Leslie Jacobson met Viviane Eisenberg when the two were both young lawyers in the late ’70s at New York’s Proskauer Rose. What struck Jacobson initially wasn’t just her friend’s energetic spirit and strong discipline, but the fact that she was practicing law in her third language. Having grown up in Belgium, Eisenberg spoke both French and German at home and learned English in school.
“She would occasionally come into my office and quietly ask what a word meant,” Jacobson said. “It was very impressive that she was able to operate at a very sophisticated level at a very fancy New York law firm in a language that was not her native language.”
It’s an example of Eisenberg’s work ethic and discipline, but the fact that she was able to thrive under such circumstances doesn’t surprise those who know her.
For more than 30 years at HBO, Eisenberg has helped shape one of television’s most powerful and unique brands. Even so, you won’t find a lot of information in magazines or online about the woman behind the dealmaking that helped put the pioneering pay TV venture on the map. And that’s just how she likes it.
LEAVING HER IMPRINT
“I keep a low profile,” Eisenberg said, adding that lawyers prefer things that way. But her work speaks for itself, and her imprint can be seen throughout the history of the company.
Eisenberg studied law at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. After receiving her master of laws degree from Columbia, she went to work for Proskauer Rose and four years later, took a job at a small cable-TV operation called HBO.
“It was like a startup,” she said of those early days. “When I first started we were all on one floor, literally, in the Time- Life building.” The network at the time consisted mostly of uncut, uninterrupted films and some original programming — mostly comedy and boxing matches, because the pay TV provider was free of content restrictions.
“We were young and free-spirited and we just figured that we would take a chance,” she said. Asked whether she imagined back then she’d still be at HBO so many years later, handling legal issues for one of the most powerful brands in television, her infectious laughter interrupted the question, indicating the answer is “no.”
“We were there through this huge explosion of what ultimately became HBO,” said Jacobson, who also worked with Eisenberg at the premium channel before going on to work for TriStar Pictures, then returning to HBO prior to her retirement. “It was mostly young people. There was no one over 40.”
Eisenberg led negotiations for some of HBO’s first filmacquisition deals, including The Terry Fox Story, its first original film, helping to put the fledgling network on the map as TV’s go-to spot for feature-length movies. She also worked on the first HBO original series deals and led the major affiliation agreements when HBO launched Cinemax.
“You did everything,” Eisenberg said. “Negotiation with the affiliates, with satellite transponders. It wasn’t compartmentalized the way it is now, so I first primarily focused on the negotiations with the cable affiliates, because at the time we had signed Cinemax, there was much less consolidation, lots of mom-and-pop cable operators.”
When the network launched its HBO Home Entertainment division, Eisenberg was the sole lawyer involved in transactions with third parties, further expanding HBO’s original content business.
In recent years, she has structured HBO’s most significant international output deals in major overseas markets, including HBO Canada, BSkyB, Sky Germany, Foxtel in Australia, Sky New Zealand, France Telecom and various deals in Israel.
“In terms of my style I would say that I am not confrontational,” Eisenberg said. “I try to focus on the endgame and also try to make the process as comfortable as can be. … All these deals are long-term. It’s not good enough to just conclude the deal, but also to see it as a long-term partnership.”
In 2006, HBO took over international distribution of its content from Warner Bros., a move that significantly grew the network’s subscriber base at a time when HBO’s highquality programming yielded a string of consistent hits.
“We decided that the brand would accompany those transactions,” Eisenberg said of the shift in philosophy when it came to the international marketplace. “It wouldn’t be just licensing and selling programs, but it would also impose some kind of brand presence and the imprimatur of our stamp of quality.”
EMPLOYEE — AND FAN
She still considers herself a big fan of HBO’s original content. Angels in America and Band of Brothers are favorites, as is Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Outside of work, it’s clear family is the other love of Eisenberg’s life. She married Richard Mellen in 1981. The two have three children, all in their 20s.
“It’s a big challenge,” she said of finding a balance between work and family. “It’s very time-consuming if you want to do both correctly, and that’s probably why I kept such a low profile.
“HBO is definitely an environment that allows you to reach work-life balance,” she added.
Eisenberg was a competitive swimmer while growing up in Belgium, and today, that love of sports has transferred to the slopes. She skis regularly out west and in the northeast, as well as in Europe. She’s also a pro basketball fan and said she can finally say with pride, “It’s good to be a Knicks fan these days.”
It’s good to be a fan of HBO these days too. Original series like Game of Thrones and True Blood continue to be ratings winners. For an 11th straight year, the network won more Emmys in 2012 than any other network. Eisenberg — a skilled lawyer who loves creative content — is in a place she loves to be: where she’s been all along.
“I can function as a business lawyer,” she said. “At the same time, I’m close to a creative community and an innovative community, so it’s a perfect fit.”
TITLE: SVP and Chief Counsel, Programming, Global Marketing and Global Licensing, HBO
CAREER: Began at HBO in 1980 as associate counsel for sales and marketing; has served as SVP and Chief Counsel, Programming and Global Licensing, since 1999
QUOTABLE: “Whether involved at HBO or spending time with my wonderful family, I have always felt that the best is yet to come.”