Premium Programmer

Carolyn Strauss figures to be quite busy in 2003. And beyond. Home Box Office's executive vice president of original programming — who, along with network chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht, has built the premium channel into an original on-air powerhouse — rides herd over the development and production of series, miniseries, specials and late-night fare.

With a lineup that includes award-winning shows like The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under
and Curb Your Enthusiasm, HBO series have become the measuring stick for — and the envy of — many in the television industry.

But production is about to begin on Sex's final season, and the mob drama is also winding down. Yet Strauss is philosophical in discussing series order and the transition that lies ahead.

"It's a juggling act," she said. "You only have a limited amount of resources. The older a show gets, the more expensive it gets. There is less opportunity for new things. The older ones go off, and there is a new chase for the up-and-comers."

What will she be concentrating most on in 2003? "All the new series," she said. "Getting something new started is always more time-consuming."

Late-night entries

To that end, HBO will premiere its first one-hour talker, Real Time With Bill Maher, at 11:30 p.m. on Feb. 21.

"The logic of Bill on HBO is crystal clear. He's done five stand-up specials on our air and we produced Politically Incorrect
for nine seasons," said Strauss, who certainly won't mute Maher.

"He's no party's mouthpiece," she added. "He has his own unvarnished, well-thought-out opinions that can sometimes be very provocative.

"He has been criticized for speaking his mind on the network, but we will not rein him in," said Strauss of Maher, who took flak for criticizing characterizations of the Sept. 11 terrorists as "cowards" on ABC's PI
— a comment that some said was a factor in that program's cancellation. "We want the naked Bill."

Maher will be followed by the Da Ali G Show, a six-episode series starring British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, the "hip-hop journalist," who has interviewed world figures on his U.K. show.

"His cover has long been blown in England. He surprises people. The interviewees are not sure what's going on. They're being asked legitimate questions," said Strauss. Among the people Cohen questions stateside: Newt Gingrich, Michael Dukakis and C. Everett Koop.

Strauss is also focusing on Carnivale, a 12-episode series that follows a traveling carnival during the Dust Bowl era of 1934, slated to bow before year-end.

And Deadwood
is a 13-episode Western drama set during the post-Custer era in the Dakotas.

"It's a complicated Western. It's not about 'black hats vs. white hats.' While it hearkens back to a simpler time, it still reflects the present day," said Strauss. The series, set to debut next year, is now in the writing stage.

Meanwhile, production begins on Marriage
in June. This project, with Steven Bochco Productions, will provide "the most intimate look" at a couple's relationship, with all of their interactions occurring in the bedroom, bathroom or closet of their home, she said.

Creative culture

Strauss joined HBO's New York office in 1986 as assistant, original programming.

"It was pretty much my first job," said Strauss, who holds a bachelor of arts from Harvard University. "I was temping around New York."

Three years later, she was promoted to manager. In 1990, she relocated to Los Angeles as director of original programming, before being appointed vice president and in 1994 and senior vice president in 1999.

In addition to the aforementioned series, Strauss has also supervised the development and production of The Wire, Mind of the Married Man, Arli$$, Tracey Takes On …, The Larry Sanders Show
and The Chris Rock Show. In late night she has been involved with Dennis Miller Live, Def Comedy Jam, Def Poetry, Mr. Show
and The Kids in the Hall, and dozens of specials, with such notables as Damon Wayans and John Leguizamo.

Strauss attributes much of the network's success to one constant: a veteran crew. "A lot of people in scheduling, promotion, marketing, media have been together for a long time," she said. "With programming, we've been able to see what works, what doesn't. We have similar sensibilities."

What has ensued is a corporate culture steeped in support. "There is an enormous trust amongst us," she said. "There have not been a lot of politics or other distractions about people learning how to work together."

With the increasing accolades being heaped upon HBO fare, one thing has evolved somewhat over the years, though.

"The expectations for the programming have always been a very high standard, and they have gotten a little higher every step of the way," she said.

Nevertheless, Strauss maintains that each show is "judged on its own. There is a pocket of expectations that filters out for each as it feels its way through. We're enormously proud of all of them."

For example, she acknowledges that The Wire
— which centered on a drugs-and-murder investigation in Baltimore, and was renewed for a second season — "didn't make a big splash" early on. "But it's a high-quality show that wound up making a lot of critics' 10-best list."

Asked which shows she knew would be a big hit right out of the box, Strauss is demure.

"I've always been a superstitious kind of person," she said. "I've guarded against being disappointed by not having too great expectations."

Conversely, Strauss still has some regrets about one program that she feels didn't fill its potential: "I used to think about this a lot more than I do now, but we never got all the pieces together of Tenacious D."

When she has leisure time, Strauss will occasionally "vacation, go back East once in a blue moon." Otherwise, she "works out, hangs out. I don't have any particular hobby. All the cracks are filled."