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A friend to writers at HBO

PRIOR to last week, when she was tapped as the new chief of HBO Entertainment, Sue Naegle had spent her entire career as an agent representing television writers. So this is a person who knows how the network process works, understands the ways in which proposed shows are too frequently popped into the broiler as raw filet mignon and somehow, many kitchen arguments later, slide out as blackened ground chuck.

“My biggest heartbreak as an agent was, I’d work with my clients and hear what they wanted to do and really get excited and really love it, take it into the network [or] wherever it was going, and then watch it slowly die, by a thousand people with different opinions,” Naegle told me with a rueful chuckle last week. “By the end of it, people couldn’t remember what they’d started with.”

HBO was, for much of the last decade, the great counter-example proving that TV series could be created differently, using methods more favorable to passionate writer-producers, the people who dreamed up what became “The Sopranos” or “Six Feet Under” or “Sex and the City.” And Naegle left no doubt she’d like to make the pay-cable outlet every writer’s dream destination once more.

“Development by committee or by patching together multiple people’s ideas isn’t the way to get great television,” she said. “I think it starts with the writer. Somebody who’s very passionate and has a clear idea about what they’d like to do and the kind of show they’d like to produce. When I hear that and see that in somebody’s eyes, I always feel like I’ve got something.”

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Whether HBO can maintain its commitment to great television in a rapidly changing media environment is, of course, the big question surrounding Naegle’s hire, which was announced last week. She replaces Carolyn Strauss, a career-long HBO programmer nudged from the post last month.

The last few seasons have seen lots of high-profile disappointments for HBO. Not many fans lined up for quixotic campaigns to save the willfully perverse drama “John From Cincinnati,” for example, or Louis C.K.'s misbegotten sitcom “Lucky Louie.” In fact, subscribers and critics alike have seemed puzzled by much of what HBO’s done recently.

“Interesting, smart, entertaining series” are what Michael Lombardo, Naegle’s new boss and the channel’s West Coast chief, said HBO now must find.

“I use the last term specifically,” Lombardo added, “because I do think if we can be faulted for anything, it was that some of our series did not deliver on that note.” In other words, HBO execs seem to agree with critics that too many of their recent shows just weren’t all that much fun to watch. That’s a big admission for a place that’s still regarded by many in the business as the cool kids’ table.

HBO retains a business model that stirs envy among rivals. Executives say that subscriber tallies, revenue and profits are at record highs (HBO has about 30 million customers, although that metric has never been accompanied by razor-sharp clarity).

But let’s face it, it’s not 1998 anymore. After years of watching HBO dominate the Emmys and critics’ top 10 lists -- and nab sizzling ratings for “Sopranos” and “Sex” -- basic cable outlets got the message and started producing their own richly drawn, provocative series.

HBO, meanwhile, tended to retreat into its silo. When producers came to pitch unusual shows about New York ad men in the 1960s and a crime-scene tech who moonlights as a vigilante serial killer, HBO slammed the door, decisions that many at the network came to regret. “Mad Men” and “Dexter” went on to become acclaimed hits for AMC and Showtime, respectively.

Naegle realizes the ground has shifted. “Now, unfortunately, there’s lots of places that are doing things in the HBO model, in terms of structure and content and even language and nudity,” she said. But “this really for us is an opportunity to do things that are unique.”

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Is Naegle the right person to seize that opportunity? Ordinary viewers may have greeted her ascent with a shrugging, “Who she?” But Hollywood history is studded with examples of agents who made the jump to executive ranks, with results ranging from the legendary (Lew Wasserman) to the bathetic (Michael Ovitz). Indeed, Chris Albrecht, the architect of HBO’s original-series renaissance in the late 1990s who left the network last year amid a domestic-abuse scandal, once worked as an ICM agent.

For her part, Naegle comes to the job with several important advantages. For starters, she’s the first outsider brought into a major post at HBO in a long while. Given where the network is now, a fresh pair of eyes couldn’t hurt.

At UTA, the big Hollywood agency where she had spent her career, most recently running the TV department with colleague Jay Sures, she worked with writers such as Alan Ball (“Six Feet Under”), Jenny Bicks (“Sex and the City,” “Men in Trees”) and Jhoni Marchinko (“Will & Grace”). She once described herself to Variety as a “script pimp.”

Those relationships will likely prove beneficial. Indeed, Ball is already shooting his next HBO series, “True Blood,” an adaptation of Louisiana-based vampire novels by Charlaine Harris (although the show was announced last year, long before Naegle took the new job).

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“We respond to the same stuff,” Ball said of Naegle. “What’s great about her is that she really loves television and how excited she gets about it.”

That seems true. Naegle said she’s crazy about “Lost,” “Mad Men,” “House,” “Dexter,” “Weeds” and “Battlestar Galactica,” along with “some reality shows.” (Eagle-eyed observers will note the lack of half-hour comedies on this list other than “Weeds.”)

Most shows she watches off her TiVo, although she made sure to tune in live for HBO’s five-night-a-week shrink drama “In Treatment.” “That’s been my latest sort of obsession,” she said.

But maybe the most important quality Naegle will bring to the HBO gig is her openness, her sense that TV’s next great hit will spring from some place entirely unexpected.

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“As an agent, I’m always careful not to discount someone because they’d worked on some show that I didn’t like or had written a movie that I didn’t care for,” she said.

Television “should be a medium that people can really jump in on. It should be wide open enough that if you can find a great filmmaker from Sundance, or you can find somebody who’s sitting in Milwaukee and has just written a script that they love, then that could end up being a hit show . . . There’s talent everywhere you look.”

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The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at scott.collins@ latimes.com

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