Programming Outside the Box

When Sue Naegle joined HBO as entertainment president three years ago, the pay cable network had come down from its Tony Soprano- and Carrie Bradshaw-fueled high and was in search of a new hit. But instead of trying to find the next ‘Sex and the City’, Naegle, a former talent agent, was tasked with rewriting what defines an “HBO show.” For her, that meant programming with a level of quality, but it didn’t mean the shows couldn’t be “bigger, fun, even irreverent.”

Take True Blood, a vampire series that didn’t seem like a natural fit for HBO when it premiered, but has since grown into one of the net’s most buzzed-about, high-profile shows. It’s a series that Naegle was intimately involved with from the beginning, as she helped client Alan Ball sell True Blood to HBO while working at United Talent Agency. It was one of many shows she sold to the pay cabler, ranging from hits (Six Feet Under) to misses (Lucky Louie).

As an agent, Naegle worked closely with writers like Ball developing scripts, which helped prepare her for her current role. “Learning how to have trust with the writer is important, otherwise you could have the best notes in the world but it’s hard to get someone to listen to them,” she says. Her relationship with HBO and adeptness with creative talent were leading factors in her hiring, in 2008. “What Sue has done is set out a welcome mat that has invited writers, directors and producers to want to work with us, and her,” says Michael Lombardo, president, HBO programming.

Since then, Naegle has given a variety of voices a home on HBO, from film names like Michael Mann and Dustin Hoffman in the upcoming horse racing drama, Luck, to young talent such as Lena Dunham, the 24-year-old wunderkind writer/director/star of the upcoming comedy series, Girls.

Naegle is also proud of expanding HBO beyond its trademark dramas, with successful comedy series like Eastbound & Down, Bored to Death and Hung to distinguish the network from its biggest competition—Showtime, Starz and AMC—whom Naegle sees mostly shying away from the genre. And she dismisses the notion that funny shows are easier to pull off than more serious ones. “Comedy’s really difficult. It’s difficult to develop, it’s difficult to execute,” she says. “A lot of people think that these higher-end, bigger-in-scope dramas are more difficult, but I would argue that comedy is as difficult to get right.” The key with any genre, Naegle says, is striking a balance between shows that are best for the network and people who can execute on their vision.

Naegle’s agency background taught her how to identify good material; she began at UTA shortly after college, taking the traditional Hollywood route of starting in the mailroom and working her way up, eventually becoming the youngest agent ever to make partner, at 29. She credits her quick ascension to her good taste in material and being aggressive. “I wasn’t afraid to call anybody, I wasn’t afraid to get in a room with anybody to try to work with them,” she says. And she had great mentors in fellow UTA agents Gavin Polone and Peter Benedek, whom she credits with teaching her a lot about agenting—albeit in very different ways.

“There are many agents who are dealmakers or sellers—she was much more than that,” Lombardo says. “What’s critical in this job is that you’re able to work in a very constructive, supportive but yet directive way with very talented people, and I knew she’d be great at that. And that’s proven true.”

For Naegle, the challenge in being a television executive is the tremendous amount of preparation necessary to make sound judgments on behalf of a network. “It’s one thing to have an opinion, but in this job you have to have a very good reason why you have that opinion,” she says. “Shooting from the hip is not advisable—you have to really know what you’re talking about.”

Growing up in the small town of Rockaway, N.J., Naegle was a voracious reader, and at HBO she is known for always being five steps ahead of everyone else in what she’s read and seen—no small feat for a mother of three young children, all adopted from China. She also finds time to work with the Alliance for Children’s Rights, a legal advocacy group for foster kids, and other philanthropic organizations benefiting children. With her demanding schedule, it’s no surprise that when she chooses TV to veg out to, it’s often of the unscripted variety like favorites Intervention and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

Naegle’s next project to premiere is the much-anticipated fantasy series Game of Thrones, based on the books by George R.R. Martin, another example of the broader programming she has helped champion at HBO. Thrones is the net’s first foray into fantasy, but Naegle says it’s really a show about characters, and that the family drama/conflict makes it relatable in the same way The Sopranos was. The series debuts Sunday, April 17, which Naegle says she’s anticipating as much as any fan: “If I didn’t work at HBO, I would be counting down for this show to come on the air.”

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