'Passion of Christ’: It’s Showtime

In a scheduling stunt, Showtime will debut the blockbuster religious movie The Passion of the Christ on Easter Sunday.

This marks the first time the Mel Gibson film about the final hours in the life of Jesus Christ will appear on cable since it appeared on a pay-per-view basis 16 months ago.

Showtime’s acquisition exhibits the premium network’s penchant for reeling in controversial movies: In recent years, it has presented Michael Moore’s anti-George W. Bush polemic Fahrenheit 9/11 and the four-hour miniseries The Reagans.

Network executives say such films reinforce Showtime’s position as an outlet that isn’t afraid to showcase difficult subjects — but thus far, acquisitions such as The Passion haven’t positively effected subscriber growth as much as the network’s original programming fare, Showtime acknowledges.

Executive vice president Mark Greenberg said Showtime Networks doesn’t acquire or commission content to boost subscriber numbers through the shock value of sensational programming.

“We’ve done things on the left and the right [of the political spectrum] that many, many groups haven’t necessarily been real happy about,” he said. “But we think controversial television that talented, creative people make is meant to be seen.”

The Passion of the Christ will most likely go head to head with ABC’s annual airing of Cecil B. DeMille’s epic The Ten Commandments.

To pull viewers its way, Showtime has purchased a movie that has raised eyebrows since its March 2004 theatrical release. The movie, which Gibson financed and produced, graphically depicts events leading up to and including the crucifixion of Christ. The movie, which took in $370 million at the box office, has also been criticized by Jewish groups as anti-Semitic.

Greenberg said Showtime is “sensitive” to the potential backlash the movie could cause, but feels it’s important for the commercial-free network to present quality content.

“One of the few advantages we’ve had over the years is that we’ve been willing to pick up provocative programming for our viewers,” Greenberg said. “We’re not here to make editorial decisions.”

Apparently, Showtime was the only premium network to have much passion for Gibson’s film. Despite its box-office success, Home Box Office passed, saying it didn’t have room for the Icon Production title within its huge Hollywood library, according to vice president of corporate affairs Jeff Cusson.

Starz Entertainment Group’s decision not to acquire the title was purely financial, said senior vice president of corporate communications Thomas Southwick. Because most of The Passion’s potential audience has already seen the movie in the theater or has purchased the DVD, Starz felt it wouldn’t draw many new customers.

“We wondered whether the price would return enough subscribers to justify the cost,” Southwick said.

Indeed, not many cable viewers were willing to plunk down the $3 to $4 to watch the film on a pay-per-view or video on demand basis. The film was shown on pay per view channels in October 2004, only 45 days after its DVD debut.

The airing didn’t finish among the top 50 movies of the year. “It was an average performer, according to a spokeswoman for PPV purveyor In Demand, which declined to divulge any figures.

Moore’s movie and the Ronald Reagan biopic — originally commissioned by CBS, which backed out of showing it under pressure from conservative groups worried about inaccuracies — didn’t prompt much backlash from Showtime viewers.

Nor did they greatly improve Showtime’s subscriber base. Even though Showtime’s rolls have swelled over each of the last six quarters, Showtime attributes that largely to the pull of original programs like Weeds and Huff.

Whatever the case, Showtime has 14 million subscribers, still less than half of premium-channel kingpin HBO, with 29 million.

Showtime has not created a major mainstream original hit like HBO’s mob family drama The Sopranos, which returns for its sixth season March 12. Showtime has instead scored with niche shows such as lesbian series The L Word, the now cancelled, gay-oriented show Queer As Folk and the African-American-targeted Barbershop The Series.

If the network wanted to truly capitalize on the shock appeal of Passion, it could have scheduled it to run on March 31 or April 1. That’s when Showtime is giving non-paying customers a free look at its content. As lures, Showtime instead will include the premiere for its second season of Huff, about a psychiatrist whose own reality gets bent; Lions Gate Film’s critically acclaimed, racially tinged feature film Crash; and a remastered special, Liza With a Z, featuring Liza Minnelli in her prime.

“The airing of The Passion of Christ on Easter isn’t meant to mean anything other than it being a good time to premiere the movie,” Greenberg said.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.