A Highly Original Interview with HBO's Albrecht

In directing the day-to-day West and East Coast programming operations for Home Box Office and Cinemax, Chris Albrecht sits atop a wealth of top-flight programming. Named president of original programming in 1995, Albrecht added responsibility for the networks' original movie production to his role in April 1999. Since 1990, Albrecht has also headed HBO Independent Productions, a unit that has developed and produced comedy series for distribution on the premium service and the broadcast networks. The division, which goes back to Albrecht's days as co-owner of The Improvisation Club in New York, has produced the likes of CBS' Everybody Loves Raymond. HBO heads into the summer with a new original series, Six Feet Under. Coming in September: TV's most expensive production ever, Band of Brothers, a 10-part World War II miniseries. Then there's that show about a "family" guy from North Jersey.
Multichannel News news editor Mike Reynolds recently had a sit down with Albrecht. An edited transcript follows:

MCN: HBO has had a longtime Saturday-night guarantee of fresh movies. With all the series — and the miniseries Band Of Brothers coming up in the fall — it now is offering original programming on every Sunday night this year. Is that a standard you feel compelled to maintain going forward?

Chris Albrecht:
Yes. I think it's really important for us to be competitive 52 weeks a year, and certainly Sunday has been a day that we've been able to be very successful with. It just makes sense for us to expand that, to do as many weeks as we can handle.

MCN: Speaking of expansion, there's been talk of HBO going to a second night of original series. Some people say Tuesday, some Wednesday. What do you say?

For the last couple of years on Wednesdays in the summer, we've been returning our originals in about a two-hour block. I think that as we expand the programming throughout the year, that will become a staple. The series [will] premiere on Sunday nights [and] repeat at different times during the week, but kind of come together again on Wednesdays.

MCN: Further down the road, will you mix in new series on that night as well?

Very possibly.

MCN: HBO chairman Jeff Bewkes has said he's looking to add 5 million to 7 million subs for the service over the next five years or so. How critical is original-series production to attaining that goal? Are original series more important to subscribers than original movies, the theatricals, boxing — the gestalt of the service?

As you know, it's a very inexact science in judging what attracts and keeps subscribers. Obviously with the money that we're investing in original series, we think that that is an important element. Certainly, shows like Sex and the City, The Sopranos
and Oz
have provided us with a tremendous amount of attention and viewership. So, it's just logical that those things would be important pieces in achieving an increased subscriber goal.

MCN: Looking at the number of series, original films, documentaries, what's the current ratio of original productions on HBO, versus theatricals?

We're about 30 percent original to theatrical. I think that will stay fairly consistent. I mean one of the things that we've also done is to extend a lot of our theatrical-output deals well into the end of this decade.

I think there are two very important goals we have. One is to have significantly more theatrical product than any other service. As a matter of fact, we'll have as much as the other two services, Starz! and Showtime, combined. The other is to have the most compelling, original programming on television. Those two goals, I think, are compatible and the ratio I think will be determined by what we need to do to achieve those goals.

MCN: How does Cinemax figure into that equation? HBO is putting a lot more emphasis behind Cinemax, with major theatricals premiering on that service before HBO. Does that raise the ante for your department to produce more originals for Cinemax?

We think Cinemax is the best movie service on television, and it has original programming in the real-life documentary genre. What the immediate goal will be is to make HBO and Cinemax more complementary services, where you get a great movie channel in HBO and you get the best movie channel in Cinemax. You get the best original programming channel in HBO. When you combine the two, you've got basically almost all the entertainment that anybody needs.

MCN: How
Reel Max many documentaries are produced annually?

We've been doing one a month; we've been doing 12 a year.

MCN: That's where you've been and will be for a while?


MCN: Tim Brooks, the TV historian and head of research for Lifetime Television, has called HBO an upscale, urban network that's not going for the heartland. Is that something you agree with? Is it reflected in your subscriber base?

Well, you know what? I don't think that that's actually right. Certainly, cable is something that started in the heartland because it was designed to bring reception to people that couldn't get TV over antennas. As satellite increases — and certainly, the investment in satellite and that equipment is significant — you are going to get more upscale new subscribers.

But we have a very broad subscriber base that is slightly more upscale than a broadcast-network audience. But without knowing exactly who our subscribers are — and we don't, because we're not exactly provided that information by the cable companies — it's very hard for us to actually make a statement one way or the other.

MCN: The strike with the Writers Guild of America has been averted. How worried were you about that?

You know, it was a double-edged sword. If there had been a writers' strike, it would have certainly impacted some things. On the one hand, it was an opportunity for us to launch some programs like Band of Brothers
and some other things in the fall without much competition.

And one of the ways that we looked at it, it was going to be an automatic budget reduction. So it cut both ways. But no one wanted a strike. Cooler heads prevailed.

MCN: Similarly, the Screen Actors Guild is now in negotiations. Your anticipation there?

