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New HBO Entertainment Chief: Already On Shaky Ground?

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April 10th, 2008

New HBO Entertainment President - Sue Naegle; Image via HBOSue Naegle, a Hollywood agent who help land Six Feet Under on HBO was named president of HBO's entertainment division on Wednesday.

On the plus side, in a New York Times piece on her new job she was asked whether Showtime (for shows like Weeds, The Tudors and Dexter) and AMC for critical, if not ratings success with Mad Men, deserved a tip of the cap. Naegle's Reply: "Absolutely. I watch some of those shows."

"They've worked hard," she added. "They saw a chance to do things that were, truthfully, a little bit in the HBO model. They're doing well with them. God bless them."

But she's not quite on terra firma with the "Up All Night" half of TVbytheNumbers.

"Not every show needs to reach the same size of audience, or same width, of a ‘Sopranos,' " according to Naegle.

On the one hand, she's absolutely right. 100%. I couldn't agree more. On the other hand is this: but at least one show needs that kind of reach. Preferably two. Ah, the glory days of The Sopranos and Sex In the City.

According to the NYT story, Ms. Naegle literally worked her way up from the mailroom at United Talent Agency beginning sixteen years ago. I don't want to be too rough on her in the early going, but the article has me worried about her already just from a pragmatist point of view and not her quote above. She expressed enthusiasm for Big Love, Tell Me You Love Me, and In Treatment as a foundation to build on.

None of those shows has remotely approached the ratings of The Sopranos, unless you added all the highest rated episodes of those shows together! Back when The Sopranos was on, it was always at or near the top of the weekly cable top 20. Since The Sopranos went off the air, HBO has never even been in the weekly cable top 40. If she's good with Big Love and Tell Me You Love Me, maybe they should see if they could license SpongeBob for a risqué HBO version (kidding!).

She's hitching her horse to Alan Ball again. Ball created Six Feet Under, which I liked for a while, but then it got a bit too weird for me - but I know many who stuck with it and enjoyed it. I'm not slamming Ball, he wrote and co-produced one of my favorite movies of the last 10 years, American Beauty. But Naegle has high hopes for True Blood which debuts in the fall (a show she helped put together in her capacity as an agent). This causes me concern. True Blood is yet another vampire show, that "seeks to depict vampires in Louisiana in ways that, Ms. Nagele said, were alternately amusing, scary and sexy."

Can you say Anne Rice? I read the first several books in the Lestat series in the 1990s. I'm so over it. But my personal tastes aside, I have two other reasons for concern: Moonlight and New Amsterdam. Moonlight is a vampire show, though it's not set in Louisiana and its cast can't get naked or even semi-naked or the show might well be off the bubble. New Amsterdam isn't a vampire show, but it's a show involving immortals, and even with a couple of American Idol lead-ins, it's struggling to grab hold. And these are both broadcast network shows. The Sopranos pulled significantly better numbers on cable for most of its run (and I believe always in the 18-49 demo) than Moonlight gets on broadcast.

The Sopranos suffered a bit towards the end of its run because early on it didn't compete with much on broadcast TV on Sunday nights, but then Desperate Housewives came along. Still, even in its last season it typically did around 6.5-8 million viewers other than the finale, which had 11.9 - its biggest audience since March 2004.

Other shows in development she's hopeful about:

  • A drama (no name available) set in Atlantic City in the 1920s. Prohibition era Sopranos? It's from Terrence Winter who was an executive producer for The Sopranos.
  • Suburban Shootout: two rival gangs of housewives fight over their perfect town - from Barry Sonnenfield
  • 1 Percent - from Michael Tolkin who wrote the theatrical The Player, about an Arizona Biker Club

I have an idea. How about a show about the people who run a web site where people download HBO shows for free all the time and make millions in the process.

I don't think the odds favor True Love reaching the critical mass of The Sopranos. And certainly the oddsmaking gods don't favor Big Love's chances. At its peak in 2006, Big Love averaged around 4.2 million or roughly 50% of The Sopranos that year. But last summer on Monday nights, whenever I was able to find data for it, Big Love was under 2.5 million viewers (and often under 2 million). Not a rock solid foundation to build on. Entourage was the post-Sopranos king of Sunday nights, but it went from the 3.8 million range in April to the 2.2 million range in June and July.

The television analysts ragged HBO mercilessly after Sex in the City went off the air in 2004, saying it needed another hit besides The Sopranos. They wrote crap like HBO had lost its edge. But then it still had The Sopranos, now it doesn't.

