In recent years, premium movie channel Showtime — a perennial runner-up to HBO —
has reaped big critical and financial gains from its stable of strong original series, featuring complex and
dark characters. From a vigilante murderer (Dexter) to a pot-selling housewife (Weeds) to a pill-popping
nurse (Nurse Jackie), Showtime’s characters have struck a chord with both viewers and TV critics.
This month, the network debuted its latest batch of flawed characters, topped by Shameless, starring William
H. Macy as a hard drinking patriarch of a dysfunctional family. Showtime president of entertainment
David Nevins called the debut night “the biggest Sunday ever,” with Shameless averaging 982,000 watchers in
its Jan. 9 premiere — its best series bow since the 2003 premiere of Dead Like Me. A second new series — Episodes,
starring Matt LeBlanc (Friends) — drew 768,000 viewers in its Jan. 9 debut.
Even the network’s older series are still clicking with audiences. The fourth season of David Duchovny-starrer Californication
scored the show’s best premiere to date, drawing 848,000 viewers, ahead of its third-season debut of 821,000
by 3%. The network’s most-watched show, Dexter, was even more popular with viewers in its fifth season, generating a
series high 2.5 million viewers in for November 2010 finale.
In a year where its main competitors, co-owned HBO and Cinemax, reported a loss of 1.5 million subscribers,
CBS-owned Showtime said it has posted double-digit year-to-year distribution gains. The added households have
helped Showtime generate double-digit revenue gains in 2010, according to network officials.
And Hollywood has noticed. Showtime drew a cable- and broadcast-network-high
eight 2011 Golden Globe Awards nominations for original scripted series, including
such hits as Nurse Jackie, The United States of Tara and The Big C.
But the new year presents big challenges. Even with its subscriber gains, Showtime
remains in the shadow of its biggest competitor, HBO, which still has a sizeable
The network’s success in original programming has helped mask the loss of a
significant amount of its Hollywood movie library due to the 2008 defections of Viacom’s
Paramount Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and Lionsgate to upstart
premium service Epix.
Perhaps the largest uncertainty is whether Nevins, 44 — who, while on the studio
side at Imagine Television, developed such shows as Fox’s Emmy Award-winning
drama 24, NBC’s critically acclaimed Friday Night Lights and Fox’s Emmy Award-winning comedy series Arrested Development
— can continue Showtime’s string of hit shows produced by his predecessor and new NBC Entertainment
chairman Robert Greenblatt.
Nevins and Showtime CEO Matt Blank said Showtime’s best has yet to come. In separate interviews with Multichannel
News programming editor R. Th omas Umstead, the two executives laid out the battle plan for Showtime as it shamelessly
continues to position itself as, arguably, cable’s brightest rising brand.
MCN: Most of the industry, including competitors on the
pay TV side, experienced subscriber declines in 2010,
but Showtime’s numbers are up over last year. So are
the network’s revenues. Do you have an explanation?
Matt Blank: I like to say we have a kind of a threepronged
success story here. One is, very obviously, the
programming. It takes a long time to get a bunch of
shows on the air that are all performing terrifically. And,
as you know, we had a great week this week in kicking off
the new shows.
Two, we think the marketing really has taken hold for
us and that we’re a really important brand out there in
the consumer marketplace, and that serves us extremely
well. As the technologies continue to change, as the ways
our programming will be distributed in the future continue
to change, the brand just reigns really strong.
We used to think that we were always a second-place
brand, but we’re not anymore. We think we’re a leadership
brand in the marketplace, and that will continue,
and that programming and marketing together are what
build that brand.
Thirdly, I think we’ve done a really good job with our
customer base in the past couple of years, and we’ve
worked hard from a relations standpoint to make sure
that people are taking advantage of all the great programming
and promoting aggressively. So it’s no one
thing, but I think all three of those things are kind of
working on all fronts right now. And it’s a nice, a very
nice, time for us.
MCN: David, you had great ratings opening for your new
shows two Sundays ago and you were positioned well
for the Golden Globes Sunday. It’s a great start to the
year — how do you keep the momentum going?
David Nevins: We called [Jan. 9] ‘the biggest Sunday
ever’ somewhat tongue in cheek, but we wanted to announce
that we’re going to be there with multiple Aquality
shows every week of the year, and it starts with
Californication, Episodes and Shameless. And those
shows all look like they’re off to a good start, both in
terms of critical reception and clearly in terms of audience
acceptance and ratings. So that’s a big start.
Television can be very much of a momentum game,
and you get started with that and then you roll right
from there into The Borgias and Nurse Jackie and [United
States of Tara] and go into the summer shows and try to
carry the momentum all the way through.
MCN: You mentioned that you have your returning series
that are doing well and you’ve had some new starts
and you’ve got some things in the hopper coming down.