The conventional wisdom is that there will be a resolution in the Screen Actors' negotiations because of the writers' resolution. I guess anything could happen, but I certainly think that the money now is heading toward that there won't be a strike.

MCN: You've already mentioned
Band of Brothers in September. What were your contingency plans? Do you have a lot of productions stockpiled?

No. We don't have a lot of things. Basically, we would have been fine with everything through the beginning of the year. The problem in a long strike … for us, would not have been immediate. The problem for us would have really hit more next spring.

MCN: Did you speed production up to get ready for a potential work stoppage?

Yes, slightly. What we did was, we made a decision on Sex and the City
to shoot 12 and then take a break. We needed to know for sure when we would put Band of Brothers
on, and since we didn't know if there'd be a strike or not, we decided, 'Let's take the pragmatic way out, the prudent way out, and say we'll only air 12 Sex and the City
episodes this summer, and then we'll save six for later.' We made sure that we could get at least 12 in. We made sure we could get all the Arli$$
episodes done. We made sure that we could get our full order of Curb Your Enthusiasm
and the new series, Mind of the Married Man, in before there would be a strike. So we just rescheduled slightly, but it wasn't a mad dash.

MCN: With Band of Brothers set to bow on Sept. 9, if there is a strike, you would be sitting pretty with what seems to be a very high-quality show. It has a $120 million production budget — the most-expensive TV project ever. How excited or how worried are you about viewers' reaction to this?

Well, you always feel a little apprehensive when you take this big a risk, but I've seen the show and it's stunning. So I'm pretty confident that we can get a lot of attention. I think that the press and the audience are going to love the show.

MCN: Strike considerations or not, was Band of Brothers always going to cut through and start against the fall season? Wouldn't you have been better off running it during that quiet broadcast time between February and May sweeps, or during the summer?

We would have been better off from a pure-audience point of view probably running it during the summer. But the biggest TV projects have always been in the fall.

This is an important project and it seemed like it belonged there. It belonged there during a time when school is in, because there is educational outreach that goes along with our promotion of this, and it just made more sense for the integrity of the project.

MCN: With your other big miniseries, From Earth to the Moon, there were various ratings spikes at the beginning and toward the end. Do you expect the same kind of thing with Band of Brothers? Will this have legs?

Unlike From the Earth to the Moon, this is a story following one group of characters all the way through. I think the more you watch the show, the more you will get involved with these characters, and the more you'll want to find out what happens to them. With From the Earth to the Moon, if you know about the history, you know that the three men were killed in 1967 on the tarmac in the fire, and then in '69, they landed and then everything went pretty well. The only real problem was Apollo 13, which was in the movie, you know? So while that was an amazing project, and certainly there was a great element of wonder, there wasn't a great element of suspense. And I think that that's something that Band of Brothers
provides much more successfully.

MCN: HBO also had big critical success with The Corner last year. How important is the miniseries genre to you? Is it something you want to do every year or every couple of years?

I think we're going to try to keep in the miniseries business. It's something that's a unique form to television. We've won two best miniseries Emmy awards with From the Earth to the Moon
and The Corner. I think we'll have, hopefully, tremendous success with Band of Brothers. It's something that selectively can be an important genre for us.

MCN: Will the promo pop for
Band of Brothers be commensurate with the scope of the project? You're doing things all over the world to promote this. Is this HBO's biggest promotional effort as well?

Yes. Obviously, we're going to really try and do our best to support this … in the way that it deserves.

MCN: With respect to
The Sopranos, there's been speculation that the fourth season won't start until September 2002 …

Right. That's just speculation. We haven't figured anything out yet.

MCN: Similarly, will there be a fifth season? Do you know? What can you say?

I'm optimistic.

MCN: OK. Coming out of the gate for the third season, there was a lot of real, real good press. But there have been some articles that haven't been as kind, saying the third season hasn't been as strong as the first two. What's your reaction?

I think that's ridiculous. I think the third season is better than the second season. And most people that I've talked to who watch The Sopranos
think the same thing. So I don't even know where those people are coming from.

MCN: For the third season, the ratings tracked up significantly. The show averaged 9 million homes and the finale garnered an 18.7 rating in HBO households…

Yes, the show held incredibly well. We were in May sweeps for the first time. I think that this show will continue to increase.

The Sopranos the highest-profile thing that's ever come to HBO, and how has it affected subscriber acquisition and retention? Where does it stack up in HBO's pantheon?

When you get the cover of Newsweek, saying it has the broadcast networks on the run, and you get the cover of TV Guide
in the same week. … You know when you turn on CNBC and the guys are talking about what happened on The Sopranos
episode last night, you have something that is invading the culture in a big way. You can't quantify that impact and compare it to anything else.

Again, whether positive subscriber growth or retention is a result of that, we actually have no idea. Obviously, we're happy with the show and we hope that it's on HBO for many more years.

