IT’S NOT TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, and Future of HBO
Author: Felix Gillette and John Koblin
In the early 1980s, Michael Fuchs, HBO’s pugnacious, Bronx-born future chief executive, made a big bet on male appetites. In his view, broadcast networks like NBC tailored their programming to avoid offending women viewers, whom advertisers relied on to buy household products. Ad-free HBO had no such obligations. “I figured out that the man in the household decided whether or not to have HBO,” Fuchs said. “I made sure there were things for men.”
HBO already had one important “thing for men” in its lineup: boxing. In 1975, HBO subscribers watched every hook and jab of the “Thrilla in Manila” match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier from their living rooms, and the sport had been a core part of the channel’s programming ever since. But from 1983 on, HBO set out to acquire more original content catering to “male passions”: Documentary shows like Eros America (later wisely renamed Real Sex) and raunchy mysteries like The Hitchhiker, which HBO’s own employees sardonically referred to as F— a Stranger, Then Die. A male executive once shot down the idea of building a series around a female comedian because “they’re not going to take their tops off.”
The profitability — and cost — of male fantasies is a running theme in Felix Gillette and John Koblin’s new book, It’s Not TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution and Future of HBO. Both veteran media reporters, Gillette (Bloomberg) and Koblin (The New York Times) provide an exhaustive and only occasionally tedious account of how HBO’s executives, producers and creators built an indelible brand.
The book is full of arresting insights, for example, that the network’s first “charismatic villain” was not Tony Soprano, but Mike Tyson, who, like Tony, beguiled audiences with a “peculiar mix of profanity, violence and tenderness.”
The first generation of cable TV “auteurs” added intellectual heft and vision to Fuchs’s formula. Shows like The Sopranos, The Wire and Deadwood still featured nudity and violence, but likewise emotional realism and lyrical writing. And the megahit Sex and the City proved that putting female appetites at the centre of an HBO series could be just as lucrative — paving the way for later shows like Girls and Insecure, which, unlike S.A.T.C, were created by women.
HBO gradually shed its reputation as a fratty boys’ club, but the network’s origins as a vehicle for male licentiousness haunt the pages of It’s Not TV. This tension is given human form in Chris Albrecht, its chief executive. Albrecht oversaw HBO original programming from 1995 to 2002; he’s widely credited with ushering in the era of prestige TV. But in 1991 — the same year Tyson was arrested for rape —Sasha Emerson, reported that Albrecht had attacked her in her Los Angeles office, in the authors’ words, “strangling her down to the floor.” (Through a lawyer, Albrecht told the authors he “rejects and disagrees with the characterization of what occurred.”)
A graduate of Yale School of Drama, Emerson had impressed her bosses by tapping the American theatre scene for writers, directors and actors. She was made a senior VP at 30. And she would suffer the bulk of the consequences for the incident. After detailing the assault allegations to Fuchs, Albrecht’s CFO and the future Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes arranged for a mediation. The police were never involved. Nondisclosure agreements appear to have been signed. Emerson received a settlement and left the company; Albrecht stayed.
The assault allegation and payout were kept secret until 2007, when Albrecht, by then HBO’s chief executive, strangled another woman. On the night of an HBO boxing match between Floyd Mayweather Jr and Oscar De La Hoya, Albrecht grabbed his then-girlfriend, Karla Jensen, by the throat and dragged her across a Las Vegas parking lot. This time, the police witnessed the crime; Albrecht was arrested. He was forced to leave HBO — but only after The Los Angeles Times reported for the first time on the 1991 incident, about four days after his arrest.
Gillette and Koblin ably detail the symptomatic impunity shown to Albrecht, at HBO and beyond. Albrecht’s career survived; in 2010, he became chief executive of the competitor channel Starz. And in 2011, Albrecht’s wedding to a 25-year-old, Montana Coady — a childhood friend of his daughter’s — was an industrywide affair, attended by its most powerful predators: Brett Ratner, Leslie Moonves and Harvey Weinstein. Bewkes served as a groomsman. At the time, Gillette and Koblin write, “the forthcoming justice of the #MeToo movement … was still several years off, and as of yet unimaginable.” (Albrecht is on administrative leave from his current role as president of Legendary Television, in anticipation of this book. He told The Hollywood Reporter that the authors had “refurbished and recycled” an “old, flawed story … for the sake of sales.”)
Gillette and Koblin seem less self-assured, however, in teasing out the relationship between reality and art. It would be glib to suggest that HBO’s C-suite culture of male license is somehow to be blamed — or, worse, to be credited — for the artful depictions of violence and misogyny in its best programming. The writers, directors and actors who made The Sopranos, or The Wire, or Deadwood could’ve done so just as well without a serial batterer writing their checks.
It’s true, of course, that TV often authorises male fantasies — without complicating, challenging or undermining them. At its best, however, HBO was not TV.
©The New York Times News Service