For Aaron Spina G’93, success is about showing up

by Lani Diane Rich

September 23, 2019

Vice president of Special Projects for HBO says a strong work ethic makes a big difference

Aaron Spina G'93
Aaron Spina G'93 Courtesy of Aaron Spina

Television, radio and film alumni Aaron Spina G’93 credits his career to the brutal honesty of his friends. Spina started as a temp at HBO in 1994, intending only to work there through the holidays until he could find something better.

“I landed on the desk in Original Programming and when I was offered a full-time position, I wasn’t sure,” he says. “I didn’t want to be someone’s assistant. Then a friend said, ‘You’re an idiot. You’re not working at a plumbing company. You’re in the programming department at HBO.’ So I listened to them and took the job.”

Twenty-four years later, Spina is now vice president of Special Projects for HBO Programming. When asked what contributed to his success and stability in an industry that has seen so much change, his answer is simple: “Show up. Do your homework.”

We sat down with Spina to ask him about his work, his thoughts on what never changes in the dynamic entertainment industry and what he’s most proud of doing for HBO.

How did you work your way up from that original temp position?

I think it's being prepared and showing up. Most students come to Newhouse with the idea that they want to be a director or writer, as if those are the only jobs in the industry. The industry is much bigger. You always have to start at the bottom. You have to start on someone's desk, whether it's a management company or an agency or a production company. You show up and you know how to be professional on the phone. You do research, you read the trades, so you're an educated employee. I tell people, you have to start at the beginning, you have to show up. Half the time people don’t show up.

People don’t show up?

Oh, yeah. They’re very laissez-faire. We start at 10, but you see some people right when they begin, wandering in at 10:30 and not on the ball. I think I’ve seen it across different industries, but the idea is you show up, you be engaged and you do your homework. Homework doesn’t stop. It never stops.

The industry has changed so much in recent decades in terms of digital distribution; has content acquisition and programming changed as well?

We're looking for content, we're looking for intellectual property. That doesn't change. You have to go out and see it. You have to read, whether it be a play or a book or a manuscript. You have to find it. Content doesn’t create itself. The means of how content gets to people has changed, but I think the creative process still hasn't. Although one way the creative process has changed is that everyone has access to it now. Kids can make great-looking stuff on iPhones that can show how creative they can be, and they can get in front of people. But still, at the end the day, you have to show it to someone who has to manage it for the network, or say, “This doesn't fit what we're doing. Go with God. Maybe you want to look at some other outlets.” [laughs] Because, you know, there’s only so much time in the day that you can program.

What does your average day look like?

The day-to-day changes depending on what projects we have going on. Part of the job is going out and looking for talent, looking for shows. I'm part of the late-night group; we do “Real Time with Bill Maher,” “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” We do “High Maintenance,” which is a scripted series. We did “The Defiant Ones,” which is a documentary. We do a lot of different things. We don't take a credit on the shows, but we're working with the production team to make sure that the show’s on budget, what’s the production schedule, when is the show going to be delivered. We work with the marketing team, the press team, the corporate social responsibility team. We manage the shows for the network from beginning to end.

What is the one thing you’ve done at HBO that you’re most proud of?

I think being supportive of voices that you may not have heard of. We’re doing a show with Gary Gulman called “The Great Depresh.” It deals with his struggles with mental illness and depression. At HBO, we really try to curate. We don’t do a lot of comedy specials, so we try to find shows that feel right for us and be really supportive of them.

Very few people in the industry stay with one company for decades. What do you think has contributed to the longevity of your career?

I think HBO is a great place to work. I'm just really proud of the shows. Not just shows that we put on, but the documentary department, the sports department, the scripted groups and comedy and drama… I'm just really proud to say I'm a part of HBO.