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Showtime's Double Play

Showtime is partnering with movie-rental company NetFlix to preview its new series Californication, part of an aggressive campaign to promote its original programming now that dominant pay-cable player HBO has lost its signature series, The Sopranos.

Starting July 24, three weeks prior to its Aug. 13 debut, NetFlix will offer Californication—a comedy starring David Duchovny as a troubled novelist and single father—through both its DVD mailer service and online streaming.

“We're really kind of testing this dual-platform approach,” says Showtime Digital Media Group Senior VP/General Manager Rob Hayes. “We think the combination of the DVD platform and streaming will be a powerful sampling opportunity for us.”

Although Showtime, a division of CBS Corp., has worked in the past with several online outlets for similar early-premiere promotions, this is the first time the company has paired with a single partner. Likewise, the Californication deal marks the first time NetFlix will offer an exclusive preview both on DVD and through Watch Now, its streaming platform.

Showtime is also using the digital campaign to reinforce a new scheduling strategy. On July 24, it will release the DVD for season two of Weeds in a prelude to its plans to use the hit series' third-season (also premiering Aug. 13) as a lead-in launch pad for Californication.

Showtime will similarly pair dramas Dexter and Brotherhood when both return for their second seasons in September. The effort to package new series in blocks with proven performers is a common strategy among broadcast and some ad-supported cable networks but a new one for Showtime. (It has paired two originals once before, for the first seasons of Weeds and now-defunct Barbershop).

“We never had the historic advantage of hit shows that just bang away at these target audiences and give us the opportunity to vertically promote new programs reaching similar audiences,” says Showtime Chairman/CEO Matt Blank. “This is a function of Showtime's success in the past year.”

The NetFlix advantage

Showtime became the first network to offer a full episode of a series to an unrestricted online audience prior to its launch, when it distributed the Kirstie Alley comedy Fat Actress through Yahoo! in March 2005. Since then, the network has offered nearly all its major new shows early online, through multiple partners.

The premiere of The Tudors, for example, was available in March through more than 20 online outlets, including AOL, MSN, Yahoo!,, CNET and NetFlix. The preview generated more than 2 million cumulative streams of the episodes over three weeks across those sites; although Showtime declined to provide numbers, NetFlix drew the most.

In choosing to partner exclusively with NetFlix for the Californication preview, Showtime took into account the movie-rental company's ability to target several hundred thousand of its 6.7 million total customers who have rented similar fare, such as HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm and FX's Nip/Tuck. And unlike Showtime's previous partners, which modified the racy Tudors episodes for TV-14 viewing online, NetFlix said it would not edit the show's colorful content.

In addition to streaming The Tudors' premiere prior to this deal, NetFlix provides Showtime with originally produced film content for TV. The streaming helps NetFlix in that it adds value to current customers and hopefully boosts their trust in the accuracy of the company's recommendations. Some 20% of all DVDs ordered through NetFlix are TV shows, says Ted Sarandos, chief content officer for the company.

With some 15 million subscribers, Showtime has roughly half the reach of HBO. But, in addition to its recent efforts to steal some of HBO's original-programming thunder, Showtime has been far more aggressive than its rival in offering episodes online to non-subscribers.

Last October, Showtime put full episodes of Weeds, Sleeper Cell, Brotherhood and The L Word on Yahoo!. In addition to offering full episodes on its own Website,, it has distributed clips on YouTube, MySpace, V Cast and cable operators' Websites.

“Most of the television business might view online promotional things as taking viewers away from their universe,” says Blank. “For us, whenever we do anything in the digital space, that sampling is absolutely critical to us because we don't have the same market power on-air that others do.”

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