The downfall of Chris Albrecht as Chairman of HBO illustrates two principles. The first is that of hubris. Mr. Albrecht no doubt believed he either was immortal, or descended from gods. A former stand-up comedian, a former agent, and the self-identified architect of hit series such as “The Sopranos,” he could do anything he wanted. The rules and principles applicable to ordinary mortals simply didn’t pertain to him. Thus, for example, he could have an affair with a subordinate while still married to his wife, assault her, and then use company funds to calm her down (there are four clauses in the previous sentence, each of which identifies a separate and unique problem). This type of delusional thinking is common in Hollywood, and in fact descends to much lower levels of the corporate hierarchy, than the one occupied by Mr. Albrecht. So Mr. Albrecht, who genuinely occupied a position of at least ostensible power, shouldn’t be blamed entirely for being-in-the-world of this hallucinatory bubble.
No doubt he thought this latest incident would travel the same route. Through the power of magical thinking, he would be able to levitate the problem away, in a manner much akin to the technique pioneered by Ray Walston in the role of Uncle Martin O’Hara in “My Favorite Martian.” Indeed, it was amusing to see how none of the trade papers or celebrity television shows picked up on the story, the day after it happened. I just can imagine the conversation that went on in what passes for their respective news rooms. “What if he didn’t do it?” “What if his girlfriend’s a psycho?” “What if we don’t know the whole story?” Most of all: “We don’t want to offend him, because we don’t want him to be irritable when he returns to power!”
But what Mr. Albrecht failed to reckon on was the paradigm shift that subtly but pervasively is occurring in Hollywood. In this day and age of disgruntled shareholders and private equity funds, publicly-traded companies such as Time Warner are under incredible pressure to act quickly, to staunch the bleeding, literally to cut off the offending appendage. The most recent illustration of this is the Don Imus controversy. Les Moonves and CBS evidenced nothing but prevarication, indecision and vacillation during the days immediately following Mr. Imus’ characterization of the Rutger’s women’s basketball team as a group of “nappy-headed hos.” Eventually, it dismissed Mr. Imus – but in doing so, it gave the impression of capitulating to the rising clamor, the voice of the crowd, rather than taking a principled stance.
Richard Parsons, Jeff Bewkes and Time Warner would have none of this. By firing Mr. Albrecht, they acted decisively and without hesitation. Which leads to the second principle illustrated by Mr. Albrecht’s contretemps: management of the news cycle. The story – which incidentally everybody and their cousin now is covering with alacrity – will vanish in a day or two. Mr. Albrecht can scamper off, lick his wounds, and plot his return to power. Time Warner can congratulate itself on its ethical scruples. Please note, it’s not necessary for it actually to have any ethical scruples at all, in order for it to portray itself as patron of the flag, country and motherhood. Even if its only intention was to manage the news cycle, it is entitled to claim the benefit of these collateral virtues.