Chris Albrecht, the 49-year-old president of HBO original programming, is standing in the middle of his beige-toned corner office on the sun-drenched top floor of a Century City tower, surrounded by images of Sarah Jessica Parker.
Poster-sized photographs are propped up on every available piece of furniture, on window sills, even on the floor. There’s a shot of Sex and the City‘s iconic heroine, Carrie Bradshaw, sitting primly on a park bench, tilting her pert chin to the sky with her best gamine smile (and pushing the sartorial edge with a tiara and white gloves). There’s a flirty Carrie, kicking up a spiky Choo at a street-corner hot-dog stand; a pensive Carrie, gazing out from a telephone kiosk in a picture within a picture; and a glamorous Carrie, sparkling in a beaded dress, all burning eyes and glossy lips.
“We have to present these to SJ tomorrow,” says Carolyn Strauss, Albrecht’s deputy. Albrecht snaps to attention: “Then let’s pick the four we like best, and let her choose from those. We don’t want to draw this out.” They both scan the photos in a slow circle and, almost in unison, point to the same four. “That one, that one, and those two,” says Albrecht. “Definitely,” says Strauss, adding, “I’m amazed SJ approved a photo of herself smiling.” (Ultimately, when the photos are shown to the actress, pensive Carrie prevails.)
A few hours later, Albrecht is at the wheel of his gleaming white urban-safari vehicle. He’s weaving his way through Beverly Hills traffic, riffing on the connection between Tony Soprano, Carl Jung, and horseback riding. Albrecht is passionate about all three. A compact man with alert eyes who favors sleek, open-collared suits, he exudes the casual intensity of a practiced deal maker. But despite the Mercedes G series SUV tricked out with a dashboard computer for rolling calls on the commute from his ranch in Malibu, he is hardly what you’d get if you called central casting for a network executive. (Funny, then, that as Fast Company went to press, he was promoted to the position of HBO’s chairman and CEO.)
Albrecht is both slickly confident and openly curious. A fast-talking former stand-up comedian from Long Island, he is reflective in conversation. He takes an almost scholarly approach to the Jungian analysis that he has pursued for the past 10 years. “The idea that we’re all connected in the collective unconscious is an extremely important part of what makes entertainment successful,” he says. “You can’t translate that literally, but you can be aware of the ideas behind it: that the psyche has a structure, that the unconscious is a very powerful force, that we’re all on a journey, striving for individuation and wholeness. If you understand that, you have a better grip on what’s relevant, resonant, and rich about human experience.”
You also have what turns out to be an unparalleled formula for producing genuinely original and genuinely good television. Albrecht’s instincts guide him to what is both robustly entertaining and rigorously human, from promotional photos to character development. But he isn’t just a philosopher of television. Under his leadership, HBO’s original-programming division has unleashed a creative juggernaut on the television landscape. By any measure, when it comes to original programming, Albrecht is the most original mind in television.
Sex and the City, which debuted in 1998, The Sopranos (1999), and Six Feet Under (2001) — the “3Ses,” in HBO shorthand — are three of the biggest hits on TV. The shows draw prime-time-sized audiences (an average of around 12 million, 14 million, and 12 million viewers per episode, respectively) to a network that still reaches only one-quarter of all TV households. HBO regularly garners more Emmy nominations than the big-three broadcast networks and wins Golden Globes, Oscars, and Peabody Awards for its original series and movies in competition with the biggest players in Hollywood. At the 2001 Emmys, HBO got 94 nominations and won 16. No fewer than 20 winners thanked Albrecht personally from the stage. This year, HBO leads again with 93 nominations, 23 of them for Six Feet Under alone.
The Sopranos, veteran TV writer-producer David Chase’s unstintingly original, unflinchingly real series about an angst-ridden New Jersey mob boss (played by James Gandolfini to be both repugnant and riveting) with two dysfunctional families, surged into the popular consciousness two years ago. Even if you haven’t watched an episode, chances are that you know all about the show. The series has earned both highbrow acclaim and street-level props. New York Times film critic Stephen Holden declared the series “the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century,” while a couple of lieutenants from the New Jersey DeCavalcante crime family were recorded on surveillance tapes raving about the show.
