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Showtime's Offsay Strives To Make a Can't-Miss Net

Since joining Showtime Networks Inc. in 1994, Jerry Offsay has trebled the pay service's level of original fare. As president of programming, Offsay — who came to Showtime with a résumé bearing credits as president of RKO Pictures, executive producer of such films as Eight Men Out and
Hamburger Hill and executive vice president of ABC Productions — has green-lighted and shepherded projects that have netted vast critical acclaim for the service, while garnering Emmy, Golden Globe, CableACE, Humanitas, Governor and Peabody awards, among others. In a pair of recent telephone interviews, Offsay talked with Multichannel News news editor Mike Reynolds about Showtime's original programming strategies and its place vis à vis premium competitor Home Box Office. An edited transcript follows:

MCN: I've heard a lot about your "wall."

Jerry Offsay:
My job description is to make sure people are missing something if they don't have Showtime. Every week, you use every single tool available to you and one of the best is the television Sunday supplements. A third party has decided from amongst everything that's on that week that we have the most important thing. We're somewhere north of 100 different projects that have had covers at this point. The wall just isn't big enough anymore.

MCN: I would imagine that Queer as Folk grabbed a few covers along the way. Will the second season cause the same stir?

Offsay:
Yes, Queer as Folk
grabbed the covers in about 20-something percent of the country when it came on the air. Maybe one show every five years gets the same thing the second time around. But I'm expecting pretty good noise.

Most of the people out there liked the show, but even the people who were critical of it at the beginning had to admit that it had grown and really was a solidly executed drama when it came to the last couple of episodes last year.

MCN: Given the subject matter — the sexual divide — is there an inherent limit to the audience for Queer as Folk?

Offsay:
The audience is about 50 percent men and 50 percent women, which I think surprised us a little bit. Its premiere episode was the highest-rated thing on the network. So if it has a limit, I'm satisfied that the limit is high enough for me.

MCN: You promoted The Chris Isaak Show hard last year and now it's getting some play on VH1 in a variety of ways. Do a lot of people know about it?

Offsay:
As happy as we were with the size of the audience for Queer as Folk,
I think we were disappointed in the audience that tuned in for Chris Isaak. That's one of the reasons that VH1 has its hands on the show. Add that to the money that we're going to spend to advertise on top of that, and it will probably amount to the biggest push behind any series that we've ever had.

Chris is also going to have a CD coming out, this time tied to the second-season premiere. Hopefully that's going to help us get more viewers to the air.

MCN: Latinos. Blacks. Rock stars with good hair, as opposed to rock stars with bad hair. Is there another disenfranchised group you're looking to work with?

Offsay:
[Laughs.] Well, I don't have them on my radar right now. Fortunately, I don't think there is anyone as obviously disenfranchised as blacks or gays or Hispanics in the marketplace.

MCN: Your development decisions: A 20-episode commitment to Street Time, a series about parole officers and parolees.

Offsay:
This is not a cop show. There are good guys and bad guys here, but not necessarily who you think. This is a gutsy, edgy program centering on a parole officer and a parolee, and how they live parallel lives on different sides of the street. Among our staff of 30 creative geniuses, there wasn't a single dissenting voice. It will debut in June.

MCN: Soul Food?

Offsay:
Our 40-episode commitment shows how strongly we feel about this program. It's our second-highest rated series after Queer. It's a great series about how families, no matter what their color, are about 90 percent the same. It lets everybody see how we all react to the same or differently to situations involving siblings, lovers, parent and friends. But that 10 percent difference for blacks is a good thing; it's what makes the show unique and interesting.

MCN: Was Resurrection Blvd. a tougher call?

Offsay:

The quality of the show is an A; the ratings a B-minus. But we like the way the show finished up its second season and our sales people tell us it gives them a unique property to sell. It's a door-opener with the fastest-growing segment of the population.

When people in the [entertainment] community heard it might not come back, we received a lot of calls from stars that have already been involved in the show, that they would be willing to come back for three-, four- or five-story arcs. There will also be a lot of new high-profile talent next season.

MCN: Going to California and Leap Years didn't make the cut for second seasons.

Offsay: Going to California

was a good show about young guys, but we don't have enough of an 18-to-34 male audience coming to Showtime on a regular basis.

Leap Years
was the most confusing set of ratings our company has seen. On Sept. 9, we aired the seventh episode, and it marked the fifth week in a row of higher numbers. After Sept. 11, 50 percent of the audience disappeared. The ratings through Sept. 9 indicated it could have been renewed; the numbers afterward said it couldn't.

MCN: What else is in the pipeline?

Offsay:
We've got 25 scripts in development. Comedies and dramas. And we've got a pretty good core sci-fi franchise on Showtime that we've had for a number of years. We've ordered Jeremiah; it's in production. But we have other sci-fi development behind that.

MCN: What about Stargate: SG1?

Offsay:
We've got 10 more episodes of Stargate
that will run in 2002. We'll probably put them on along with the premiere of Jeremiah
so we've got a good, solid one-two punch. We'll have done 110 episodes of Stargate. Although the audience is still there for it, it's not helping us draw new subscribers in the door when the show is available in syndication and [will be] on Sci Fi [Channel].

MCN: What other kinds of things are you considering?

Offsay:
We're looking at everything from politics. The West Wing
is a great show and it's brilliantly executed, but politics isn't quite as clean a business as they portray it to be.

