UTA partner confirmed for network gig

As an agent, Sue Naegle sold HBO one of its biggest hits. Now, as the pay cabler’s new entertainment prexy, she’ll need to lure in viewers who are no longer sold on HBO.

Following days of speculation, HBO confirmed Wednesday that Naegle — a UTA partner who’d served as co-head of that agency’s TV department — had been tapped to succeed Carolyn Strauss as HBO’s top series exec. HBO co-prexy Richard Plepler and West Coast topper Michael Lombardo announced the move.

Meanwhile, moving quickly to fill the void left by Naegle’s departure, UTA tapped Matt Rice to head the tenpercentery’s scripted TV department.

Naegle is no stranger to HBO. As scribe Alan Ball’s rep, she packaged one of HBO’s signature skeins, “Six Feet Under,” as well as Ball’s upcoming HBO vampire drama “True Blood.”

“She’s someone associated with impeccable taste and an ability to work with talented writers,” said Lombardo, to whom Naegle will report. “She’s someone I know who “gets” HBO in terms of our mission and the way we work with talent.”

Naegle joins HBO as it aims to launch a new generation of hits — and regain its rep as a critical tastemaker. Buzz has not been kind to the network in this post-”The Sopranos” era, as several recent entries (“John From Cincinnati,” “In Treatment,” “Tell Me You Love Me”) haven’t resonated with auds.

What’s more, where HBO once dominated when it came to edgy, groundbreaking smallscreen fare, the competition for such projects is now fierce, with Showtime, FX, AMC and other nets joining the fray.

“How I made my mark as an agent was finding really smart, original writers and figuring out ways to tell them they could do what they wanted to do,” Naegle said. “HBO has a similar skill set. In a lot of ways, this is not so far away from what I was doing.”

HBO execs bristle at the idea that the pay cabler may be at a crossroads, and say they’ve been given an opportunity to “reinvigorate” the network’s series process.

That door opened when word leaked of Strauss’ negotiations to exit the entertainment presidency; an announcement of her new production deal at HBO is expected shortly.

HBO was forced to confirm her exit early, but Lombardo said the net was caught off-guard and hadn’t mapped out a succession plan.

HBO had approached Naegle several months ago to serve as the cabler’s No. 2 exec under Strauss. Later, when Strauss opted to depart her post, Naegle was already in mind.

Nonetheless, in case she wasn’t ready to leave UTA, HBO talked with several execs around town. That list is believed to have included USA Network’s Jeff Wachtel, 25C Prods. principal Sarah Timberman, Universal Media Studios prexy Katherine Pope and Regency TV topper Robin Schwartz.

Still, Plepler and Lombardo said they clicked with Naegle from their first meeting.

“We met an extraordinary array of talented people, but it kept coming back every time to how right Sue felt,” Plepler said. “What you look for is someone who could fit into the fabric of your company. And it’s not just that she understood HBO, but that we felt she had an invigorating sense of the future.”

Naegle admits she comes to HBO with a steep learning curve, having never served as a TV network exec.

“I’m lucky that HBO has experts in every corner of the building. And I’m a quick study,” she said.

That’s where Strauss comes in. She may be departing the entertainment presidency, but as part of her new deal, she’ll remain working on several productions already in progress — including “True Blood.” She’ll also consult with Naegle on the transition.

Naegle said she’d had no plans to leave the agency world, but that at this point in her career, she’d been frustrated with selling projects, only to see her writer clients’ visions be altered at the network level.

“It’s the secret wish of a lot of people on the sales side to be able to buy, develop and nurture projects and see them all the way through,” she said. “Besides that, HBO is the gold standard. I was not in the world looking for a job, but an opportunity like this does not come along that often.”

The rep-to-exec transfer is not unprecedented; suits and production company toppers such as Ron Meyer, Paula Wagner and former HBO leader Chris Albrecht all made the transition, among many others.

Lombardo said HBO toppers discussed whether they needed an entertainment president with a network background, but ultimately that wasn’t as important as the other skills they were looking for.

“It was less important that someone have run a network, than someone understand and appreciate talented writers,” he said. In hiring an exec from outside HBO, the pay cabler also bucked tradition. The network has sometimes been rapped for cultivating an insular culture, leading to criticism that it hasn’t been able to evolve creatively.

While HBO execs dismiss that talk, they do admit they’ll be able to freshen things up by bringing in Naegle.

“We get the best of both worlds in Sue,” Plepler said. “We get an invigorated and fresh perspective, but also someone who understands our brand.”

Ball, who will remain with UTA, said he’s “ecstatic” to see his rep suddenly become his network executive.

“Sue will be really effective in this position,” he said. “It’s really smart of HBO to recognize the potential. What I love about Sue is that she really loves television. For her, really good TV is the biggest reward there is.”

First job for Naegle: getting up to speed on HBO’s upcoming series and development. Besides “True Blood,” the cabler also has series in the works including “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” animated laffer “The Life and Times of Tim” and six episodes of sketch show “Little Britain USA.”

In the pilot pipeline are the David Milch-Bill Clark cop entry “Last of the Ninth,” the biker drama “1%,” the laffer “Driving Around with Joni,” the Barry Sonnenfeld-helmed “Suburban Shootout,” Darren Star’s “Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl” and the Bob Odenkirk/David Cross comedy “David’s Situation.”

As for Rice, the tenpercenter will run TV lit and talent for UTA, while recently hired partner Michael Camacho will continue to oversee alternative television. Both will report directly to the UTA board of directors.

Naegle and UTA partner Jay Sures had served as co-heads of the TV department. Sures will retain an oversight role over the TV department via his position on the UTA board of directors.

Rice joined UTA as a partner in 2002, defecting from what was then the Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann Agency.

“He’s emerged as an unbelievably strong and effective and charismatic leader,” Sures told Daily Variety. “He’s also an incredible packaging agent and is really respected by his colleagues.”

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