HBO’s lineup is staggering in its depth and variety. Along with The Sopranos, Sex and the City (an antic mix of sex, shoes, restaurants, and relationships), and Six Feet Under (the darkly comic chronicles of a dysfunctional family of undertakers from Oscar-winning screenwriter Alan Ball), other original series include Oz (a brutal, boundary-pushing prison drama), Curb Your Enthusiasm (a viciously funny, inventive comedy from Seinfeld producer Larry David), and the most recent critical hit, HBO’s twisted take on a cop show, The Wire.
HBO’s original programming is also responsible for such critically adored made-for-television movies as the Emmy-winning Wit (starring Emma Thompson and directed by Mike Nichols) and the virtuoso Path to War, with Michael Gambon as Lyndon B. Johnson, directed by John Frankenheimer. A colossal $120 million, 10-part miniseries, Band of Brothers (based on Stephen Ambrose’s book and produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg), premiered on September 9, 2001 and drew a total audience of nearly 59 million people in the weeks following September 11. The documentary group has won a dozen Oscars in the past decade. Part of the secret is in the mix: Event films such as The Laramie Project and the Rudy Giuliani documentary, In Memorium: New York City, 9/11/01, coexist with such gritty, late-night fare as Real Sex and Taxicab Confessions.
It’s a virtuoso blend of intelligence, emotion, and invention. And, as it turns out, even in the age of Big Brother 3, producing high-quality television is good business. With a 27 million subscriber base that is growing at a rate of approximately 1 million subscribers a year, HBO dwarfs Showtime, its closest pay-cable rival. HBO has posted an average of 20% earnings growth since 1995 and last year reported profits of $725 million on $2.6 billion in revenue.
Meanwhile, the network’s slogan, “It’s not TV. It’s HBO,” has morphed from being the cheeky handle of an upstart pay-cable channel into being a direct challenge to the broadcast networks. Technically speaking, HBO and the networks are not competitors. HBO sells itself to viewers; the networks sell viewers to advertisers. But broadcast networks, pay channels, and basic cable are all clamoring for attention in an increasingly cluttered, competitive, and fragmented entertainment marketplace. In a business where each home run is venerated as a pseudomiracle, HBO’s almost uncanny ability to excite the popular imagination, elevate the audience’s expectations, and deliver hits represents a radical victory. It changes the game for everyone.
The networks, naturally, have their push back. Some network executives dismiss HBO’s success as a by-product of the trinity of vulgarity — violence, graphic language, and sex — that separates pay cable from the rest of the TV landscape. Most have circled their calendars to mark Sunday, September 15th at 9 PM: the long-awaited return of The Sopranos for its fourth season and one of the most competitive hours on television. All are scrambling to crack the formula for Soprano-esque hits.
Of course, when it comes to producing hits, Albrecht knows that the best formula is no formula at all. “When it comes to our creative philosophy, the good news is that we don’t have any rules,” he says. “The bad news is, we don’t have any rules.” What Albrecht and his team do have is a set of ruling values. Spend time with HBO’s decision makers, and you’ll hear the same questions over and over: “We just ask ourselves: Is it different? Is it distinctive? Is it good?” says Albrecht.
What’s good? “The network guys have an objective criterion for making decisions about shows: Are they paying for themselves?” Albrecht says. “Because of the cable-distribution model, we have no idea whether a particular episode of The Sopranos or a miniseries event brought in more subscriptions. The only thing we have to go on is our own sensibility — the gut.”
That sensibility boils down to one principle, says Albrecht: “Ultimately, is it about something? By ‘about something,’ I mean not just about the subject, or the arena, or the location, but really about something that is deeply relevant to the human experience. Sopranos isn’t about a Mob boss on Prozac. It’s about a man searching for the meaning of his life. Six Feet Under isn’t about a family of undertakers so much as it’s about a group of people who have to deal with their feelings about death in order to get on with their own lives. The next question is, Is it the very best realization of that idea? Is it true to itself?”
It’s a simple strategic insight that’s easy to describe but exceedingly difficult to execute: Forget what’s popular — what’s working now — and start with what’s good. Then ignore the conventions of the medium, and reject the received wisdom of the industry to follow the internal logic of each project. It’s not a recipe for hits. It’s a discipline for producing original work — and for working productively with people who make stuff that makes a difference.
Albrecht and his team pull it off with a powerful combination of innovation, instincts, creative practices, and production values.
