Over the past few weeks, HBO has announced a series of moves to stem the tide of speculation that the network is faltering. After canceling 12 Miles of Bad Road, a series starring Lily Tomlin, HBO announced deals with Oscar winners Alexander Payne (of Sideways and Election fame) to develop a dark comedy called Hung, about a man who divines power from his generous equipment; and Alan Ball, the creator of Six Feet Under, who is working on not one but two shows for the network. (One of those is about vampires, the other about a women’s prison.) Then came the news that Frank Rich would join Tina Brown in serving as a “creative consultant” to the network.
“In recent years, since giving up criticism in 1993, occasionally someone has asked me to look at something, whether it was a play or a manuscript, and to try and tweak it or whatever,” said Mr. Rich. “I love this stuff so much. This is a way to kind of do it in a less amateur fashion and on a more regular basis. It’s a way to satisfy this craving I have had.”
HBO needs the help. Even as its documentary, original-movie and comedy programming remain strong, the network has been without a new hit series for some time now. Lucky Louie tanked. John From Cincinnati is practically a punch line. In Treatment, the five-day-a-week peek into therapy that aired this past winter, was a little too much like, well, therapy to draw a mass crowd. The Wire, which reliably delivered critical acclaim for five seasons, is over.
And Flight of the Conchords? Although it was renewed, that show is kids’ stuff compared to the shows that kept HBO series so far ahead of the rest. What they do next has to be big, smart, serious, bold. But what can journalists do to make that happen?
HBO’s SOPRANOS FINALE a year ago drew 11.9 million viewers, meaning that over a third of HBO’s 30 million subscribers at the time tuned in to witness the end of Tony on television. By contrast, HBO’s most recent series, In Treatment, drew such poor ratings on its debut—under a half-million viewers—that the network decided to stream it for free online. Their popular miniseries John Adams did better—with an average of 2.2 million viewers over seven weeks—but it was hardly a blockbuster, and it was temporary.
So what’s next? Besides the development deals with Mr. Payne and Mr. Ball, pilots have been ordered for a Darren Star adaptation of Tracy Quan’s Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, and Surburban Shootout, based on a U.K. series, about a woman in the suburbs stuck between two housewife gangs. (Showtime, it should be noted, also has a call-girl show in the works, and Weeds, which is also about a housewife in the suburbs, is a steady hit for the rival network.) Neither of HBO’s projects have yet been green-lighted; they may be old before they see the light of day.
This is the first time in recent years that HBO, which for so long has been at the very forefront of creative programming, has been without a hit or a hit-in-the-making. Remember when Entourage debuted? Surely the network wasn’t helped by the departure of programming guru Chris Albrecht last year. That’s when Richard Plepler, a longtime PR man for the network (after whom Tony Soprano’s surgeon was named in “The Sopranos”), became co-president of the premium cable network, along with Michael Lombardo in L.A.
Since then, Mr. Plepler has earned the reputation of a man about town who is not exactly shy about using HBO’s money to harvest connections among the city’s elite power brokers and creative talents, which he thinks will benefit his network.
“Frank is an enormous talent who understands our brand and what makes HBO unique,” said Mr. Plepler. “To have a part of his energy focused on the network can only be a good thing for us.”
Roughly five months ago, Mr. Plepler and Mr. Lombardo also signed former Vanity Fair and New Yorker editor Tina Brown to a deal that Mr. Plepler says is “spiritually” similar to that of Mr. Rich’s.
Ms. Brown said that since January, she’s pitched two projects—an idea for a series and an idea for a movie—that the HBO executives liked and are in the process of “taking a little further.” According to Ms. Brown, she does not regularly meet with the HBO heads, nor do they send her material to vet. Typically, she contacts Mr. Plepler or Mr. Lombardo at her own discretion. “It’s up to me,” said Ms. Brown. “If I collide with some interesting material, I’ll call or e-mail them. Sometimes it’s something I’m interested in doing. Sometimes it’s something I think they should know about. Richard wants to encourage people who have good relationships with the creative community to simply be thinking about HBO when they’re out and about. It’s working out well.”
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.
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.