Fast Company has a cover story this month (Hit Man) profiling Chris Albrecht, president of HBO original programming. The article sheds some light on the company and leader that has brought us such well-received shows as The Sopranos, Sex and the City and Six Feet Under. HBO’s mission has been to build up a portfolio of sorts of high-quality programming that may, individually, only draw a narrow audience but together forms a unique body of work in an industry shackled to ratings and pilots.
It’s a simple strategic insight that’s easy to describe but exceedingly difficult to execute: Forget what’s popular — what’s working now — and start with what’s good. Then ignore the conventions of the medium, and reject the received wisdom of the industry to follow the internal logic of each project. It’s not a recipe for hits. It’s a discipline for producing original work — and for working productively with people who make stuff that makes a difference.
Along with the story points, [writer Alan] Ball heard another message: “She [Carolyn Strauss, Albrecht’s deputy] was telling me that I don’t actually have to be a bad writer here! After five years of working on a network show where you always had to put the subtext in someone’s mouth — ‘Gee Dad, I guess I’m mad at you because you did X when I was 12’ — you could just let the subtext be the subtext and let the characters talk like real people. You don’t have to be a hack!” It’s that kind of luxury that has talented writers, directors, actors, and producers lining up to work with HBO.