[Scene 1: “Fortunate Son,” The Sopranos, season three]
TONY: All this from a slice of gabagool?
DR. MELFI: Kind of like Proust’s madeleines.
TONY: What? Who?
DR. MELFI: Marcel Proust. Wrote a seven-volume classic, Remembrance of Things Past. He took a bite of a madeleine — a kind of tea cookie he used to have when he was a child — and that one bite unleashed a tide of memories of his childhood and ultimately, his entire life.
TONY: This sounds very gay. I hope you’re not saying that.
“We decided to take the high road.”
The Sopranos was the perfect storm of hits for HBO. The network, which started out broadcasting in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1972 as a pay channel that featured boxing, theatrical films, and stand-up comedy, had more than a decade of original programming under its belt. Some of it was groundbreaking: Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau’s campaign mockumentary Tanner ’88 and Gary Shandling’s celebrated send-up of a talk-show host, The Larry Sanders Show. Some was less inspiring: The original original program on HBO was a polka-festival special. Primed by Oz (1997) and Sex and the City (1998) — and thirsty for quality in a vast sea of reality TV, game shows, and Law and Order spin-offs — critics unleashed a frenzy of praise for The Sopranos.
The audience followed in numbers that put HBO, which doesn’t compete on ratings, on par with some of the most successful shows on broadcast television. While The Sopranos doesn’t reach the ratings stratosphere of the top three shows on TV (for the 2001 – 02 season, NBC’s Friends, with an average of 24.5 million viewers; CBS’s CSI, with 23.7 million; and NBC’s ER, with 22.1 million), it does regularly match the top 10 or 15 shows, with an average of 14 million viewers per episode. What’s extraordinary is that HBO draws its viewers from a 27 million – subscriber universe, while the potential audience for commercial networks is every U.S. household with a TV set.
More than the numbers, The Sopranos‘ impact on the cultural conversation has changed the game for HBO. Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television, at Syracuse University, considers The Sopranos to be “the best drama on television.” Says Thompson: “The Sopranos put America on notice. HBO is the place where great television is made.” It also put the networks on notice. (Hollywood may be the next venue: Albrecht recently said that a Sopranos film may follow on the heels of the TV series.)
Soprano envy ranged from griping about HBO’s “short seasons” (David Chase produces 13 episodes, compared with the typical 24 episodes for a network’s hour-long dramas) to rumblings about the show’s graphic language, violence, and sexual content. The industry chatter peaked in April 2001 with an infamous memo distributed by NBC chairman and CEO (and vice chairman of parent company General Electric) Bob Wright. One episode from The Sopranos‘ third season climaxed in the brutal beating death of a stripper. Wright sent a tape of that episode to 50 NBC executives, studio heads, and producers. The accompanying memo called for colleagues to help NBC “think about an issue I believe is having a major impact on our business — the nature of the content in HBO’s The Sopranos.” Wright went on, “It is a show we could not and would not air on NBC because of the violence, language, and nudity.”
While Wright claimed that his motivation was simply to provoke thoughtful discussion about The Sopranos, the “interestingly worded letter,” as Albrecht puts it, pointed to another agenda. “We were confused, amused, and somewhat aggravated by what seemed to be an effort to direct negative attention to our show,” Albrecht says. “It also missed the point. It’s a fundamental misreading of the audience to assume that the show’s success is based on its graphic content. There’s no gold mine at the end of the vulgar rainbow.” Still, he says with a smile, “it’s a valid question they’re raising: How are we going to compete with this?”
To understand just how extraordinary that question is, you have to go back to 1995. After a decade of different leadership posts at HBO, Albrecht was the newly appointed president of original programming, and Jeff Bewkes had just taken over as HBO chairman and CEO in New York from the departing Michael Fuchs. (And at press time, Bewkes was promoted to chairman of AOL Time Warner’s new Entertainment & Networks Group.) The extent of HBO’s original programming was two half-hour comedies, Dream On and The Larry Sanders Show,, which the network touted as “the best hour of comedy on television.” HBO programmers joked that they should have called it “the only hour on HBO.” Albrecht and Bewkes called a two-day meeting of the executive committee and key original-programming execs. The question on the table: Are we really who we say we are? The answer came back: Not really. At least not yet.