We're looking at Las Vegas as an area that we're developing for or set in the world of gambling, both Las Vegas gambling and other kinds of casino gambling, establishments. We're looking at religion.

MCN: In a dramatic vein?

Offsay:
Do you take televangelism seriously or not? A large number of people do, and I think we've got a couple of things in that arena that we're looking at.

MCN: Your shows have received great critical notices, but the ratings aren't there. Is a breakthrough series the Holy Grail for Showtime?

Offsay:
Yes. I think when Soul Food
and Queer as Folk
are doubling our primetime average or better, the ratings are there.

MCN: What kind of numbers?

Offsay:
I don't give out the figures. But the premiere episodes of Queer as Folk
and the premiere episodes of Soul Food
this summer, they were somewhere in the range of 180 to 250 percent of our primetime average.

Are they household names and are people talking about them on every block? No. Are they talking about Queer as Folk
in every block in the gay community? Yes. Are they talking about Soul Food
in every block in the African-American community? Yes.

Have we broken through to the mainstream in the way that HBO has? Absolutely not. Would we like to? Who wouldn't?

MCN: Do series build brands better?

Offsay:
I think that the movies, frankly, have built our brand. The consistent supply of high-quality films has changed people's perception about us a company, as a brand, as in "No Limits." Whether it was Dirty Pictures, Strange Justice
or Baby Dance. I think that series obviously bring viewers back week after week, whereas with movies you have to start over again every time out of the box. I think that they are both necessary.

MCN: Your budget is in the $375 million to $400 million area for 2001 and 2002?

Offsay:
They'll be in that range. I think that [Showtime chairman Matt Blank's] number and my number are different. I said that we had $375 million worth of original programming on the air. Which, my contribution to that is, remains between me and my confessor.

MCN: OK.

Offsay:
But if you take the cost of 160 episodes, eight times 20 drama series and 30-odd movies that we premiered this year, they'll cost you $375 million.

Our programming budget is in the $400 million dollar range, and that includes our contribution to the originals, plus what we pay for the theatricals, plus what we pay for the liberty of other stuff that fills in between the new movies and the originals.

MCN: That's a lot less than at HBO.

Offsay:
Well, I'd rather have $1 billion than $400 million. But I think we've done a pretty good job. This year we had 14 different pictures that we made that got Emmy nominations. For our puny budget, that's not too bad.

MCN: You work with a lot of Hollywood talent on, for lack of better terms, personal projects. Is that how you bridge the budgetary gap?

Offsay:
If you look at the budget for the Baby Dance, it was probably 25 percent of what HBO was spending then — and probably 15 percent of what they're spending now — but nobody made a better picture that year. And this year … Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor; we have a good relationship with Neil.

The studios have been the biggest boon to both us and HBO because they want to make roller-coaster ride, mindless, lowest-common-denominator, mainstream entertainment, and we want to make smart, intelligent, thought-provoking controversial drama. If you're lucky enough to be one of the few art-house movies that gets financed, great. If not, then we and HBO are the only games in town for that kind of thought-provoking stuff.

MCN: Is that the common denominator for your projects?

Offsay:New York
magazine wrote an article about Matt Blank, about a year ago, where he said that he had reinvented Showtime with smart TV.

In December, we have The Day Reagan Was Shot
with Richard Dreyfuss as Al Haig. That's not necessarily network fare. We're doing Adam Clayton Powell during Black History Month.

MCN: You bought that on your first day of the job?

Offsay: The first week. We're doing F. Scott Fitzgerald. We're doing Fidel Castro. The story has never been dramatized before. We've been working on that since before I got to Showtime. And we're doing the story of Judith Exner, her relationship with John F. Kennedy.

MCN: That was also there before you got there, right?

Offsay:
I sold that to Showtime. And we just added The Time of the Butterflies. If you want to find the common denominator between those movies, yes, I think it's intelligent, thought-provoking, thinking-person's television.

MCN: Showtime Original Pictures for All Ages, are you doing more of those?

Offsay:
They are the best-kept secret in the television business. We won the Emmy four years in a row in that category.

MCN: Are you continuing to shift away from theatricals?

Offsay:
We have eight series now. We might have nine series in 2002. If not, I'm pretty sure we will in 2003. Maybe we'll get to 10 series someday. I think within 12 to 18 months you'll see maybe a lower-budgeted one, but you'll see a series on one of the multiplex channels,

MCN: Interesting. Could Showtime product migrate to UPN or CBS?

Offsay:
We're out there talking to every one of our [Viacom Inc.] sister networks. BET [Black Entertainment Television]. The National Network. We've had numerous discussions with Nickelodeon, about the Original Pictures for All Ages franchise. Everybody has to look at their own budgets and decide where they want to put their priorities. I think we'll find a common ground.

MCN: There is a widespread perception that you play second fiddle to HBO.

Offsay:
It's not just us playing second fiddle to them. A lot of the nights of the week, it's the rest of the networks in America. But I wouldn't trade our original movies for their slate of original films over the last several years.

They did better at the Emmys this time around than we did. But we did better at the Golden Globes than they did in January. They'll have their days and we'll have ours.

In the series area, I would love to have those hits. Fortunately, I have some hits of my own and it would be nice to have the budgets to promote them in the way that they promote theirs.