Not long ago, in the spring of 2009, Colette Burson and Dmitry Lipkin, the husband-and-wife writing team, were running late on a crucial project. In a few short weeks, their half-hour series, Hung, would be premiering on HBO. At the time, they were busy cutting the all-important title sequence. On the morning it was due, the final product still needed more polishing. The deadline came and went.
It was around then that they got an email from Sue Naegle, HBO’s president of entertainment. Ms. Naegle had a lot riding on Hung, which was the first thing she’d purchased upon joining the premium cable channel roughly one year earlier. People were watching, ready to judge her first contribution to the lineup. Any misstep would be magnified by a curious press.
Prior to working on Hung, Mr. Lipkin had created a scripted series called The Riches, which ran on FX for two seasons. During that time, he’d learned to dread much of the communication from network executives, whose advice was frequently less than helpful. But as Mr. Lipkin was quickly learning, he had less to fear from Ms. Naegle, who operated strangely for an entertainment executive. She was supportive, not undermining; attentive, not didactic; calming, not scary. Sure enough, when Mr. Lipkin opened the email, it contained a simple query—was there anything she could do to help?
Months later, on a recent Monday afternoon, Mr. Lipkin and Ms. Burson recalled the moment, while gushing to The Observer from a speaker phone in a car in South Carolina, about their creative relationship working with Ms. Naegle and HBO.
“I feel like it’s a rare confluence at HBO at this moment,” Ms. Burson added. “It’s HBO and it’s Sue. If you’re a creative person, the stars have aligned with that matchup. I don’t think it will always be that way. HBO could change. Sue could move on. But right now, it’s a creative person’s paradise.”
It wasn’t so long ago that HBO was looking more like a paradise lost.
In 2007, after overseeing an amazing run of zeitgeist-warping series—The Sopranos, Sex and the City, The Wire, Six Feet Under, etc—HBO’s longtime chief, Chris Albrecht, was forced to leave the network on the heels of much public boorishness that culminated in his arrest in Las Vegas for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend. Afterward, while the network reconfigured its executive structure, HBO seemed to enter a kind of fallow period. Longtime HBO fans sat around waiting for the next big, culture-rattling scripted series. Then they waited some more. Critics wondered if the beloved network was stuck, permanently, in a rut.
Subscriptions were holding steady at around 30 million, and DVD sales were still strong. But pressure was mounting for a hit, and Michael Lombardo, president of the programming group and HBO’s West Coast operations, and his boss, co-president Richard Plepler, began looking around for the right person to shore up their team. Along the way, they met with countless TV executives. But over time, their search repeatedly circled back to one potential candidate, who happened to have never worked a day of her career inside a network.
‘She’s the show-creator whisperer.’—Hung co-writer Colette Burson
Sue Naegle, who is 40 years old, had spent roughly a decade and a half working her way up at the United Talent Agency, eventually making partner. Along the way, she’d built an impressive roster of bold, brainy writers, including Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Alan Ball, whose Six Feet Under—a treasured, critical hit for the network—she sold to HBO.
“I was less interested in finding someone who could identify hits,” Mr. Lombardo recently told The Observer. “And more interested in finding someone who could work with writers to embrace shows that they have passion for.”
Which is another way of suggesting that hit shows are not found, but created. To judge from HBO’s recent history, the essential ingredient seemed to be finding a talented writer with a unique vision (à la David Chase and The Sopranos) and then carefully nuturing that idea to life.
“To me, she was always someone with an impeccable client list,” said Mr. Lombardo. “Not necessarily the most successful or highest-paid writers in the world, but a real mix—you could not categorize the kind of people she represented other than they were all really interesting and talented. And she had an ability to encourage them to do their best work.”
FRON THE GET-GO, expectations ran incredibly high. “When you’re on the outside of it, you think, that’s such a prestigious brand, and yeah, they’ve had a rough few years, but you should be able to figure it out,” Ms. Naegle recently told The Observer.
It was a rainy Friday afternoon, and Ms. Naegle was in town from L.A. to attend the premiere party for HBO’s new half-hour comedy, Bored to Death, which will be making its debut on Sept. 20, alongside the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
“Then you get lucky enough to get the job, and suddenly you’re on the other side of the table and you’re like, this is going to be really, really hard,” she added. “It’s intimidating.”
Much of the TV business, Ms. Naegle continued, is based on fear. “When a broadcast network has a rough couple of years, it actually is a really scary place to go to,” she said. “It makes people make decisions too quickly and for the wrong reasons.”