“The words we always used to talk about ourselves were, ‘different,’ ‘distinctive,’ ‘worth paying for,’ ‘better,’ ” says Albrecht. “In that meeting, we came to the conclusion that we weren’t quite there yet, but that it was a great thing to strive for. The only way to move forward and win is to take chances and to be distinctive.”
For years, “distinctive” at HBO meant nothing more than “not on network TV.” Albrecht and Bewkes believed that if they wanted to produce bold, really distinctive television, they needed a new starting place. “If we wanted to be original, we couldn’t shut anything out. We had to be open to everything. That was a big shift,” says Bewkes. Once HBO turned the corner from counterprogramming the networks, the only important question was, “Is it good? Does it stand out for some reason? If we get much fancier than that, we’re going to be in trouble,” says Bewkes.
Rather than focusing on paying an altruistic service to the viewing public, HBO’s single-minded devotion to quality is part of a bold strategy. “The more we can make original programming the basis of competition, the more of an advantage we’ll have,” says Bewkes. “It’s something you can’t buy. It’s not a commodity bidding war among cable operators and pay networks. It requires a distinct capability.” At the 1995 meeting, says Bewkes, the HBO leadership team decided to “jump fully off this cliff.”
It was a big leap. The unit didn’t have hoards of cash to invest in programming, and it had no way to measure return on investment for any particular show. They were venturing into fiercely competitive territory with a 90% failure rate. “It was a real mess,” says Bewkes. “But we just said forget about it — let’s just do good stuff and we’ll solve it later. We decided to take the high road.”
Taking that path paid off. Today, HBO invests about $400 million annually in original programming in an increasingly competitive pay-cable landscape built around a new mix of original series, movies, and specials. Basic-cable channels have followed suit, from MTV, with Real World and The Osbournes, to Court TV, with special made-for-TV movies. But the advantage that really matters is HBO’s creative edge. Bewkes admits that “going after creative hits is a funny business. Chris and I joke about this all the time. He says at the end of our phone conversations, ‘Okay, we’ve figured it out. We’re going to go make some hits.’ I say, ‘Great, you’ve got it. Go do it. Go make some hits!’ “
[Scene 2: “A Hit Is a Hit,” The Sopranos, season one]
HESH: Music is music. Talent is talent. There’s one constant to the music business: A hit is a hit. And this, my friend, is not a hit.
HESH: Christ, for reasons we couldn’t comprehend or codify. Pathetic schlepper!
“You don’t have to be a hack!”
When it comes to creating hits, there’s TV — and then there’s HBO. The difference is that the last thing HBO programmers think about is making a hit. At the networks, it’s the first thing (and, some might argue, the only thing).
The purpose of broadcast television is to keep you in your seat so that you watch the commercials. Networks make money by delivering as many of the right eyeballs as possible to the right time slot. That structural reality translates into an obsession with measuring those eyeballs (most network execs dial into dedicated rating lines at 6 every morning). It also produces an accumulation of rules and conventions about what kinds of shows work best to grab those eyeballs and how those shows should be made.
“The name of the game is, Whatever gets the largest number of people to watch,” says Alan Ball, a self-described refugee from the network TV “gulag” and creator of the HBO series Six Feet Under. “What is that? It’s a car wreck! It’s Fear Factor. It’s getting Playboy playmates to eat sheep’s eyeballs. They’re proud of that! ‘Look at the numbers we got! Supermodels puked on each other and people tuned in!’ ” For a programmer facing extreme economic and performance pressures, the safest decision is to go with something that is exactly like what’s successful now. As a result, television is polluted with imitation. Today, networks are producing derivatives of their own reality shows, such as NBC’s Dog Eat Dog. Yesterday, it was Who Wants to Be a Millionaire clones. And there are always the ubiquitous cop/lawyer/doctor dramas and their spin-offs. Of course, the networks do very good business with these shows. What they don’t do, however, is produce very good shows. And the reason has everything to do with the way the networks treat — or mistreat — the creative talent that is actually responsible for inventing the programs in the first place.
