Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of HBO
Born c. 1952, in Queens, NY; married (divorced); children: two daughters. Education: Hofstra University, degree in dramatic literature.
Addresses: Office—HBO, 1100 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10036.
Worked as actor on New York stage, c. early 1970s; worked as comedian in New York City, c. early 1970s; manager/owner, The Improvisation Club, New York City and Los Angeles, 1975-80; talent agent, International Creative Management, c. early 1980s; HBO (Home Box Office), senior vice president of original programming, 1985-90, head of HBO Independent Productions, 1990-99, president of original programming, 1995-99, head of all of HBO's original programming, 1999-2002, chairman and chief executive officer, 2002—.
Member: Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (board of governors, executive committee).
Awards: Television Showmanship Award, Publicists Guild of America, 2001; named Showman of the Year by Variety, 2003.
After failing to catch on as an actor and a comedian, Chris Albrecht moved into comedy club management and ultimately found his niche in programming. Spending the whole of his executive career with Home Box Office (HBO), the pay cable network, Albrecht helped make HBO a critical favorite, profitable, and full of popular original programming. He authorized many of the network's most successful original shows, movies, and miniseries, including The Sopranos and Angels in America.
Albrecht was born around 1952, in the borough of Queens in New York City. He grew up in New Jersey, and went to college on Long Island. Albrecht graduated from Hofstra, earning his degree in dramatic literature. When he completed college, Albrecht set his sights on becoming a stage actor. He appeared in a few summer stock productions, but struggled to find work even Off-Broadway.
Turning his focus to comedy, Albrecht was slightly more successful as a comedian. He performed in clubs in New York City, primarily working as a duo with Bob Zmuda. The pair were prop comics. However, their success was limited. Albrecht had to work as a waiter to help support himself.
By 1975, Albrecht had moved from the stage to behind the scenes. He began as a manager for The Improvisation Club (known as The Improv Club) in New York City, and later moved into management and ownership of the New York and Los Angeles locations. Through his work with clubs, Albrecht developed contacts with many up-and-coming comics, including Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Crystal, and Robin Williams.
Albrecht's success with the comedy club led to a new endeavor. He moved into managing talent, becoming an agent with Hollywood powerhouse International Creative Management (ICM). Albrecht's client list included many comic talents including Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey, and Keenen Ivory Wayans.
In 1985, Albrecht took on a new challenge when he was hired to be senior vice president of original programming for HBO. He worked primarily on HBO shows produced on the West Coast. One show he put together became an annual event; using his comedy connections, Albrecht put together the first Comic Relief benefit for the network.
Albrecht moved into a new position with the network in 1990, when he was named the head of HBO Independent Productions (HIP). This arm of HBO created comedy series for HBO as well as other networks, including the broadcast networks. Among the hits developed by HIP was the long-running CBS comedy Everybody Loves Raymond.
Albrecht also helped get hits like The Larry Sanders Show on the air. Albrecht began developing what became the HBO mentality toward series television, focusing on adult themes in a realistic manner but with a different twist. These principles guided HBO as they embraced more original series in the 1990s.
While remaining head of HIP, Albrecht added another job at HBO in May of 1995 when he was named president of original programming. At the time, the division was struggling, barely ahead of rival Showtime. Albrecht continued to focus on making quality shows that were bold and went beyond audience expectations. He told A.J. Frutkin of Mediaweek, "When we set out to make something, we set out to make it great. Not to make it popular, not to try to figure out what the audience wants, not to be trendy, or hip, or edgy, but just to try to make it great."
Albrecht gave approval to many shows that became hits among audiences and critics alike. They included the prison drama Oz, the mob drama The Sopranos, and comedies such as Sex and the City. Albrecht did not limit HBO's series to scripted shows.
He also was involved with greenlighting talk shows such as Dennis Miller Live and variety shows like The Chris Rock Show. Albrecht did not choose projects to approve based on what test audiences thought, but by his and his staff's gut feelings about the show.
