Ms. Naegle said she found the opposite environment at HBO. “Even though publicly they had become a convenient punching bag, internally I found people who were confident and feeling strong about the company and its legacy,” said Ms. Naegle. “In that way, I felt set up to succeed.”
It’s been a pretty remarkable year and a half for Ms. Naegle and HBO. Over the summer, the second season of True Blood—the goth-pop vampire series, created by Ms. Naegle’s former client, Mr. Ball—blew up into a full-blown, four-alarm cultural bonanza with weekly ratings rivaling The Sopranos in its heyday and burying the notion (at least for now) that HBO is no longer capable of making it rain.
At the same time, Ms. Naegle’s faith and devotion to Hung also proved right on target. Throughout the season, Hung put up solid numbers, and developed a devoted following.
TV development is a slow-moving sport. While HBO has a number of big-name projects coming down the pipeline (including Martin Scorsese’s drama Boardwalk Empire and David Simon’s Treme), Ms. Naegle’s impact on HBO’s programming probably won’t be fully felt for another year or so, as her creative instincts gradually reshape HBO’s landscape, one series at a time. So far, Ms. Naegle has brought in an impressively electric array of idiosyncratic writers. Pulitzer Prize–winning author Richard Russo is just getting started on a show about a modern-day gas-rush in the Catskills, based on a 2008 New York magazine article by David France. In December, HBO will begin shooting a pilot by Ms. Naegle’s former client Mike White (Chuck and Buck, School of Rock) for a series called Enlightened, starring Laura Dern as a troubled woman who undergoes a spiritual awakening. And there’s Brooklyn novelist Jonathan Ames’ first TV project, the previously mentioned faux-noir comedy Bored to Death, starring Jason Schwartzman and Ted Danson.
But when it comes to defining what makes a great HBO’s series, Ms. Naegle, in keeping with the HBO tradition, can be somewhat inscrutable. That’s probably in large part because she is less concerned with defining the HBO DNA than with perpetuating it.
“You don’t want a writer to anticipate what it is that I’m going to like,” said Ms. Naegle. “Sometimes we have meetings and somebody will say, well, what are you guys looking for?” Ms. Naegle scrunched up her face into an exaggerated grimace. “It’s like, what do you want to say?”
Nor does it make sense to try and cater to HBO subscribers’ tastes. Mr. Plepler, HBO’s co-president, said it’s a mistake to think of HBO’s audience as monolithic. The 30 million people who subscribe to HBO do so for a variety of reasons. Some people love the scripted dramas. Others like the Hollywood movies. Some come for the boxing. Others hang around for the periodic highbrow miniseries such as John Adams (or the upcoming The Pacific, co-executive-produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg).
People who love Curbed, said Mr. Plepler, might not find True Blood exciting. “What’s important is that we’re forming an emotional connection with large, large pockets of our customers,” said Mr. Plepler. “That goes back to the mission, which is quality, differentiation and point of view.”
In many cases, Ms. Naegle now serves as the point of first contact for anyone hoping to do business with HBO. What that means, in reality, for most writers and directors and producers is that Ms. Naegle is the person who tells them yes or turns down their idea. And she was recruited to HBO, in part, because of her ability to convey warmth and confidence out of the jaws of rejection.
Much has been made in recent years about how HBO passed on Mad Men, which former Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner then took to AMC, and which has turned into a hit signature series for that network. But what matters now to HBO is not that they passed on a series that worked elsewhere (when you turn down 99 percent of the pitches that come to you, that’s inevitable). What matters moving forward is that all future pitches of potential Mad Men quality still come to HBO first.
“It’s important that we say ‘no’ with respect and that we let people understand that if something isn’t right that it’s open for later,” said Mr. Plepler. “The sine qua non of our success and good fortune is that we are the port of first call. I think Sue’s grace and intelligence has ensured that will continue to be the case.”
Back in South Carolina, the Hung writers, Mr. Lipkin and Ms. Burson, were still going on about the wonders of working with Ms. Naegle. “Anybody who runs a network has incredibly pressure on them,” said Mr. Lipkin. “There’s a tendency for people to try and control things that are beyond control.”
“We felt like she put so much trust in us,” said Ms. Burson. “We couldn’t let her down. It inspires us to work. … I don’t think the pressure of her job can be overestimated. It would be really easy for her to be a screamer. But she’s not. She’s the show-creator whisperer.”
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