Alan Ball, whose television-writing career was mired in the frustration of writing and producing three network sitcoms (Grace Under Fire, Cybill, Oh Grow Up) before he won an Oscar for his American Beauty screenplay, is particularly eloquent on the subject of the central ritual of series television: the notes meeting, where work in progress is discussed. “There always seem to be twice as many people as needed at every meeting,” Ball says. “The networks have so many people who have to justify their jobs that they sit in on meetings, trying to come up with some kind of accepted feedback. They use all of these recycled buzzwords they learned in some storytelling seminar that I don’t even understand: ‘We need a third-act reversal here’ or ‘Let’s telescope the action here.’ “
Almost across the board, the “notes” are a set of commercial decisions masquerading as narrative priorities: “Be nice” (the networks’ internal moral police force, Standards & Practices, has such a grip on the writing process that writers learn to load up a script with extra “bitch”es and “ball”s that they can trade in for another “asshole”); “Resolve the A story with a neat emotional payoff, so that viewers can go to bed happy”; “Spell it out”; and “Dumb it down.”
In contrast, HBO is in the business of selling itself. Attracting subscribers to pay for and keep the service is less about ratings and more about developing a mix of offerings that individually resonate with a certain segment of the audience and that collectively attract the largest number of paying customers. HBO doesn’t make money off of any individual show; it makes money by increasing the value of the total network. HBO wins by increasing range and dialing up quality. “If we can come up with a whole plate of programs — some of which have very narrow appeal — at the end of the day, we’ll have a bigger subscriber base,” says Bewkes. “We want to deliver a real set of choices and a real range of sensibilities. At the same time, even if a subscriber isn’t interested in a particular documentary about the Teamsters, but he hears it’s good, he’ll feel better about his HBO. So it’s about excellence and range.”
But there’s another reason why television writers and producers describe the experience of working with HBO as “liberating.” It comes back to Albrecht and his stellar team of programming talent. Albrecht had a singular trajectory to network executive — from failed stand-up comedian, to manager/owner of the Improv on both coasts, to a stint as an agent at ICM (where he signed such talents as Billy Crystal, Jim Carrey, and Whoopi Goldberg), to HBO executive in 1985. The journey has made Albrecht a unique combination of deal-making animal (as an agent, he learned, “You need to go in and make something happen every day. If you don’t make a deal, you’ve had a bad day”) and philosopher of the human condition. “I believe that great writing and great filmmaking come from the unconscious,” he says. “That’s why people see things in The Sopranos that we never even thought of when we were creating it. We’re all connected in our struggle to find the meaning in our lives, which is why people connect with the dilemmas of a brutal mob boss. The fact that we talk about this stuff at work is fun and exciting. It helps expand the work and change the level of the conversation. Sometimes we look around the room and say, ‘You can bet they’re not having this conversation at NBC!’ “
Albrecht’s intellectual curiosity and ear for compellingly human stories are mirrored in the extraordinary talents that make up the original-programming team: senior vice president Carolyn Strauss, an HBO lifer who has supervised the development and production of programming as diverse as The Chris Rock Show and Six Feet Under; veteran Hollywood film producer Colin Callender, who, as president of HBO Films, has developed a stable of feature films that are as good as or better than any in theatrical release; and Anne Thomopolous, who oversees miniseries programming and who honchoed the Band of Brothers production.
Each of the team members has spent at least a decade, some almost two, at HBO. They’ve forged their identity in the margins of television production as being almost defiantly different. Even as their accomplishments have exploded into the mainstream, they remain vigilant about maintaining fresh eyes and freedom from convention. “It’s interesting that people always fixate on the content freedoms at HBO as a kind of unfair advantage,” says Strauss. “But the freedoms that are really important aren’t the freedom to swear, or to be naked, or to blow somebody’s head off. They’re about expressing a distinct point of view and allowing the creator’s voice to come through in as unencumbered a way as possible.”
It turns out that the great talent of the members of the original-programming team is their ability to work with creative talent. First, they respect and trust the writer-producers they choose to work with. “They say, ‘We want your voice. We want your vision. We want the story that you see.’ And they mean it,” says Alan Ball. “That might seem obvious, but at the networks, every decision is second-guessed by every single executive. At HBO, they leave you alone for the most part and trust your instincts.”
When the team does offer feedback, it’s usually about one thing: helping the writer inhabit his own skin boldly. When Ball submitted his script for the Six Feet Under pilot to Strauss, her response was, “It’s a little safe. I’d love to see the whole thing be a little more fucked up.” She was telling Ball, she says, that “the characters need to be as complicated as people are in real life. Their problems aren’t easily resolved. And there needs to be a level of reality and emotional truth that expresses the logic of the show — which is really about a family dealing with the very real disconnects born of a lifetime of not communicating with one another and a bunch of adult children trying to become adult adults.”
