Levin ultimately fired Fuchs for his perceived insubordination and installed Bewkes, who was president of HBO, to replace him. “You see a lot of ass-kissing out there, but Jeff did not do that,” Fuchs says. “It wasn’t easy to stay on the right side of Levin … Jeff has a certain grace about him. It reminds me of what they used to say about Joe DiMaggio. He never looked like he was running in the outfield, but he would catch the ball nevertheless.”
As the chairman and CEO of HBO from 1995 to 2002, Bewkes picked up where Fuchs left off, tripling the original programming budget to more than $700 million. He pushed for multiple channels, video on demand, DVD sales, and other weapons in the war to maintain HBO’s dominant market share against competition from Viacom’s Showtime and other players in the expanding cable universe. By the time Bewkes “moved uptown to corporate” as chairman of Time Warner’s entertainment and networks division in 2002, HBO had over 38 million subscribers worldwide, churning around $300 million in revenue, month in and month out (while operating income tripled).
Bewkes’s creative partner, and eventual successor, was Chris Albrecht—a former stand-up and talent agent who first met Bewkes in 1987, when Albrecht worked for Fuchs on the programming side and Bewkes was a numbers cruncher. They became close friends, bonding over their shared successes: The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Entourage, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, to say nothing of hit TV shows Warner produced like Everybody Loves Raymond and blockbuster movies like My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
“Superficially, he’s easy on the eyes.”
—Sarah Jessica Parker, star of Sex and the City
“The difference between Jeff and Michael is, if Michael was the teacher and we were the pupils, Jeff was the principal and we were the faculty,” says Albrecht. Bewkes trusted his gut, he says. He was willing to roll the dice and spend frightening amounts of money if he believed the project was worthy. Albrecht recalls driving over with Bewkes in Los Angeles in 1999 to meet with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks at a small temporary production office about Band of Brothers, a World War II mini-series based on a book by Stephen Ambrose.
“Jeff had to make the decision,” Albrecht recalls. “We had initially thought it was going to cost us $75 million, but we knew that was on the low side. So Jeff said in the car, ‘Okay, we’re not going to go a penny over $90 million, no matter what they say. That’s it!’ So we walk into the room and Steven and Tom lay out the whole plan and then Steven says, ‘And we can do the whole thing for $100 million!’ And I looked at Jeff, and Jeff looked at me, and then looked back at Steven and Tom, and said, ‘Okay.’ It ended up costing $120 million by the time of the final budget.” After a less than auspicious debut—unfortunately scheduled on September 9, 2001—the series ended up being hugely profitable because of DVD sales.
Similarly, with The Sopranos, Bewkes relied on his instincts and Albrecht’s judgment, even when some doubted that the series would fly. After Fox rejected the script for the pilot, David Chase revised it and brought it to Albrecht at HBO. Albrecht ordered up the first episode and spent about $3.5 million to produce it. “I showed it to Jeff and basically he asked, ‘Can we keep making it this good?’ ” Albrecht said. David Chase recalls: “The show didn’t test all that well. Jeff had to be party to disregarding the research and saying, ‘Who cares what these focus groups say? We like this.’ That takes something special.”
“He can be stubborn about things,” Nevins says, recalling that shortly after Bewkes took over, he objected strenuously to her proposal to produce a sympathetic documentary about celebrated death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Philadelphia radio personality and former Black Panther who was convicted of gunning down a police officer. “He thought the guy was a con man and didn’t belong on HBO.” But Bewkes didn’t stop Nevins from making the documentary, which aired to respectful reviews in 1996. “He made it very clear that I was to take responsibility for it, and he told me it better be right. And that scared the shit out of me … In the end, he knew that HBO had to be controversial, and it had to be on the cutting edge, because otherwise it wasn’t ‘television worth paying for.’ ”
In May, in what was probably the most painful moment of his career, a heartbroken Bewkes fired Albrecht, who’d pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery after the police intervened in an argument with his girlfriend in the parking lot of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Albrecht’s fate was sealed a few days after the dustup when the Los Angeles Times revealed that back in 1991, Bewkes had approved a nearly $500,000 payout to a female HBO executive who had left the company when her extramarital affair with Albrecht, her also-married boss, had ended badly. Today, Albrecht and Bewkes remain cordial if no longer close.