Original king of comedy making plans with IMG


It's all too tempting to begin speculating about what Chris Albrecht will do now that he has resurfaced in the entertainment business as president of the media group at IMG.

True, the Cleveland-based agency best known for its core competencies in sports and fashion wasn't on anyone's list of likely landing strips for Albrecht, who was ousted from the top spot at HBO in May shortly after Las Vegas police busted him for an altercation he had with his girlfriend.

But the very fact that Albrecht chose IMG when in time he could have had his pick of studios or networks desirous of his services makes this firm worth watching. Just what he will do to put IMG on the map in the U.S. is something of a mystery.

Neither Albrecht nor IMG owner Ted Forstmann gave much indication of their strategy in last week's announcement of their partnership, only the means to make it happen: a $250 million private-equity fund for acquisitions and investments.

Albrecht has to be feeling like a kid in a candy store right about now. There is a digital world out there just begging for a media-savvy executive to stack chips in the right places. In-house, IMG offers such big names as Tiger Woods and Gisele Bundchen to leverage.

Given his track record at HBO, it is understandable to guess that Albrecht will try to make his mark again in the scripted series and movies that turned the channel into a powerhouse, from "The Sopranos" to "Angels in America."

But having spurned the networks and studios where he could have made that happen, it doesn't feel like the right answer. Which isn't to say that HBO doesn't provide clues as to his next move.

Go back a little further in Albrecht's history to the comedy circuit, where he first broke into showbiz as a club manager in New York. It wasn't long before he transitioned to handling the comedians themselves, eventually at ICM, where his stewardship of such talent as Billy Crystal, Paul Rodriguez and Dana Carvey led him to HBO. It's hard to remember, but before "Sopranos" came along, it was stand-up comedy that represented the network's first attempts at original programming.

Now consider the fact that for all the attention IMG gets in the sports and fashion businesses, it has a budding interest in comedy as well. The company has a deal with Jamie Masada's Laugh Factory that has turned his famed comedy club into a dot-com destination for stand-up programming; no doubt the brand is being eyed as a font for talent to sign. IMG also has more than 500 hours of high-definition stand-up material, the largest such library in the world.

Albrecht is now well-positioned to build comedy into a core competency for IMG, only in a vastly different media world than the one where he first made HBO a leader in the genre. But in his last year at HBO, he was evidently trying to get his hands around mastering a new business model, signing Dane Cook and the creators of "Def Comedy Jam" to separate deals that encompassed both TV and Internet.

Nobody has figured out how to make comedy an international, multiplatform business. Albrecht may be just the guy to do it.