On November 13, 1990, TV was changed forever with the premiere of “Real Sex” on HBO. The docuseries was raw and explicit, covering everything from masturbation classes to bisexual strip clubs.
And Sheila Nevins, the producer and VP of Original Programming who brought the show to HBO, was thrilled to see just how much she could get away with.
“We could now show penises,” she said to author James Andrew Miller, for his new oral history, “Tinderbox: HBO’s Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers Hardcover” (Henry Holt), out Nov. 23. “But we couldn’t show it upright. No erect ones.”
It’s difficult to remember today, when sexually explicit content has become so ubiquitous — thanks to the Internet — but 30 years ago, shows like “Real Sex” were dangerous and groundbreaking. “‘Real Sex’ was the birth of the R-rated documentary,” says Nevins. “It was the highest-rated show on HBO bar none.”
Long before “The Sopranos,” “The Wire” and “Game of Thrones,” Nevins helped establish HBO as the place to find shows you couldn’t see on network TV. She was often ahead of her time, producing shows like 1985’s “What Sex Am I?” — which chronicled the personal and professional struggles of transgender people “at a time when even support for gay marriage was still a minority view,” writes Miller — and 1987’s “AIDS: Everything You and Your Family Need to Know … But Were Afraid to Ask.”
“Everybody thought I did the sex shows so I could make serious docs, like Peter to pay Paul,” continues Nevins. “But that wasn’t true at all. I liked them as much as I liked the serious docs. The people in them lived a life I couldn’t live.”
Nevins, who’s now 82, first joined HBO’s documentary division in 1979, serving as president since 2004, and during her reign won 26 Oscars, 32 Primetime Emmy Awards, 35 News and Documentary Emmys and 42 Peabody Awards. She won so many awards that HBO created a Nevins trophy room and nicknamed it “the Holy Shrine of Sheila.”
Spike Lee, who collaborated with her on “When the Levees Broke,” a 2006 documentary about the devastation in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, says Nevins could be aggressively opinionated.
“She wouldn’t just let you go and make what you wanted to make and not say anything,” Lee says. “More times than not, what she suggested was better than my original thought.”
But all the accolades weren’t enough. In 2017, the New York Times reported that Nevins, the “profane, glamorous and gloriously inappropriate” president of HBO Documentary Films, had decided to step down. She told the Times that “I have deprived my life of a life. All I did was work. I was, like, born at HBO and I don’t have to die there.”
But five years later, Nevins tells Miller that this was a complete lie.
Nevins was, in fact, pushed out of HBO after 38 years, and as she filled a garbage bag with her office belongings, she felt more confused than content about how her career was ending.
“Why was I beaten up and kicked out the door?” she asked. “Was I too old? Was I costing them too much money?”
Nevins grew up in the ’50s and ’60s on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the child of a Russian immigrant bookie and a mother suffering from Raynaud’s disease, which resulted in the amputation of her left arm below the elbow. Watching the way people responded to her mother, sometimes with pity but often with revulsion, inspired Nevins to “champion stories about those less fortunate … anonymous victims of unfairness, deprivation and poverty,” writes Miller.
During the ’70s, she bounced between TV producing jobs until 1985 when she was made HBO’s Vice President of Documentary Programming. She brought to the network a clear vision of how HBO could stand apart.
“Why should you pay for television when you can get it for free?” Nevins asks. “We’re going to give you hot stuff at night. We’re going to tell you things you don’t know about, plus things you’re curious about. And we’re not going to rub your nose in liberal-only thinking.”
Her first big success was “Real Sex,” followed in ’95 by “Taxicab Confessions,” where New Yorkers were secretly recorded in cabs sharing “poignant tales of loss and longing to ribald stories of semi-salacious sex,” Miller writes. “There were even scenes of actual fornication in the backs of cabs.”
As she raked in critical acclaim, HBO gave her complete creative autonomy. “They left me alone,” says Nevins, who was promoted to president of Documentary and Family Programming in 2004. “They gave me money. I worked within that amount of money. And they never told me I did a good job.”
“Taxicab Confessions,” which ran till 2006, could be vulgar and titillating, but according to co-creator Harry Gantz, it also “helped you see the humanity in people who were different from you.”
Gantz remembers visiting a sex workers convention in Las Vegas and receiving a standing ovation. Prostitutes were frequently featured on “Taxicab Confessions,” sharing details of their lives that weren’t usually portrayed in the media.
“We gave them a voice to talk about their experiences rather than deciding who they were ahead of time,” he says. “People began to realize that this was a transformative show, because it took the shame out of confessing, of sharing the parts of yourself that you were ashamed about.”
By the 2010s, Nevins had been at HBO longer than almost any other exec, but she didn’t worry about appearing old and out of touch in a youth-centric industry. “I knew they couldn’t afford to lose me,” she says. “I was wily. I think I learned it from the hookers.”
Jeff Bewkes, one-time CEO of Time Warner, HBO’s parent company, calls the network a boys’ club, but adds, “There were a lot of strong women who took no shit and gave as good as they got,” pointing to Nevins as one of them.
