Losing an Inside Job at HBO

By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Carolyn Strauss has been removed as president of HBO's entertainment division, 10 months after her mentor, HBO CEO Chris Albrecht was shown the door in response to being arrested on suspicion of smacking around his girlfriend in a Vegas casino parking lot.

Now, at any other network, this would not be big news. At another network, the sacking of the head of entertainment division would merely signal that about three years had passed -- possibly two, maybe four -- since the last sacking of the entertainment division president at that network. The mortality rate of network entertainment division presidents is so high, it's been declared one of the entertainment industry's most dangerous jobs.

But at HBO, the sacking of the head of the entertainment division is huge news. HBO is like a cult. Outsiders can't enter and nobody ever leaves. (Strauss, for instance, has been with the company for 22 years; it's the only place she's worked since graduating from Harvard in 1985. And technically, she still isn't leaving -- she'll get a production deal at HBO.)

To get shown the door at HBO, you literally have to get arrested, on suspicion of assaulting your girlfriend, and then have the L.A. Times report you'd previously roughed up a female HBO staffer and that the guy about to be anointed chief of HBO parent Time Warner is the same guy who'd approved cutting a settlement check to this HBO staffer.

Strauss's exit -- which the channel did not announce, but did confirm -- comes about six months after HBO announced a major deck-chair shuffling in which chief operating officer Bill Nelson was named CEO. Three other guys who did not get that job were named HBO co-presidents, including Richard Plepler, who was named co-prez of HBO programming and corporate communications. And the guy who had been VP of business affairs, production and programming, Michael Lombardo, was named president of the programming group. See what we mean -- no outsiders in, nobody gets out.

So the news about Strauss naturally had the TV industry all atwitter yesterday. And, according to one HBO exec, Plepler and Lombardo were flooded with calls and e-mails from people hoping they, or someone they represent, would be considered to replace Strauss (though the smart money was on HBO having already zeroed in on Strauss's replacement before confirming her exit).

"Anyone would kill their mother to get this job -- it's the most coveted job in television," one Los Angeles TV industry veteran told The TV Column yesterday.

The Big Question on everyone's mind: Has HBO taken the shocking step of actually looking outside its hallways for her successor?

"They never have in the past -- but they're in a world of hurt and they never have been before," noted the vet, who demanded anonymity because in this industry, you never know who you're going to be doing business with.

HBO, once the hot blond cheerleader of the TV industry, has lost its mojo of late. In its heyday, it was the home of "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City," "Six Feet Under" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." HBO was so hot, it wasn't even TV.

But more recently, HBO's been getting no traction with ratings-starved shows like "Deadwood," "John From Cincinnati," "Rome," "Carnival," "Tell Me You Love Me" and "In Treatment."

HBO's official position has been that more and more people are watching their programs on demand, on the Internet, etc.

Hooey, says our industry source, voicing an opinion also held by others in town. "The reason the numbers are down is they've got [poopy] shows," the exec said.

"They were on the wildest ride: nothing but blue sky and money falling all over, and all of a sudden it just ended and they've struck out right and left -- five years now. The last year or two was embarrassing, not just bad. . . . The minute they come up with another hit show the audience will flock to them. They still have subscribers, people will keep that as a matter of habit, but sooner or later people are going to start dumping them if they don't come up with a hit show."

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