After a year of high drama in its executive ranks that often was more compelling than some of its programs, HBO on Wednesday broke with tradition by welcoming an outsider -- television agent Sue Naegle -- as its new entertainment president.
It was an interesting plot twist for the famously insular network. For Naegle, too.
The 38-year-old agent has spent her career at United Talent Agency, starting in the firm’s mail room 16 years ago. When HBO first approached her, she said, she had reservations about taking a job that is among the most coveted in television.
“It wasn’t a decision that I took lightly,” Naegle said in an interview. “I’ve grown up here at UTA, and I feel a strong connection to this place, to the people here and my clients. But the opportunity to work at HBO doesn’t come along very often. “
The position opened up last month when the previous president, Carolyn Strauss, abruptly stepped down. Strauss has spent 22 years at HBO, a unit of media giant Time Warner Inc., where she has been a key member of one of TV’s most successful management teams. She worked for two decades alongside former HBO chief Chris Albrecht, nurturing one culturally resonant hit after another, including “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” and “Deadwood.”
Albrecht was fired in May after being arrested and charged with assaulting his girlfriend outside the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, where he had attended a prizefight carried by HBO. He pleaded no contest to a battery charge.
His ouster, and the June finale of “The Sopranos,” marked the end of an era for HBO. The channel has stumbled in its quest for a new series that could keep its more than 30 million subscribers happy. Recent new shows such as the quirky surf series, “John From Cincinnati,” wiped out.
Last month, HBO took the unprecedented step of ditching a highly anticipated new series, “12 Miles of Bad Road,” which starred Lily Tomlin as a Texas real estate magnate. Despite spending millions of dollars to produce the series, the network decided it wasn’t good enough.
Naegle’s “got her work cut out,” said Brad Adgate, research director for Horizon Media, which evaluates TV programs for advertising clients. “After such huge hits like ‘Sopranos,’ ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘Six Feet Under,’ how do you top that? HBO has set a very high bar.”
Naegle must shift gears, which can be tricky. Instead of selling TV shows, she will be one of the most powerful buyers, courted by writers, producers and agents.
In recent years, the network has been criticized for relying too heavily on the same pool of talent.
That point has not been lost on HBO. Richard Plepler, co-president of HBO, said “a fresh set of eyes can only be an invigorating thing for HBO.”
Naegle’s challenge will be changing a culture that has been fiercely protective of its way of doing business.
“It’s not a place that has seen a lot of change in the last 15 or so years,” Naegle said. She noted that HBO would “continue to be the place for original voices . . . but we also are going to open it up a little bit, too.”
Naegle, however, is not a stranger at HBO’s Los Angeles offices. She worked closely with Strauss and other HBO executives, helping to shepherd “Six Feet Under.” Strauss pitched the idea to Alan Ball, the show’s creator. He wrote the pilot script and showed it to Naegle, his agent, who then championed the project.
“This is really a smart move on HBO’s part,” said Ball. “Sue loves television. There are a lot of executives in television who don’t; they see it as a means to an end. For Sue, great TV is the end.”
Indeed. While growing up in Rockaway, N.J., Naegle’s favorite show was “Laverne and Shirley,” a commercial hit that was not highbrow enough for critics. She even had a stuffed animal, “Boo-Boo Kitty,” just like the show’s ditsy title characters. Now her tastes run from “Lost” on ABC to “Dexter” on Showtime, her new rival.
Michael Lombardo, president of HBO’s West Coast operations, said he first approached Naegle in mid-March about the job. As they interviewed others, he said he became more convinced that HBO had to nab Naegle.
“Sue brings a style, a temperament and great taste that we think fits in perfectly with the fabric here at HBO,” he said.