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Chairman and CEO of HBO
“It is our obligation to help those who have put themselves in harm’s way,” says Bill Nelson, Chairman and CEO of HBO, in an exclusive interview with Veterans Advantage.
A Vietnam Combat Veteran, Nelson is committed to honoring military service. His dedication can be seen through both his personal practices and HBO’s ongoing effort to educate viewers on the service and sacrifice millions of young Americans have made and continue to make for our country.
Remembering the Gentle Heroes
Raised in New York City, Nelson spent his childhood playing stickball with pals and idolizing the Yankee greats of the 1950s. It was a good place to grow up. He and his friends abruptly entered adulthood when they landed in a world 10,000 miles away: the jungles of Vietnam.
John Ward was Nelson’s best friend. The two enlisted in the Army, and in 1969, joined the fabled 101st Airborne. They carried with them a youthful invincibility, certain they would fight bravely and return home safely. Like so many of his fellow Infantry soldiers in the Vietnam War, it was not to be. In October of that year, Nelson escorted his friend’s body home at the behest of Ward’s father. It all was a life changing experience; “I will carry with me forever the memory of John, and those buddies I met in Vietnam who also fell!”
After completing the remainder of his tour, Nelson came home to a country torn apart by the war where there was little support for those who had fought in it. After some adjustment time, Nelson decided to return to school, earning a BBA and MBA from New York's Pace University. It was an important decision. With degree in hand, he started in public accounting with Ernst & Ernst, where he became a CPA, and then he landed a job at Time Inc. and later, HBO. As the business grew, he found leadership opportunities and received increased responsibility and recognition. It was a long and exciting ride. In 2007, he was named Chairman and CEO of HBO, the world’s largest premium television company and one of America’s most successful TV and Entertainment Brands.
But even after this long journey as a civilian, it is the memory of John Ward, and his lost Vietnam buddies and those who place country over self, that remind him of the necessity (a carefully chosen word) of recognizing and supporting our servicemen and women that fuels him with passion, purpose and dedication to do so.
HBO’s Dedication to the Military
HBO has a well established history of partnering with the best creative talent from Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and many others, in producing quality award-winning feature films, mini-series, and documentaries that portray the finest service, valor and sacrifice of those who serve in our Armed Forces, and telling some of the seminal stories of American History. For example, Band of Brothers, the true account of a group of heroic young soldiers who fought together in all the major battles from D-Day to Germany’s defeat; and The Pacific, based on true stories that track the intertwined odysseys of 3 U.S. Marines across the vast expanse of the Pacific Theatre. Those 2 epic mini-series both tell the story of courage, sacrifice, camaraderie, and heroism through an unflinching look at these brothers-in-arms, who preserved America’s legacy of freedom, same as those today who are in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Nelson said, “It is a privilege for HBO to tell these true and compelling stories, and the many others, including Taking Chance, Live From Baghdad, Alive Day Memories, Generation Kill and War Torn as a tribute to our veterans and servicemen and women, and a testament to what defines our national character.” He added, “I feel extremely privileged to be part of the team at HBO that makes that possible.” HBO also supports a broad range of charitable organizations, from educational to cultural, and they aggressively support organizations that provide assistance to our veterans and active military personnel and their families.
Nelson noted that veterans are ordinary people who are called upon to accomplish extraordinary things in sometimes helacious circumstances. It is amazing how so few have done so much. And born from that selfless sacrifice comes an extraordinary obligation to support those who served. And therefore, Nelson said, “At HBO, we believe that it is our obligation to help those who have put themselves in harm’s way, and sacrificed, as their families have as well, to enable our way of life.”
So, HBO lends its support to organizations like Veterans Advantage, Fisher Houses, the USO, Hope for the Warriors, Wounded Warrior Project, and the Marine Corps. Scholarship Fund, to name just a few. It is also why HBO is a perennial sponsor of the NYC’s Veterans Day Parade – “The Nation’s Parade”, and NYC’s Fleet Week. “These actions are not for PR purposes; we make this effort because we believe it is our responsibility to do so. Our employees take great pride in being part of a company that extends itself in so many ways to tell the stories of our active military, and to help our veterans in need.”
Success and Brotherhood
HBO’s record for highly acclaimed and award winning programming is well established. From 1987, when the company earned its first Emmy for Dear America, Letters Home from Vietnam to today, with Nelson as CEO, and with a very talented cadre of fellow executives and staff, the company has continued its success. HBO received 104 Emmy nominations this year alone, making it the most nominated TV network for the 11th year in a row.
Nelson remains modest about his success. “The quality of HBO’s programming is simply a reflection of the many gifted Hollywood writers, directors, producers, and stars, who partner with HBO, and the very talented HBO programming team who welcome those creative professionals and support their passion for outstanding storytelling.” He says, “It has nothing to do with me as an individual. I feel extremely privileged to be in this seat, and I am most privileged because of the excellent people with whom I collaborate daily.”
Indeed, HBO has excelled under a spirit of collaboration, as Nelson has used the principle of teamwork to propel the company into the highest levels of creative enterprises.
“I attribute it to my deep understanding of the power of a team spirit born of my experience in Vietnam,” says Nelson. “You are not alone, and thank goodness you are not alone. There needs to be a ‘we are all in this together’ mentality, and therefore everyone needs to conduct themselves, always and especially, in the most challenging situations, in a way that supports the team effort.”
Today, Nelson’s teams are his colleagues. Yet, he has not forgotten his first team—his Vietnam Veteran “brothers,” the fellow soldiers he served honorably beside in Vietnam. He continues to honor and support them and the servicemen and women of today's military for their bravery and sacrifice.
Note: Elizabeth Drew Higgins, Veterans Advantage Associate Editor, edited this profile