Along with the story points, Ball heard another message: “She was telling me that I don’t actually have to be a bad writer here! After five years of working on a network show where you always had to put the subtext in someone’s mouth — ‘Gee Dad, I guess I’m mad at you because you did X when I was 12’ — you could just let the subtext be the subtext and let the characters talk like real people. You don’t have to be a hack!”
It’s that kind of luxury that has talented writers, directors, actors, and producers lining up to work with HBO. Countless Hollywood stars have petitioned Ball to make a guest appearance on Six Feet Under. Tom Hanks has signed up for a third project with HBO (after executive-producing From the Earth to the Moon and Band of Brothers, with Steven Spielberg). Callender is currently overseeing production on several star-studded films, including a New York production of the Tony-winning Angels in America, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson.
Aware that there’s a “limited supply of supremely talented people who can create successful television” and that most of them “have a better chance of getting rich and famous elsewhere,” Albrecht is dedicated to making the experience worthwhile to every HBO partner. “If you’re interested in the work, there are very few other places in the broadcast business where you can call your own shots as a creator,” he says. “We’re there as guides and to lift the limits, but basically what we want is for people to take their guts out and put it on film every week in a series or in one of our movies.”
[Scene 3: “In the Game,” Six Feet Under, season two]
NATE: Chinese checkers. Always hated that game.
NATHANIEL SR.: That’s because you’ve never played it for money. Nate, why don’t you meet a couple of friends of mine? Uh, this [indicates slickly-dressed middle-aged man], well, this is the man. Death. The Grim Reaper.
NATE: Uh, no thanks.
WOMAN: [fleshy black woman dressed as a television psychic] Good for you, baby. That stuff is nasty!
NATHANIEL SR.: And, uh, this, well, this is —
DEATH: My partner.
LIFE: Oooh! That sounds so professional! I love it!
NATE: [incredulous] Shut up!
LIFE: Oh, yeah. It’s a whole yin-yang thing!
NATE: You telling me you two are in business together?
LIFE: [laughing] Honey, me and him are in all kinds of shit together!
DEATH: Let’s just say it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.
LIFE: [to NATE] It’s your turn.
NATE: Uh, shouldn’t I wait for you to start a new game?
LIFE: This game ain’t never gonna end.
DEATH:You’re either in the game, or you’re out.
NATHANIEL SR.: On or off the bus, if you’d prefer.
NATE: All right, I’m in. [sits down]
NATHANIEL SR.: You need to put some in the kitty, son.
NATE: What are you betting?
NATE: All right. I’ll bet everything. Whatever.
“The biggest hurdle to our success is our own success.”
Colin Callender woke up on the morning of the 2001 Emmy nominations to learn that HBO had earned a whopping 94 (in contrast to NBC’s 76, ABC’s 63, and CBS’s 46). He immediately called Chris Albrecht. “We both said simultaneously, ‘What the hell do we do next year?’ Our first thought wasn’t, ‘This is great. We did it!’ It was, ‘How the hell do we top this?’ ” says Callender. “I think that, for better or worse, we’re all genetically programmed to keep pushing ourselves.”
The question of “what’s next” has acquired a new level of urgency for HBO’s original-programming unit. There is an end in sight for both Sex and the City and The Sopranos. The expectations are so high and the winning streak so pronounced that the vultures are waiting for a flop. The reviews for The Wire, the series launched this summer, reflect that reality, observes Albrecht. “They say it’s a great show, that it gets better every week, but it’s never going to equal those other shows,” he says. “What that tells me is that you can’t have a business based just on things that are unbelievably extraordinary. You also have to base the business on things that are very, very good. And if you focus on that, your chances of getting something excellent are that much better.”
The good news is that HBO’s original-programming strategy is working. The bad news is that it’s working so well, it keeps changing the game. “Chris bears the brunt of that pressure on his shoulders,” says Bewkes. “Because everything we’re doing is on a TV screen — it’s highly visible and highly copyable. Everything that we’ve tried has worked better than we ever would have imagined. So we have to keep setting the bar higher for our next act.”
