Showtime Has Passion for Easter

In a scheduling stunt, Showtime will debut 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 exhibited the premium network’s penchant for reeling in controversial movies -- in recent years, it has presented Michael Moore’s George Bush polemic, Fahrenheit 9/11, and four-hour miniseries The Reagans.

Network executives said such films reinforce Showtime’s position as an outlet that isn’t afraid to showcase difficult subjects. But thus far, acquisitions such as Passion haven’t translated into a significant increase in new, paid subscriptions, Showtime acknowledged.

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

Passion 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 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 film, 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 he feels that it’s important for the commercial-free network to present quality content.

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 Distribution Inc. title within its huge Hollywood library, according to HBO VP Jeff Cusson

Starz Entertainment Group LLC’s decision not to acquire the title was purely financial, senior VP Thomas Southwick said. He noted that with much of the potential audience for the film having already seen in the theater or owning the DVD, Starz felt it wouldn’t draw many new customers.

Indeed, not many cable viewers were willing to plunk down the $3-$4 to watch the film on a PPV or video-on-demand basis. The film was shown on PPV systems in October 2004, only 45 days after debuting on DVD, and the airing didn’t finish among the top 50 movies of the year.

For more on Showtime and The Passion of the Christ, please see R. Thomas Umstead’s story on page six of Monday’s issue of Multichannel News.

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.