HBO's been beaten down like the New York Knicks, and the expectations are low. But I think whoever replaces Isiah Thomas (assuming they ever fire him) probably has an easier task than Ms. Nagele.

 
  • Jack

    Well I don't care for HBO ratings as long as they give us quality non-network shows. That's why HBO exists.

    Give David Simon a new show after his new mini series, 'Generation Kill'. I want another 'The Wire'.

  • Jack

    Well I don’t care for HBO ratings as long as they give us quality non-network shows. That’s why HBO exists.

    Give David Simon a new show after his new mini series, ‘Generation Kill’. I want another ‘The Wire’.

  • http://tvbythenumbers.com Robert Seidman

    I agree with you 100% especially with regard to The Wire. But ultimately without a Sopranos here and there to drive HBO subscriptions, and allow HBO to not care so much what the ratings for the other shows are, it means less critically acclaimed stuff like “The Wire” will get made.

  • http://tvbythenumbers.com Robert Seidman

    I agree with you 100% especially with regard to The Wire. But ultimately without a Sopranos here and there to drive HBO subscriptions, and allow HBO to not care so much what the ratings for the other shows are, it means less critically acclaimed stuff like “The Wire” will get made.

  • kayarn

    To HBO's credit, they have gone alternate routes to drive up chances to watch shows. These things air 300 times during the week and On Demand is becoming more and more popular (I don't know anyone who didn't watch The Wire this way).

    These new shows sound more interesting than something like Tell Me You Love Me or In Treatment. So perhaps they could get the kind of buzz The Sopranos or Sex in the City got.

    The bottom line for HBO is to keep subscribers and add new ones. That data is entirely more important than ratings for their shows, which I'm not even show how accurate Neilsen is with that (HBO is 30 million households and how many of these households have a Neilsen box?).

  • kayarn

    To HBO’s credit, they have gone alternate routes to drive up chances to watch shows. These things air 300 times during the week and On Demand is becoming more and more popular (I don’t know anyone who didn’t watch The Wire this way).

    These new shows sound more interesting than something like Tell Me You Love Me or In Treatment. So perhaps they could get the kind of buzz The Sopranos or Sex in the City got.

    The bottom line for HBO is to keep subscribers and add new ones. That data is entirely more important than ratings for their shows, which I’m not even show how accurate Neilsen is with that (HBO is 30 million households and how many of these households have a Neilsen box?).

  • http://www.crocodilecaucus.com/wordpress Lyle

    As a fan of the original Suburban Shootout (it's a remake of a British dramedy that earned a lot of critical buzz for Oxygen) if the tone is right that could be HBO's next breakout. It has the “There's nothing like this on television” feel that The Sopranos and Sex and the City had when they became hits.

  • http://www.crocodilecaucus.com/wordpress Lyle

    As a fan of the original Suburban Shootout (it’s a remake of a British dramedy that earned a lot of critical buzz for Oxygen) if the tone is right that could be HBO’s next breakout. It has the “There’s nothing like this on television” feel that The Sopranos and Sex and the City had when they became hits.

  • Becky

    Moonlight is a fantastic show that is generating a great deal of buzz and has developed a huge dedicated fan base that is growing. This show offers mystery, drama, romance, fantasy, action, detective stories and so much more. The cast is phenomenal and has that magical on-screen chemistry that is hard to find. CBS has a winner with this show and I think it is important to look at the time slot it is given – Friday nights at 9pm which is a difficult one at best, but Moonlight has proven itself by consistently winning the targeted demo group. In my opinion, I think it will be hard to find a vampire show that can top this one! Good luck trying!!!

    Moonlight returns on Friday, April 18th, at 9pm with a special rebroadcast of episode 12, “The Mortal Cure.” New episodes start Friday, April 25th at 9pm. Check it out!

  • Becky

    Moonlight is a fantastic show that is generating a great deal of buzz and has developed a huge dedicated fan base that is growing. This show offers mystery, drama, romance, fantasy, action, detective stories and so much more. The cast is phenomenal and has that magical on-screen chemistry that is hard to find. CBS has a winner with this show and I think it is important to look at the time slot it is given – Friday nights at 9pm which is a difficult one at best, but Moonlight has proven itself by consistently winning the targeted demo group. In my opinion, I think it will be hard to find a vampire show that can top this one! Good luck trying!!!

    Moonlight returns on Friday, April 18th, at 9pm with a special rebroadcast of episode 12, “The Mortal Cure.” New episodes start Friday, April 25th at 9pm. Check it out!

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