBO.

One senior television network executive said: "If I'm Dick Parsons, the question I would have is, why do I want to take a great surgeon and put him into a job running an HMO where he's not doing nearly as much operating anymore?"

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