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.”
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.”