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HBO Turns to Its Bench

6/08/2007 8:05 PM Eastern

Home Box Office has decided to keep its leadership ranks within the family.

After weeks of speculation, HBO named interim CEO Bill Nelson its permanent chief — and gave him three co-presidents to work with: Harold Akselrad, Eric Kessler and Richard Plepler.

Akselrad will head up legal and technology affairs, Kessler marketing and distribution and Plepler programming.

“I've worked with Bill, Hal, Eric and Richard for many years, and there's not a more skilled, cohesive or widely respected group of executives in the entertainment industry,” Time Warner Inc. president and chief operating officer Jeffrey Bewkes said in a prepared statement. “They've helped to build HBO into one of the world's most inventive and intelligent television companies.”

In selecting the longtime HBO vets to fill the void left by last month's dismissal of former CEO Chris Albrecht, Time Warner chose corporate familiarity and stability over new creative blood in looking for its new leaders. Published reports had former MTV Networks CEO Tom Freston and recently ousted NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly as potential suitors for the position.

Given the abrupt dismissal of Albrecht — who left the network after he was charged with assaulting his girlfriend in Las Vegas — HBO's decision to promote from within was the right move from a business and a company morale standpoint, said Jimmy Schaeffler, president of media-analysis firm The Carmel Group,

“HBO had a unique opportunity to take care of this situation in a quick and effective way whereby the chances of improving morale were enhanced remarkably,” Schaeffler said.

Nelson, the network's former chief operating officer, officially succeeds Albrecht after being named interim CEO immediately after Albrecht's dismissal.

The veteran executive, who first joined HBO in 1984 as vice president and assistant controller, was named senior VP and chief financial officer in February 1985. In 1994, Nelson was promoted to executive VP, and in March 2006, his responsibilities as COO were expanded to include home video and international distribution and Hollywood film acquisitions, HBO said.

Plepler will oversee the creative and communications ends of the company, arguably the highest-profile areas for HBO.

HBO executives describe Plepler, who joined HBO in 1992 and was named executive vice president of the unit in 2002, as a true HBO insider. He's been at the right hand of former HBO chiefs Michael Fuchs, Bewkes and Albrecht. He's also been involved in the day-to-day decisions of the network both from the business and programming end, so executives say there's no learning curve necessary.

“It's not as if he hasn't been a part of the senior programming thinking for a long time,” said one HBO executive.

Plepler will oversee HBO's exalted programming division, which is looking for its next big hit, now that The Sopranos is officially sleeping with the fishes after six critically-acclaimed seasons. He is expected to lean heavily on the programming suggestions of newly named programming group and West Coast Operations president Michael Lombardo and Lombardo's reports, who include Colin Callender, president, HBO Films; Ross Greenburg, president, HBO Sports; Sheila Nevins, president, HBO Documentaries & Family; and Carolyn Strauss, president, HBO Entertainment.

Executives inside HBO say the network will not undergo any immediate changes on the programming side. Under Albrecht, the network already has several projects in development including the David Milch-produced surfer series John from Cincinnati, which launches June 10 and will take over The Sopranos slot. John joins current lineup staples Entourage, Big Love and The Wire, as well as new shows Flight of the Conchords (see “What's On,” page 34), a comedy about two New Zealand musicians, and Tell You Love Me.

Akselrad, previously general counsel and executive VP, legal, business affairs & film programming, HBO, will run legal and business affairs, film acquisition and HBO's technology group, and will continue to serve as the network's general counsel.

Kessler, who joined HBO in 1986 as a marketing manager in its home-video division and was most recently president, sales and marketing for the network, will run marketing and worldwide distribution of HBO networks and programming. Kessler will also add HBO International and HBO Video duties to his ledger.

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