Two big miniseries also were approved by Albrecht, From the Earth to the Moon and The Corner. Both were praised by critics, though the latter was somewhat controversial because of its subject matter (inner city drug culture). Controversy did not bother HBO because attracting more subscribers, not pleasing advertisers, was the goal. All these projects, miniseries and series alike, won numerous awards, including Emmys and Golden Globes. The success of such projects also attracted big name talent to the network, including such luminaries as Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. Albrecht's reputation as being easy to work with and granting such artists open creative license also helped.
In 1999, Albrecht was given a promotion and more responsibilities. He was put in charge of all the network's original programming including movies, which had been previously done under the guise of HBO Original Movies. This promotion gave Albrecht a significant amount of power at the network.
In that role, Albrecht continued to help develop quality hit shows for HBO. In 2001, he greenlighted Six Feet Under, another dramatic show that had long-lasting success. Albrecht also approved the network's costliest venture to date, the World War II-themed Band of Brothers. The miniseries cost $120 million to make and took nine months to film. Such moves were risky but paid off. In 2002 alone, the network received 93 Emmy Award nominations.
Albrecht was promoted again to chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of HBO in 2002. He replaced Jeff Bewkes who was named chief operating officer of the newly created entertainment group of HBO's parent company, AOL Time Warner. Albrecht had much to learn about the operations and financial aspects of running a network, but believed he was up to the task. HBO's earnings were more than $800 million, which is three times more than it was seven years ago when he took over original programming for the network. HBO was more profitable than broadcast networks, due in part to Albrecht's programming choices.
While chairman and CEO of the network, Albrecht still oversaw programming, though his role was not as active as it had been. Instead, he grew the network in other ways. He moved HBO into producing films for theatrical release. For example, he was the co-producer of the 2002 hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Albrecht also began maximizing profits for HBO by syndicating its original series. Because HBO had no restrictions on language and nudity, its shows had not been previously sold. However, edited versions of HBO shows did work, with Sex and the City becoming the first show syndicated. It began airing on TBS in 2004.
Albrecht increased HBO's profits in other ways as well. The network began selling DVDs of its shows as well as putting them on video on demand. Those who subscribed to this service through their cable system paid a fee and could see HBO programming commercial free whenever they wanted. Merchandise such as clothing, food, and books based on the hit programs were available for sale.
Albrecht learned the business aspects of running a network very well, though his tenure was not without challenges. When James Gandolfini, the star of The Sopranos, sued HBO, Albrecht stood his ground. Gandolfini wanted a new contract that would pay him more money just before the fifth season of his series started filming. Albrecht threatened to cancel the show, and after two weeks, Gandolfini went to work while a new contract was worked out.
As shows such as Sex and the City ended their runs, Albrecht replaced them with new hit such as Deadwood and Carnivale. He also broadcast another expansive and expensive miniseries, Angels in America, which starred Hollywood heavyweights such as Al Pacino and Meryl Streep. The miniseries won eleven Emmy Awards.
In Hollywood, Albrecht had a sterling reputation among both creative types and financial honchos. David Crane, the creator of The Sopranos, told Ted Johnson of Variety, "I think the thing about Chris is, he is brave. He is not governed by fear. That is not where he works from. He works from enthusiasm and even defiance."
Broadcasting & Cable, September 9, 2002, p. 12.
Entertainment Weekly, October 22, 2004, p. 46.
Financial Times (London, England), April 1, 2003, p. 8.
Mediaweek, June 16, 2003.
Multichannel News, April 19, 1999, p. 10; June 11, 2001, p. 124.
Newsweek, March 18, 2002, p. 59.
New York Times, December 29, 2002, sec. 3, p. 1; June 3, 2004, p. C6.
Variety, October 12, 1998, p. 8; April 19, 1999, p. 27; January 29, 2001, p. 41; July 22, 2002, p. 42; August 25, 2003, p. A3, p. A6.