Matthew C. Blank's business philosophy is defined by risk—the calculated risk of knowing when to leave a sure thing for something that is a long way from being as good, but is a place where there's nowhere to go but up.
When Blank left HBO in 1988 after 12 years, capped by reaching the senior VP ranks (he was in charge of all consumer marketing), to become the marketing chief at Showtime, he was trading a financially stable, successful company for one mired in uncertainty and second-class status.
“When I got to Showtime,” Blank says, “it was a very different company from HBO. It was a troubled company, a company that didn't have much traction in the marketplace. It was probably a weak No. 2 in every way. Having spent a bunch of years at HBO, that was a real startling change.
“When you go from a company where almost nothing can go wrong to a company where an awful lot of things can go wrong, you sort of have to readjust the way you think about the business.”
Blank excelled at Showtime, assuming the role of president and COO in 1991, and chairman and CEO in 1995. But ascendancy of the network was slower in coming. Blank focused quickly on new distribution opportunities, growing the Showtime Networks stable of channels from three premium networks—the flagship plus The Movie Channel and Flix—to include 27 digital channels. He also championed high-definition and on-demand subscription services.
But it wasn't until 2003 that Blank and his development team began to make Showtime a bona fide brand. The overexposure of movies on multiple screens and platforms made Hollywood films a declining investment. Original content was the growth sector. So Blank hired Robert Greenblatt, whose Greenblatt Janollari Studio produced HBO's Six Feet Under, to be head of entertainment. Blank and Greenblatt shared a creative vision that yielded a string of edgy, almost subversive shows. The modest success of Huff, Queer as Folk and The L-Word begat breakout hit Weeds in 2005, followed by Brotherhood, This American Life and Dexter (the network's most popular series) in 2006 and The Tudors and Californication last year.
“If you look at our shows,” Blank says, “they all have strong lead characters who are right on the edge or over the edge of respectability, yet are highly sympathetic in some way and have an appeal or edge that people are able to identify with.”
And while Showtime series have yet to attract broadcast-size audiences, the network has achieved a measure of buzz and critical acclaim. In the past year, the network has added more than one million subscribers, bringing Showtime's total subscribers to 16 million. Series including Dexter and Weeds are regularly in iTunes' top 10, and Showtime has become top of mind for industry talent.
Joining the Showtime dysfunctional family: The United States of Tara, produced by Steven Spielberg and starring Toni Collette as a mother suffering with dissociative identity disorder; and Nurse Jackie (still a working title), a black comedy starring Edie Falco as a nurse with a drug problem and an erratic romantic life.
“Ultimately these are family stories,” Blank says. “They're just dysfunctional family stories.”
David Zaslav, president/CEO of Discovery Communications, has known Blank for 20 years, since Zaslav was a young lawyer and through his days running NBC Universal's cable operations. He recalls a day when Blank tipped him off to his new programming strategy for Showtime.
“He said, 'I'm going to double down on original programming.'” At that point, Zaslav continues, “A lot of people counted Showtime out. There was a moment there when movies became a commodity and the feeling was pay TV was going to go away. Now [Showtime] is a sought-after, hot, hip network that's more relevant today than it was five years ago, so everyone was wrong.”
Blank grew up in working class Jamaica, Queens. His father, an attorney, died when Blank was young, leaving his mother to raise Blank and his sister on her own. Blank left Queens to go to the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned an undergraduate degree in economics from The Wharton School in 1972. He returned home, landing a job at Philip Morris and then HBO in 1976. All the while he was going to night school at Baruch College, where he earned an M.B.A.
Blank's civic-mindedness—he's on several boards—dovetails with a highly engaged, personal approach to business, with his just-business rancor diffused by a wry wit. “He's a great observer of people and situations,” Zaslav says. “When he cuts on you, you laugh, but afterward you say, 'Wait a minute, I think he meant that.'”
That sardonic attitude has served him well in negotiations with cable operators. “Not only is [Blank] a great leader at Showtime where he has overseen a flowering of special and unique programming,” wrote Patrick Esser, president of Cox Communications, in an e-mail message. “He is also a highly involved cable industry team player.”
Tom Rutledge, COO of Cablevision, echoes that sentiment, noting that Cablevision subscriptions to Showtime's linear channel and VOD service are “up by significant percentages in recent years.”
“Matt Blank has a clear respect for talent and a dedication to quality that has created something special at Showtime,” he says. “We're in the same business, and know as well as anyone that there is no specific formula and certainly there are no guarantees; for every Dexter or Weeds, there are lists of shows that don't make it, which makes the consistency and achievement that has happened at Showtime even more extraordinary.”
Adds Zaslav: “Matt has been fighting for years with the cable guys. And it's not always a fair fight. He's kept a good sense of humor about him. And here he is all these years later, some of his best friends are the distributors that he's been in battles with. That really says so much about Matt.”—Marisa Guthrie
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