Even Chris Albrecht, a former Chairman and CEO of HBO between 2002 and 2007, often credited with spawning a Golden Age of television with shows like “The Wire” and “Six Feet Under,” knew better than to interfere with Nevins. “What am I gonna tell Sheila about a documentary?” he says. “It didn’t do me any good to have a turf war with Sheila.”
Some learned this the hard way. In 2005, when venerated ABC anchor Ted Koppel was in negotiations with HBO to create original programming, Nevins “went on a scorched-earth campaign, the likes of which you’ve never seen before,” says Jon Alpert, a filmmaker and longtime Nevins collaborator.
Fearing that she would be replaced, Nevins spent weeks “screaming and swearing on the phone” to HBO execs, according to Alpert. Koppel finally gave up on the network.
“It really wasn’t worth the stress that we were going to cause,” Koppel told Miller, adding that “Sheila is a lovely woman, and I enjoy her a great deal.”
Nevins’ memory of that moment isn’t as rosy. Months after Koppel’s HBO deal fell apart, she said she ran into the news anchor at the Canyon Ranch spa, and he called her “a snake.”
Nevins didn’t respond, but says she thought to herself, “F–k you, mister, I got you out.”
She also had a less than amicable relationship with Richard Plepler, the two-decades younger HBO exec who became CEO in 2013. “Richard knew how to work her,” says Mike Lombardo, who served as HBO’s co-president with Plepler in 2007. “He would do this for years, he would be like, ‘How old is she again?’ He was out to f–k her from day one. I’d watch him with her. He was a master at it.”
The animosity between Plepler and Nevins wasn’t just down to their age difference. “Nevins and Plepler had different tastes in documentaries,” Miller writes. “Plepler veered toward projects built around celebrities and big names, whereas Nevins maintained an interest in grittier, more journalistic stories.”
Although Nevins enjoyed any opportunity to rub shoulders with A-listers like Mike Nichols and Steven Spielberg, “she wasn’t all that interested in telling their stories,” Miller writes. “As time went on, Nevins had long felt she had to push harder and harder to keep HBO’s documentaries rooted in real-world subjects.”
Nevins was slowly being pushed out, and not just at the office. “Plepler hosted renowned, hoity-toity salons and dinner parties, but Nevins was not invited to them,” Miller writes. “She never cracked into his inner circle.”
“I was aware of conflicts that were coming down the pike,” says Alex Gibney, an Emmy-winning documentarian who collaborated with Nevins on the 2015 HBO hit “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.” “Some of my projects were green-lit, not by going to Sheila but by having them green-lit out of LA through Mike Lombardo. You could tell Mike and Richard were making decisions over her head and that she was losing the power to run her department.”
Both sides tell very different stories. Lombardo recounts trying to get an Elvis Presley doc made at HBO but Nevins “didn’t want to do docs about people,” he says. When Nevins found out he went over her head to get the documentary made, she called him in a rage. “She raised her voice on the phone to me,” Lombardo remembers. “Things got really heated.”
Nevins recalls conversations with Lombardo in which he called her screaming.
“He was tyrannical,” she says. “He was disturbed. I started crying.” Lombardo didn’t just dislike her, she says, he “hated me. He wished I was dead. Destroyed me. Destroyed my soul.”
On December 16, 2017, Nevins announced she was leaving. To the world, it was presented as her decision. Plepler gave her a hero’s send-off. “The word ‘legend’ is often thrown around loosely in our business,” he wrote in a statement. “But in Sheila’s case, it actually applies.” She was given an undisclosed severance and a glowing profile in the Times, but after 2018, most of the shows she helped create for HBO, from “Real Sex” to “Taxicab Confessions,” were quietly removed from the network’s streaming services.
Many of the filmmakers who worked with Nevins knew the real reasons she left. “She was a 79-year-old woman,” says Alexandra Pelosi, a director who sold several films to Nevins (and is also the daughter of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi). “Corporate America doesn’t respect 79-year-old women.”
It also didn’t help that Nevins is a “foulmouthed truth-teller,” says Pelosi. “Nobody likes truth-tellers at their parties. They say inappropriate things out loud.”
Nevins acknowledges her reputation. “I never would have worked for me,” she admits. “Never. Not in a million years. What a bitch! But I felt that I had earned the right to be difficult because I was being difficult for the product.”
Her departure all came down to a fundamental difference between how Nevins and Plepler saw the world.
“Richard hangs around in a society where the food miraculously appears on your table, but you never meet the people in the fields who harvest it,” says filmmaker Rory Kennedy, directed the 2003 HBO docuseries “Pandemic: Facing AIDS” under Nevins’ watch. “Sheila comes from the Lower East Side, went to Communist sleepaway camp.” (Pleper later left the network in 2019, stating that he had been with HBO “nearly 28 years.” He is now running his own production company, and declined to comment on Nevins or her departure from HBO for Miller’s book.)
Nevins, meanwhile, accepted an offer by MTV to start up their Documentary Films division two years after leaving HBO.
“I was hired by MTV because I was a brand,” she says. “They didn’t care how the f–k old I was. I just gave clout to their reality stuff.”
The ultimate revenge? In September, just two years after Nevins moved to MTV, the network scored its first-ever Emmy Award for a documentary with “76 Days,” chronicling the Wuhan lockdown in 2020.
And who did she beat to win it? HBO.