For Sheila Nevins, it has always been about keeping it real. Home Box Office's executive vice president of original programming has spent the past 23 years developing and producing documentaries for the premium service, sister network Cinemax and their various multiplexes. She's also in charge of family programming.
Her annual output schedule includes 13 films for the America Undercover
franchise, four late-night shows (Real Sex
in its various iterations), three specials, and a baker's dozen worth of documentaries for Cinemax under the Reel Life
Right now, she's charged up about a pair of projects centered on the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center, an event that initially left Nevins traumatized.
"At first I was locked inside, watching TV," she said. "I felt like an idiot."
Working on the projects has, to some extent, helped Nevins to heal. In Memoriam: 9/11/01 New York City
looks at the "macrocosm of the tragedy, the heart of the people and the city, their calm, their panic, their camaraderie, the work of [former New York Mayor] Rudy Giuliani," said Nevins.
By contrast, Telling Nicholas—a look at a Staten Island family that, after 10 days of making excuses, has to tell a boy that his mother won't ever come home again—is the microcosmic view.
"This was something so horrible," said Nevins. "It's dizzying and sadness. Somehow, though, it has made me feel useful about what it is I do as a programmer."
Ironically, Nevins' passion for reality dates back to her days at Yale University's School of Drama, where she received an master's of fine arts degree.
"I already do drama, without actors," she said. "I learned early on that working with actors wasn't something I would want to deal with. I couldn't handle the entourages."
For Nevins—who began her career with Don Hewitt as a producer for CBS's Who's Who, and as a writer for the Children's Television Workshop—real life offers all the material she needs.
"I do drama docs, not docudramas. There are more than enough intriguing situations in life."
For franchises like America Undercover
and Reel Life, Nevins tries to balance "heat with warmth." This approach to subject matter doesn't just span the human condition. It has practical purposes throughout an annual production schedule.
"We'll do great with a show like Autopsy, get an 11 rating. Something that's a little smaller and warmer will only get a 3 or a 4 rating. I have to try and justify what we're doing."
Nonetheless, Nevins maintains that quality is more important than Nielsen results.
"I don't get this ratings pressure from the HBO hierarchy," she said. "It's self-flagellation. I know documentaries are not going to get the ratings of Sex and the City, or docudramas.
"I know the story of an older woman in a concentration camp, no matter how poignant, is not going to produce big numbers. Still, I want to make sure that our message is getting across."
And there are other ways to gauge success, she noted.
"You get letters in which people are telling you 'That's what I was feeling,' or, 'The film helped me get through a situation.' A woman called and wanted to speak with Gerda Weissmann [the subject of One Survivor Remembers]," she explained. "I was able to arrange a one-on-one situation. That has its own reward and satisfaction."
Her family-programming responsibilities are "an adjunct to what I do," she acknowledged. "The kids' business is very, very competitive. The companies that are in it full-time devote hundreds of millions of dollars.
"We have to take a particular angle to try and break through with three or four major projects a year."
The reality genre's rise on broadcast television has brought more attention to HBO, she says — with mixed emotions.
"I'm relieved that no one ever pitched us Survivor, because we wouldn't have taken it and I would have looked like a failure," she said. "It hasn't changed our approach to reality. We don't offer prizes; we don't put people in a room or on an island.
"We film people in their reality. Being born with a disability, that puts people in crises and races of their own. For us, G-String Divas
was our Temptation Island, except we shot real people working in a real situation."
Of the series that gave a voice and visuals to strippers and lap dancers in a New Jersey adult club, Nevins said: "I'm happy to say G-String Divas
is my baby. I guess it gives people what they want. They play as well in replay as they did during their premieres."
After nearly a quarter of a century on the job — and having amassed a growing collection of Academy Awards, Emmys, Cable Aces and George Foster Peabody Awards — Nevins has no plans to stop anytime soon.
Nevins said she's never considered her job to "be work work. What I have been able to do for more than 20 years here, is like a gift."
But surely, there is a need to relax at some point — isn't there?
"I don't need a break," Nevins declared. "We will all get a break at the end, don't you think?"