Everyone with whom NYTV spoke agreed that if HBO were to launch a magazine, they’d have one hell of a top-of-the-masthead already in place. Having around such brainy heads as Mr. Rich’s and Ms. Brown’s could yield creative and brave ideas for HBO, and having their names attached to the network does add some shine to the brand at a moment when it is looking a touch rusty. The move also surely makes scores of other journalists wonder: How do I get this gig?
Still, some TV and media executives were skeptical that Mr. Rich and Ms. Brown (despite their editorial prowess) could actually, practically, help HBO all that much.
“It seems a little odd that you would have Frank Rich as your person,” said one observer. “It seems like he’s plugged in in a way that’s not all that relevant to HBO. But if you run a big network, you can spend money to surround yourself with people you respect and admire and who you want to hang out with.”
ON THE TELEPHONE two days after the announcement, Mr. Rich gamely walked us through his “creative consultant” duties, such as they are. He said he would not have a desk at HBO, nor an assistant there, nor regularly scheduled meetings with executives.
He will collect a paycheck (for how much, he would not say), and in return, he will periodically lend his critical faculties to HBO executives as they, say, try to choose between the many series pilots they are currently stockpiling. He will also keep on the keen lookout throughout his daily life for good HBO material. And he will generate original project ideas.
Several days into his new consulting job, Mr. Rich said he had yet to be flooded with pitches. After all, he noted, it was a holiday weekend. He said he had received one pitch from a reader on a script about murderous monks and drug dealers. “It was meant to be facetious,” said Mr. Rich.
As for advice, Mr. Rich said he has been contacted by a couple of industry veterans, including a ping from famed novelist and screenwriter William Goldman. “He very nicely offered to talk to me about all of this,” said Mr. Rich. “Other friends of mine in show business have also reached out to me.”
Mr. Rich said his search for material for HBO would be expansive. “In terms of the ideas that I’d like to bring to HBO, I certainly don’t want them all to be about politics,” said Mr. Rich. “I get a very strong dose of it in my day job. Part of the fun of this to me is to find things that really have nothing to do with what I write about in my column.”
THERE ARE PLENTY of journalists who consult for film and television studios. But they tend to do so on a limited basis, lending their expertise on a topic to a specific film or series. HBO’s new original movie Recount, which aired on Sunday, is based on four nonfiction books—the authors of which (David Kaplan of Newsweek, Jake Tapper of ABC News, Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker and Mark Halperin and David Von Drehle of Time) all served as consultants for the film. At the same time—as they have since roughly the Pleistocene era—television and movie critics continue to regularly sell screenplays to the studios they are supposed to be independently assessing. The critic-screenwriter is a fairly ubiquitous hybrid species.
But the truly free-range journalist-consultant—one with a broad editorial mandate to roam here and there gnawing lustfully on some projects while trampling others willy-nilly—remains a rare and exotic beast.
In 1979, at the zenith of her critical powers, Pauline Kael served for several months as an executive consultant for Paramount. But she did so only after relinquishing her position as the chief film critic at The New Yorker. And, as it turned out, being the top film critic of your generation doesn’t necessarily correlate into being a passable creative consultant. The experiment was short-lived. And seemingly not oft repeated.
Of course, long before HBO came calling, Mr. Rich served as a creative consultant for someone else—the culture pages of The New York Times.
“Everyone depended on Frank for cultural ideas,” said former Times managing editor Arthur Gelb, who originally hired Mr. Rich away from Time magazine in 1980.
“He’ll have one idea after another,” said Mr. Gelb. “I never had a conversation with Frank when he hasn’t been bubbling with new ideas. HBO must have gone after him for that reason.”
Mr. Gelb said that over the years he regularly turned to Mr. Rich for advice. In the early ’80s, when Mr. Gelb was the managing editor, he asked Mr. Rich if he could help him rethink the Sunday Arts and Leisure section. According to Mr. Gelb, Mr. Rich was instrumental not only in suggesting the section’s newfangled focus on hard-hitting culture pieces but also one of the early, signature stories—an article by Michiko Kakutani shedding light on the sometimes shadowy history of theater awards, going back to the turn of the century.
In recent years, Mr. Rich consulted for The Times in a more official capacity. Several years ago, Howell Raines appointed Mr. Rich along with Adam Moss (now the editor of New York) and Jon Landman (now the chief of The Times’ digital operations) to broadly rethink The Times’ culture coverage, eventually resulting in a major overhaul and reconfiguration of said coverage.
“I’d be willing to bet Frank’s ideas were the most innovative,” said Mr. Gelb.
But with his new relationship with HBO, Mr. Rich’s days of consulting on culture reporting for The Times are probably over.
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