Since the move to the new Times building last year, Mr. Rich has maintained two work areas: his main office on the 13th floor with his colleagues on the Op-Ed page, and a cubicle on the fourth floor alongside the members of the culture department—the better to toss off ideas to culture editors and reporters. But in recent weeks, since accepting the job with HBO, Mr. Rich has severed that informal consulting role and, in turn, given up his fourth-floor cubicle. Not only will he no longer write about Time Warner projects in the pages of the Times, he’ll no longer sit near those who do.
FORMER SPY MAGAZINE founder and current Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen hopes that HBO’s hiring of Ms. Brown and Mr. Rich will spurn other networks to do the same. “People hire consultants all the time to do boring things like figure out computer systems and how to fire people,” said Mr. Andersen. “Why not spend a little money on creative consulting?”
Mr. Andersen is himself a member of the journalist-consultant ranks. During the late ’80s and ’90s, when he was editing Spy, Mr. Andersen produced a number of pilots for broadcast television. In 2001, Barry Diller hired Mr. Andersen to consult on programming decisions for the USA Networks.
But his is a cautionary tale. Over a two-year period, Mr. Andersen sat in on countless meetings with channel execs and tossed in his opinion on pilots and programming. He helped found the culture channel Trio (which was later bought and eventually shuttered by NBC). And he suggested a number of shows, none of which, according to Mr. Andersen, ever got produced.
“I was moderately useful in that role,” said Mr. Andersen. “I couldn’t fail because I didn’t have any real job description.”
Aside from the murky expectations, Mr. Andersen said that having less at stake career-wise in TV could sometimes be an advantage over the other television execs at the table, who looked at every project with one eye toward their own future. “The fact that I was an outsider and didn’t have anything at stake in terms of a real job and didn’t have to cover my ass allowed me to be more free and honest about ideas and shows,” said Mr. Andersen.
“I’m sure I was annoying to people, like, who is this jerk?” said Mr. Andersen. “But to the degree that I was an annoyance, I think I was a fairly minor annoyance. When I would complain about the font in a credit sequence, there was some gentle fun poked at me—like about what an effete idiot I was.”
Henry Schleiff, the longtime television executive and current head of the Hallmark Channel, said he saw it as a smart move on HBO’s behalf. He said that in the coming fall, his organization would be adding an advisory board with a similar mission, comprised of producers, on-air talent and even one or two journalists-consultants. “This is an indication of the lack of hubris at HBO that they’re willing to reach out to a leading expert in terms of what works for different audiences,” said Mr. Schleiff.
Slate founder Michael Kinsley said he thought his friend Mr. Rich would excel in the role, and may even help breathe some new life into the sputtering journalist-consultant industry even as he breathes some into HBO. “HBO has a pretty good track record of being the first to try things,” said Mr. Kinsley.