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TAKE FIVE: Frank Rich's Critical New Role at HBO

Frank Rich, The New York Times’ double-length op-ed columnist, has added a new gig to his oeuvre: creative consultant for HBO.

According to Rich, conversations with HBO began several months ago when his friend Richard Plepler was named one of the network’s co-presidents. At HBO, Rich will vet scripts and offer advice on new projects.

Recent converts to The Times may know Rich as a political columnist. But before moving to the paper’s opinions pages, he spent more than a decade as the paper’s chief theater critic, and before that was a film and TV critic for Time. Rich credits his gut for pop culture with a lifelong fascination with the theater. As a boy growing up in Washington, D.C., he was a regular—in the standing room or second-balcony sections, and then as a $4-a-night usher—at the National Theatre.

Rich talks to B&C’s Marisa Guthrie about HBO’s new challenges, his script consulting hobby and the TV media’s treatment of the 2008 presidential race.

HBO is in the midst of a re-invention of sorts in a market that has become much more crowded with the kind of edgy, quality fare pioneered at the network. Can I assume that re-invention was a big topic in your conversations with them?

Absolutely. They’re looking for the next generation of shows as well as individual projects. I think they want to draw ideas from as many sources as they can, and they looked at me as part of the mix.

The industry is full of stories of executives who passed up scripts that eventually became hits. How do you pick a hit?

In the end, you have to go with your instincts. I’ve seen so many things, whether it be plays or movies or television in various iterations, before they were finished during the course of my career, even dating back to when I was a ticket taker, that I do think I’ve developed an instinct for what has promise and what doesn’t.

But does identifying successful concepts become that much harder in such a cacophonous media environment?

The great thing about HBO is because it’s not responsible to sponsors or ratings, they can put things on that are not going to be blockbusters whereas it is so dicey in commercial television. [The CW’s] Gossip Girl is a show that could not have more buzz and what do they have, an audience of a million people? That is probably not sustainable as a business model on commercial television. With something like Curb Your Enthusiasm, HBO has no problem supporting it. It’s good for HBO but it would be hard for [Curb] to thrive if it had to have sponsors and go up against American Idol.

HBO is in the Time Warner family, which has vast media holdings. What is it going to be like for you not to have that big target?

It’s not really too difficult. It’s very easy not to write about HBO. I can’t imagine that I would talk about CNN in some corporate way, if it’s not about politics. If it was a big thing that it was front-page news and some scandal was happening and there was no way to avoid it, I would disclose my interest.

Regarding your day job: Obviously this primary season has been unlike any other, and the amount of coverage has reflected that. But has the quality of coverage risen as well?

It’s hard to generalize. But I think the congenital problem is that there’s the story of the day and everyone is going to stick to it. And that’s what’s most bothersome to me. I think there’s a certain amount of pretense to try to maintain the drama that there really is still a [Hillary] Clinton [Barack] Obama race going on. To over-hype the West Virginia primary as if it’s going to actually change the equation just to create drama when there is no drama is typical of the syndrome, and that’s the problem on a lot of television.

I don’t think it’s necessarily even driven by the election. I think the fact of the matter is as broadcast news operations in particular have become ancillaries of entertainment divisions, which they didn’t used to be, the values of entertainment—good guys versus bad guys, melodrama, the tweaking of thrills and chills—can sometimes usurp those of journalism. There’s nothing ideological or partisan about it. It’s just, how can we whip up drama?