When Sue Naegle was hired as HBO’s entertainment president in mid-2008 the network was, as she says, taking “a lot of shots.” Shows like John in Cincinnati and Lucky Louie were, to say the least, not up to the standards set by The Sopranos and The Wire.
“The bar is really high for programming here,” she recalled. “The Sunday-night block was a big deal. The perception in the media was that HBO needed a comeback.”
At the time, some questioned whether Naegle — an agent for TV writers with no network experience — was the correct person to right the ship. A year and a half later, the question has vanished like a body after a Soprano hit.
“The company hadn’t had a lot of new blood in a long time, and we wanted someone to come in here with a fresh eye,” said Michael Lombardo, president of HBO’s programming group and West Coast operations, and one of the people who hired Naegle.
With True Blood, which she brought to the network as the agent for Alan Ball (whom she’d also repped on Six Feet Under) as well as half-hours developed under her watch like Hung, Bored to Death and the forthcoming How to Make It In America, Naegle has helped recapture buzz and re-established the network as a haven for talented, unique writers. This year offers hope for the next great drama, with David Simon’s Treme, about post-Katrina New Orleans, and Boardwalk Empire, about Prohibition-era Atlantic City; the latter was written by Terrence Winter of The Sopranos (with the pilot directed by a chap named Martin Scorcese). “To be able to deliver like that was a big deal,” she said.
Lombardo wasn’t surprised that their unconventional choice worked out so well. “There were people who on paper were clearly more experienced,” he said. “But she has the most remarkable taste in writers and writing. She has an unerring ear. You notice her presence most in comedy, where she has been trying to push the envelope.” (In addition to her skill sets, Lombardo said Naegle has succeeded because of her personality: “She is one of the more collegial and emotionally healthy human beings I’ve known.”)
While she didn’t think the rebound would be difficult, thanks to the brand’s strength and the talent the network attracted, Naegle, 40, acknowledged, “I was scared out of my mind.”
But while “everything seemed very new at first,” she felt she got up to speed quickly. “I had so much help immediately — I was surrounded by two coasts of people who were patient and supportive. I could learn at a pace that felt natural.” (She said, however, that she still doesn’t love the spotlight her new job sometimes comes with: “I’m not entirely comfortable talking to the press. I’m much more comfortable working on the shows.”)
Since arriving, Naegle has implemented structural changes, speeding up the process to get more pilots and more shows in the pipeline so that the network is not caught if a show doesn’t work out. “We needed choices. We were trying to pick from a small group,” Naegle said.
Naegle said her years reading scripts as an agent prepared her well for this role.
“You really have to understand what the writer is trying to say,” Naegle said. “Every TV pilot is just the beginning of the journey. You can’t simply make a judgment about one script. You have to look at the vision the writer has and help them stay on track.”
Her years as agent also taught Naegle how to get the best work out of her writers, another skill set she says has translated to her new job.
As a network executive, she feels fortunate now to protect the writers and their ideas. “I’ve seen a lot of projects start very strong and get diluted by everyone’s notes — they’re trying to help, but there are too many voices, and you end up with a weaker version.”
While her agency days were vital to her current success, she can’t say they were something she aspired to as a youngster in New Jersey: “If anybody knew as a child that they wanted to be an agent when they grew up that would be scary.”
Naegle was not just a big TV fan but a voracious reader, and that was what led her onto this career path. After college, she didn’t know much about the TV industry but she “knew what literary agents and editors did,” she said. But instead of working with books, she made her way from New Jersey to California where she followed the classic Hollywood route: She started in the mailroom of the United Talent Agency in 1992 and quickly graduated to assistant; by 1994 she was an agent and in 1999, at just 29, she became UTA’s youngest partner. Her decision to work with television writers derived both from her passion for television and writing and from pragmatism.
“I wanted to get out of the mailroom and, when I was an assistant, I wanted to be an agent,” she said. “My peers wanted to work on movies — they were more glamorous, and you were working with actors. This was the fastest route.”
She was happy enough at UTA that she’d said no when she’d been approached about network jobs before. Still, she admitted, “My job was just selling a show. I thought about how great it would be to see the whole thing through for a show — to be sitting in the editing room afterwards.”
So when HBO came calling in 2008, she said, “it was just the right job at the right time.” It seems you could also say that, for HBO, it was the right person at the right time.