Leading the Charge

Showtime's Entertainment President Bob Greenblatt is on a mission: to transform the Viacom-owned channel into a prime time player. His blueprint is Huff, a textured new family drama chock full of boldface stars that debuts Nov. 7. Hank Azaria plays a troubled psychiatrist re-examining his life. Oliver Platt is his best friend, Blythe Danner his overbearing mom.

The drama is a launch pad for Greenblatt, a former Fox Broadcasting exec and the producer who brought Six Feet Under
to HBO. "We need to do extraordinary things," he insists. So together with Showtime Networks CEO Matt Blank, he's hunting for unusual, high-profile original shows to appeal to a broad, upscale audience, virtually every network's dream.

But Showtime faces a more formidable challenge: It's biggest problem is distribution. Even when it has a hit show, like Queer as Folk
and The L Word, it can't get much buzz, since only 12 million households subscribe. Compare this with HBO, which reaches 30 million homes, or FX, which also boasts racy fare and is piped into 80 million. And forget the broadcasters, which reach more than 100 million households. Within premium TV, Showtime is dwarfed in size and stature by HBO. While HBO's originals rack up Emmys and define the zeitgeist, Showtime is seldom top of mind.

Better originals may help lure new subscribers and drive new technologies, like subscription video-on-demand. "It's all about your brands and proprietary programming," says Blank. "It will be Huff
and The L Word
that people remember."

While Greenblatt winces at the comparisons with HBO, he cites a common experience. "Before The Sopranos
and Sex and the City, what kind of profile did HBO have?" he says. "They ignited them. We have to find shows like that."

is his opening volley. Showtime is so high on Huff, it has already

committed to a second season. When Greenblatt arrived at Showtime in July 2003, the script was in development, but he was intimately involved in casting, revisions and producing the pilot. Among his contributions: attaching the big-name talent like Azaria and producing the show in Los Angeles to draw on a deeper talent pool. Greenblatt wants a good mix of genres, from specials, like a recent standup show with red-hot comic Dave Chappelle, to Kirstie Alley's comedy/reality show Fat Actress,
about an overweight actress, coming in March.

His goal is to build on Showtime's existing strengths.

Showtime generated $1.08 billion in revenue last year, making it the 11th most profitable network, according to B&C's annual survey. Revenues climbed 4% over 2002 and were larger than cable heavyweights like USA Network and MTV. Subscriber growth, however, is stalled. Showtime lost subscribers last year; HBO was stagnant. From December 2002 to September 2003, Showtime shed 9.3% of its subscribers to 12 million homes, according to a report by Sanford Bernstein & Co. media analyst Tom Wolzien. HBO grew slightly at 0.8% to 27.2 million homes.

To jump-start growth, Greenblatt is choosing from six pilots for next season. The three dramas and three comedies include Weeds, a dark comedy about a suburban soccer mom (Mary-Louise Parker) who deals marijuana, and Hate,
about an NYPD anti-hate crime unit, featuring Marcia Gay Harden. Casting established talent, Greenblatt says, is one way to build Showtime's allure. "It gives me a leg up. We're never going to have all the marketing resources I'd like." He hopes to find two or three gems to take to series.

In Hollywood, Greenblatt's moves are getting noticed. "He has re-energized the place, and his taste is impeccable," says Lions Gate Television President Kevin Beggs, whose company produces Weeds.

Of course, Showtime is hardly new to the originals business. Niche dramas like gay-themed Queer as Folk, The L Word
and black drama Soul Food
have earned it critical kudos. The network has been willing to tackle subjects others avoid. But some Showtime efforts have been dismissed as low-wattage. As an original-movie factory, it churned out dozens of forgettables per year.

Now Greenblatt advocates more quality, less quantity. For example, he cut made-for-TV movies to a handful in favor of a few splashier projects, such as Reefer Madness,
a 2005 spring musical
starring Alan Cumming. He is focusing intensely on new series. Showtime is increasing budgets on shows like Huff, which costs about $2 million an episode, on par with FX or USA Network's originals.

The corporate culture around Showtime is changing, as well.

Since former Viacom COO Mel Karmazin exited last spring, Viacom's Co-COO and Co-President Tom Freston has added Showtime to his purview. The former MTV Networks chief espouses strong programming tied to branding and promotion. Part of that push is to tap into the Viacom family, evidenced by Huff's multimillion- dollar marketing campaign. On-air spots will run on CBS, VH1, Comedy Central and MTV. The drive—which rivals past Showtime campaigns—also includes radio and outdoor ads and distributing 1 million DVDs of episode one in Entertainment Weekly.

Greenblatt may be ideally suited to lead the charge.

After USC film school, he landed at Lorimar Features' movie division working for now-News Corp. President and COO Peter Chernin. When Chernin jumped to fledgling Fox, he recruited Greenblatt for drama development. Fox had only two nights a week of original programming, and producers were reluctant to pitch their projects there. So Greenblatt sought out riskier shows, like teen soap Beverly Hills 90210, and untapped genres, such as adult animation with TheSimpsons. When Greenblatt brought him The X-Files, Chernin didn't get the premise, but he got Greenblatt's passion. "I said, 'If you believe in it, develop it,'" remembers Chernin. "A bazillion dollars later, he was right."

At Showtime, Greenblatt is again cast in the role of underdog. But even with premium cable's freedom from advertisers and government regulations, he doesn't want sex, language and violence merely for shock value. Huff
isn't risqué, but it is blunt. In the premiere episode, a young gay patient shoots himself in Huff's office. Blood is spattered everywhere, and the boy's mouth smokes from the bullet. Such dramatic moments are Greenblatt's idea of premium TV. "Every network wants shows that are groundbreaking and bold," he says. "The difference is they have to round down the edges. We don't."