Is that the blueprint for a great original programming
lineup, to have everything across the board, new, old and
DN: I think a successful network is in a constant state of
reinvention and you’re constantly doing new stuff . And
you try to seed the new stuff while the old stuff is still hitting
big audiences. So we just started production down
in North Carolina on this show Homeland, which I think
is new territory for us in that it’s a sort of psychological
thriller. It’s got real intensity and real sit-on-the-edge-ofyour-
seat kind of excitement to it.
We’re going to do a comedy with Don Cheadle (House
of Lies), which starts production in about a month. He’s
one of those guys I’ve always loved, and we were so
thrilled to get him to Showtime. And fortunately we’re
in a place where I think great actors want to work here.
MCN: For your first two projects, Homeland is sort of
a psychological thriller, and then you
have a comedy with a high-profile actor
(House of Lies). Are you looking to
continue to build Showtime’s array of
content with different genres as well as
DN: Yes. I don’t think it’s any radical
shift on the strategy that began a
few years ago. The decision was made
a few years ago to really build and invest
in original, proprietary content, as
opposed to movies. We’re continuing
to move in that direction, and I think
I’m going to broaden the
lens slightly in the type of
shows that we do, but it’s
still about great characters
with real psychological
depth that great actors
want to play.
But I think we can broaden
the range a little bit and
be slightly more expansive
in the shows. I think we can
do shows with more than
one lead; I think we can do
slightly different genres.
But I don’t think any of
them are a radical departure
from what has gotten
Showtime to this place.
MCN: You mentioned the
fact that you’re looking
at series more than movies,
but could we see an
original movie somewhere
down the line? What about
DN: Yes, we’re always looking
at movies. I think the
key for us is [to] hook viewers
and hook subscribers
on renewable series, so
they know if they fall in
love with something, it’s
going to be there and it’s
going to come back again
next year and it could come
back the year after. That’s
really the key.
But that could mean reality
series. I think reality
for us is probably going to
be a little less sort of contrived
and a little more
documentary than you
would see on the broadcast
We’re continuing with
The Real L Word, but I think
we’re going to do it very
differently coming back.
I think it’s going to go much
deeper, be more provocative and really explore that subculture
in a way that you wouldn’t see on Bravo or MTV.
When it comes back, it’s going to feel much more Showtime
in a deeper, richer, more expansive way.
I’m also doing this year a show about gigolos in [Las]
Vegas — guys who are paid escorts. It turns out to be really
interesting and defeats a lot of your expectations.
And I think it’s provocative and yet I feel like it is very
much in keeping with the tone of quality and adult sophistication.
MCN: Matt, how confident are you that Showtime will
continue to push this strong momentum that you have?
MB: Well look, first of all, we don’t
want to maintain the momentum, we
want to build on it, and we think we
can. Two, we have three really important
shows launching here within a
four month period, between Episodes,
Shameless and The Borgias. And then,
as we get late in the year, I think you;’ll
start to see some things from David.
Original programming is more and
more important to us, it’s our objective
to get more original programming on
the air going forward, and this year is a
good example of that.
It’s always difficult out
there. It’s a highly competitive
marketplace. But I
think we have the good fortune
that when there’s an
important creative product
being talked about, Showtime
is now the first stop
for a lot of players. We were
never first, but you know
we think we are getting access
to the very, very best
players out there in terms
of offering really important
and differentiated original
MCN: So then you’re not
necessarily concerned about
some of these over-the-top
competitors (mostly movie)
competitors like Netflix?
MB: No, it really doesn’t
[bother us]. Why? Because
we continue to grow. We
think our model travels
very well with the changes
in the technology. And
wherever TV is being consumed on a mass basis, there’s
going to be an opportunity to sell Showtime aggressively.
We just don’t see an impact on our business at this
point in time.
MCN: Has that quality of programming that you have
now sort of blunted some of the losses of major Hollywood
movie titles that end up going onto other networks?
MB: You know something? We just don’t hear that issue
anymore in the marketplace. I think people have come
to understand that this brand is not going to be driven
by the next movie that opens this weekend — this brand
is going to be driven by Weeds, Dexter, Californication,
Shameless, Episodes and The Borgias. No one is going
to write about Showtime because of a theatrical film.
They’re going to talk about Episodes.
MCN: You mentioned that people have now come to
expect a certain level of quality from Showtime. Does
that make your job a lot harder going forward to sort of
DN: (Laughter) I love that. Coming into this job, I have
a sense of somebody with just enormous free reign and
limited only by our own creativity. For somebody who
operated essentially in the network-television business,
I have an enormous sense of liberation. So I’m not
daunted by it at all. I feel very excited and confident. The
pressure is just the pressure to be excellent. But I think
we’re in a place where the audience actually rewards us
for being excellent and unexpected, and that’s a great
kind of pressure to have. I love it.
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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.