Less psychiatry, more sex could restore buzz

Sue Naegle comes battle-tested out of the dog-eat-dog world of Hollywood agents. The former co-head of United Talent Agency’s TV department, she will need those skills (and then some) as she grabs the reins of HBO’s series programming department at a time when the paybox’s series business needs to be replenished and reinvigorated.

HBO’s recent stumbles have been well-documented (think “Lucky Louie,” “John From Cincinnati”) and they seemed more embarrassing given the network’s unprecedented streak for most of the past decade with iconic skeins including “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” “Six Feet Under” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” among others.

HBO execs will tell you the net is in fine shape. Subscription levels are steady, fan faves like “Entourage” still remain a part of the net’s roster — and much of the cabler’s viewership is still geared toward its offerings of theatrical features, sports and longform productions a la “John Adams.”

But for a network that spent so much time cultivating a rep for developing hit after hit series, HBO now has an image problem.

Of course, a new hit or two would change all that. HBO has turned to familiar faces to potentially generate a new round of hits: “Six Feet Under’s” Alan Ball (a former client of Naegle’s) has the vampire drama “True Blood” in the works, “Deadwood’s” David Milch is working on a cop drama with Bill Clark, “Sex and the City’s” Darren Star has the pilot “Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl” on the boards, and even “Mr. Show” alum Bob Odenkirk and David Cross are back.

“The existing development is solid, really good,” Naegle says. “I’m also excited about sitting down and hearing what’s out there. I want to bring in people who are passionate about their point of view and have a smart story to tell.”

Scribes and former tenpercentery rivals cheered Naegle’s appointment last week as HBO Entertainment prexy because of her rep as a smart, principled lit agent known for having a keen eye for up-and-coming talent, like Ball, and the ability to nurture their careers.

Having good taste in scribes is a good start. Here are a few other things Naegle and HBO may want to consider as they look to restore the channel’s buzz and cultivate a new generation of hits:

  • Bring sexy back. “The Sopranos” got most of the critical gushing, but in many ways “Sex and the City” — with its epic female appeal and endless soap bubbles — is the show that defined the HBO renaissance years. Naegle should remember that as she begins developing projects.

    Too many recent projects at HBO have seem focused on gritty themes and male characters, from the cowboys of “Deadwood” to the cops of “The Wire.” Even when HBO has turned up the suds, it’s with a show that explores the male fantasy of polygamy (“Big Love”).

    By contrast, rival Showtime has succeeded with programming aimed to lure female auds. Shows either revolve around strong women (“Weeds,” “The L Word”) or have accessible sex symbols in leading roles (“The Tudors”).

    HBO’s recently still-born “12 Miles of Bad Road,” a “Dallas”-esque soap, might not have been perfectly executed. But it might rep the kind of femme focus Naegle should bring to the network.

  • Win back the crix. Not too long ago, HBO could do no wrong with the nation’s TV critics. But in typical media fashion, the critics who built up the channel have been tearing it down lately.

    Shows like “John From Cincinnati,” “Lucky Louie,” “Tell Me You Love Me” and “In Treatment” all got tepid reviews. Meanwhile, the crix have started spreading their love elsewhere, including sudden critics darling AMC.

    San Francisco Chronicle critic Tim Goodman says HBO got hit “in the karma department” when the cabler opted not to produce “Deadwood” movies as planned.

    “They were basically telling their loyal customers that they weren’t looking after them,” Goodman says. “They need to make better decisions about trying to get a franchise show. I don’t know how scheduling two difficult-to-watch therapy shows back-to-back would help at all.”

    Goodman says the channel has been heading toward a day of reckoning for sometime, adding that they were “slow to react to the loss of their good fortune.”

    “How does Showtime go and make four or five pretty good entertaining series in a row and HBO doesn’t?” he asks. “That goes beyond being unlucky, that goes to doing something wrong.”

    Nonetheless, HBO has built up too much good will over the years for Goodman to give up on the channel just yet.

    “I still have a lot of faith in them,” he says. “They’re down now, but I wouldn’t count them out.”

  • Keep it real. HBO used to be known for shows that were edgy, yet relatable. David Chase took creative risks with “The Sopranos,” but Tony and Carmela were at their core characters that could be appreciated by viewers of every stripe.

    But shows such as “Carnivale,” “John From Cincinnati” and “In Treatment” seemed to be operating under a different set of creative principles, critics argue.

    Naegle shouldn’t mess with HBO’s rep as a creative playground for the medium’s best and brightest. But she needs to insist that her creators remember they’re making entertainment for audiences, not themselves.

  • More alternative laughs. A decade ago, when network laffers were still mostly multi-camera, laugh-tracked, mainstream affairs, HBO owned the alternative comedy world. The surreal “Mr. Show” developed a cult following, while the single-camera “Larry Sanders Show” brutally skewered the entertainment biz — earning some of cable’s first Emmy series noms.

    Then came “Sex and the City,” which pre-dated today’s surplus of romance-driven comedy-dramas.

    But these days, with edgy single-camera laffers on the broadcast networks and bizarre-o sketch shows on Comedy Central, IFC and elsewhere, it’s time for HBO to reclaim its mantle as a genre leader.

    It’s already getting there. Last summer’s “Flight of the Conchords” brought the kind of buzz-inducing comedy that HBO hadn’t seen since the early days of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” And the network is developing a pilot from “Mr. Show” team Odenkirk and Cross.

    Naegle knows the laffer world well, having nurtured several comedy scribes through the years as a rep — often from the alternative realm. Start developing a few more projects to pair with “Conchords” and the Odenkirk-Cross skein, and Naegle will be off to a good start. Speaking of comedy…

  • More Maher, please. Bill Maher’s weekly HBO talker is everything the network needs to be: Smart, controversial, entertaining and unlike any other show of its kind. Problem is, “Real Time with Bill Maher” airs only once a week — and goes off the air for months at a time.

    HBO needs to persuade Maher to expand his show to maybe four nights per week during the buildup to November’s elections. Cable news ratings have demonstrated that viewers are in love with any and all election news.

    More importantly for HBO: Having Maher on the air more frequently will help build buzz around the show. While Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and “Saturday Night Live” get gads of media attention for their political “coverage,” Maher’s Emmy-nominated effort toils in relative obscurity. That should change.

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