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Chris Albrecht had to go. That seemed crystal clear from the moment I’d heard the former HBO chairman and CEO and longtime original programming guru had been arrested for assaulting his girlfriend early on the morning of May 6 outside the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.
This was purely about business, since pretty much the only moral decisions made in Hollywood are those that affect a bottom line. Albrecht’s was the face of a brand that had grown to be TV’s gold standard for quality, and the idea of this top executive behaving like a common street thug was poisonous for a publicly traded commodity in Time Warner Inc.
You don’t ever want to mistake your shareholders for torch-bearing villagers storming the gates of the palace, peppering corporate reps with hostile queries about what will be done to remedy “the Albrecht problem.” That’s why I was surprised when his boss Jeff Bewkes initially allowed Albrecht to take a paid leave of absence, at least until the following day when a previous incident involving a female subordinate some 16 years before was reported.
What about due process and the concept of innocent until proven guilty? Maybe it doesn’t apply in this case. The mere allegation and arrest were more than enough to seal Albrecht’s fate, because this was far less legal snafu than public relations nightmare. It also appeared fairly obvious that, at the least, an ugly incident of some sort had taken place and that alcohol was the lubricating mechanism that set it all in motion.
HBO absolutely did what it had to do, Albrecht’s defense by Endeavor Agency co-founder and agent Ari Emanuel notwithstanding. In a blog entry on the Huffington Post last week, Emanuel cited the examples of Mel Gibson and pro basketball stars Jason Kidd and Latrell Sprewell in being granted a second chance, the latter pair after having been charged with assaulting their wife and coach, respectively. He also maintained that one previous incident in 1991 hardly demonstrated a pattern of behavior for Albrecht.
What Emanuel neglects to acknowledge is that this really has little to do with personal accountability or the comparative seriousness of the transgression. Athletes and even filmmakers simply are held to a lesser standard than are showbiz industry leaders, who cannot go around imitating characters on “The Sopranos” even if they helped personally pave the way for that show’s creation.
Kidd and Sprewell are furnished the prospect of redemption as sometimes immature young men playing a boys’ game that’s fueled by aggression. Their actions probably don’t much tarnish the NBA brand. Gibson was ultimately given a pass because it was rightly or wrongly presumed the booze did his talking.
By contrast, Albrecht allegedly strangled his girlfriend. Even if his good name could somehow be restored, he and HBO would forever be vulnerable to harassment lawsuits and the network’s likely corporate targeting by women’s rights organizations. He is also white, eliminating any possible minority group lobbying on his behalf.
Consequently, it didn’t matter how earnestly Albrecht apologized or promised to do penance in alcohol rehab. It was perceived that sending him packing more expediently severed HBO’s ties to an alleged abuser whose chilling police mug shot already was all over cyberspace. As it turns out, no one is bigger than the brand. Not even the guy who built it.
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