Certainly, from an attention point of view, it's the most that's ever happened in cable, and maybe to a certain extent in television in general. This is Seinfeld
-level attention.

MCN: What's your reaction to some of the complaints about the stereotyping of Italian Americans? That there's too much violence …

Well, my mother is Sicilian and aside from the fact that all my relatives were … I mean, I think, certainly every Sicilian person that I know had somebody who they bragged about in their family who was in the Mafia.

To me, there is a wide range of characters on The Sopranos. There are some very positive role models, some not so positive role models. But all are very real versions of a cross section of people that are out there. This is a group of Italian-Americans, not every Italian-American, and the show doesn't say that.

In terms of violence, I think the violence on the show is real. It's organic to the show. There are a lot of characters in the show who are bad people and bad people do bad things. I think to pull back on that would be to actually create more of a problem, because it would not catch these people in their true light and show the horrific nature of violence.

MCN: How about what NBC chairman Bob Wright had to say? Any reaction to his letter to TV executives trying to get a read on The Sopranos and its impact on NBC and on TV overall?

All you have to do is look at the ratings on Sunday nights to understand what was behind that letter. My answer is that HBO puts on the highest-quality program in adult-appropriate time slots for paying subscribers. With the XFL, NBC injected big breasts and four-letter words in the hopes of selling more young men more beer.

MCN: Let's talk about some financing issues. HBO certainly has attracted some big names for projects, like Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. But a lot of the series, with the violence, nudity and language, are not exactly ready-made for syndication. How difficult has that made it to attract other talent? Has that hindered your ability to do some projects?

Well, I think it has made a large group of people stay away from HBO.

The model for broadcast television is, you make the programs to sell the products in the commercials. And the producers hopefully make enough programs to sell them into syndication, and then they can make a lot money. That's not our business model.

It has caused a certain handicapping, certainly for us, in terms of the number of people that come here, but we certainly feel that we've arrived. We're very grateful for the hand that we're holding and the people that have decided to come here and provided us with what we think is the best stuff on television. We're very grateful to them and we try to do the best job we can by them, both financially and through support of their show. But yes, it has had some impact.

MCN: If some of the series can't be sold into syndication, given your main service, the different plexes, the subscription video-on-demand market, the DVD market — is this a business model that works well for you over the long term?

Yes. I mean I don't think anybody knows what the SVOD business is yet. But certainly, I guess, there's potential there.

MCN: The seven series HBO has or will have over the next few months are all of a different ilk. Is there any thread that I'm missing? Is there anything that guides what you and [senior vice president of original programming] Carol Strauss decide in picking up a series?

We want something that just really impresses us and something that we feel is really about something. We look for something that we feel we can make really well, and really belongs on HBO because somebody else probably wouldn't do that version of it. And that's a very subjective thing and it makes decision-making difficult many times.

MCN: Why should viewers watch Six Feet Under?

Because coming out of the box, it's already one of the best dramas on television.

MCN: Why will viewers take to
Mind of the Married Man, which many see as a companion piece to Sex and the City, but was actually at HBO before Sex?

Because married men are something that everybody comes into contact with.

MCN: You have a variety of dayparts and different types of programs on the air. The one thing I don't see is a game show. Is that something you guys are thinking about at all?

Funny that you mentioned it. Somebody [recently] said to me [that] they wanted to come out and pitch something. You know what? The broadcast networks are doing that so successfully right now, it's like anything else. Somebody would have to come in and say to me, here's a game show that belongs on HBO because it's different in a quality way than anything else that's on a broadcast network. If we could find the right thing, there is no reason why we wouldn't do it.

MCN: Right.

But I think that to do a naked Survivor
wouldn't be something that would appeal to us and I'm sure it wouldn't impress too many people.

MCN: Speaking of naked,
Real Sex [specials] continues to roll, but are there more G-String Divas episodes? Another season at another club?

No, not right now.

MCN: Your original film production is about 10 per year. Are you going to continue in that vein?

Yes. It really depends on the ones that come down the pipe. I think 10 or 12 is probably a good number.

MCN: There are different numbers and a lot of jealous programming executives out there. What is HBO's original programming budget: $400 million, $500 million, $600 million?

I don't know where you got the six from.

MCN: I read it somewhere. Which one do you like?

We've sort of bulged out this year a little bit with Band of Brothers. It's in the original programming budget with the series and the movies. The running rate is around $350 million.

MCN: It has been said that you have up to 40 projects in the pipeline. Is there anything going to break through soon that you can tell us about?

No, we're really looking at a couple of different pilot possibilities right now. We're waiting to see how our June stuff does to see if there are needs, some special needs that we might have.

MCN: What is a project that you want to see on HBO — something that hits home personally, something that would strike a chord with you?

Umm … you know what? I don't have an answer for that. I don't work that way.