Nothing demonstrated that reality more than the unprecedented phone calls that Albrecht received earlier this year — from network programming execs desperate to learn where HBO had scheduled The Sopranos‘ fourth season. “We’re playing a much broader game, much more actively,” says Albrecht. “That means that we’re going to have to be even more aggressive and take even bigger risks than we took before. We’re very aware that the biggest hurdle to our success is our own success.” The higher the stakes, the more gut-led leaps Albrecht’s team has to take to continue to make an impact with its programming. Most recently, Albrecht made the unconventional move of ordering three series for the fall season from three pilots, including the dramas Baseball Wives and Carnivale.
He’s also taking a page from the network book in amping up the value of his franchise with “HBO Sunday Nights,” featuring a powerhouse lineup of original series that regularly draw huge ratings. It’s the most visible and lauded lineup of appointment TV since NBC’s “Must-See TV.” Keenly aware of the fate of that once-golden programming concept, Albrecht is intent on “reoccupying territory that others have abdicated in order to create television worth paying for at a time when people are increasingly dissatisfied with the television that they’re getting for free.” Asked to describe that territory, Albrecht gives a typically uncompromising response: “The best: a vast but very specific target that we’re always striving to hit.”
Sidebar: HBO’s Production Values
Television is still a vast wasteland — which is why it’s almost impossible to overstate how hard it is to produce robustly entertaining, mentally engaging programming on a consistent basis. When it comes to developing good TV, Chris Albrecht and his team of original programmers at HBO have the best record in the business — while still doing a very good business. At the same time, they are the first to insist that there is no formula for sustainable innovation. What they do share is a set of driving instincts and ruling values that go a long way toward increasing the odds of success.
The best way to pick a winner is to pick the best person. As the Hollywood saying goes, “It’s show business — not show art.” At HBO, that means that Albrecht not only looks for creative geniuses who can push the envelope — he also picks people who can deliver reliably. Sopranos creator David Chase delivered an extraordinary, groundbreaking pilot. It didn’t test very well, but Albrecht and then – HBO chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes thought that it was good. More important, they thought that Chase could make 40 more episodes that were just as good, develop characters, and operate with the kind of autonomy that produces original work.
There’s only one way to go: all the way. Once you set out to do something original — and pick someone who you think can do it — you have to go all the way if you want to get anywhere. “You can’t jump off a cliff halfway,” says Bewkes. “You have to remind yourself that you’re engaged in an unknown adventure, and that involves risk. The most important thing to bring to that journey is commitment and confidence.” That’s what Bewkes and Albrecht displayed when they signed off on the $120 million Band of Brothers miniseries — and then never stinted in producing the most detailed, authentic representation of the historical events. When the 10 episodes came in at wildly varying lengths — a programmer’s nightmare — Albrecht signed off on them because it was the right thing for the project.
Substitute internal logic for conventional wisdom. Even the most creative talents get boxed in by habits and convention. The best way to avoid the trap is to articulate a distinct, defining point of view — and then make every decision based on that idea, rather than on habit or custom. Six Feet Under is about life (and relationships) in the presence of death. The show works because everything from character development to the music adheres to the emotional logic and messy reality of that idea.
Don’t go hunting for hits out there. Hone your instincts in here. Raise the level of conversation inside the organization so that you recognize winning ideas and connect with the right collaborators when they come along. Albrecht and his team spend a lot of time talking about the meaning of life, the ideas animating the culture, and their own oddball interests. The idea for Six Feet Under originated with Carolyn Strauss after she read Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death. She took her notion to writer Alan Ball, who ran with it.
Rethink your definition of victory. HBO’s original programmers admit that they generally “have no idea” if a new show will work. They rely on their gut, their particular point of view about what’s good in picking projects, and their nerve in sticking with them — even when there are no objective signs of success. Albrecht is undeterred by the generally harsh reviews and tepid reception for the series The Mind of the Married Man. He believes in the point of view and in patiently allowing it to grow and find its feet. “Ultimately, it’s looking at a show and saying, ‘We’re proud of it,’ ” says Albrecht. “That’s the most important thing. That it accomplished what we set out to do or more. The cumulative result for the brand is a sense of excellence.”
Polly LaBarre (email@example.com) is a Fast Company senior editor based in New York. Visit HBO on the Web (www.hbo.com).