Showtime at TCA: David Nevins' Job Is Not Killing Him (Analysis)
If you're not careful -- or maybe if you're too careful -- running a network or a cable channel will eventually become an enormous, joy-sucking burden instead of a dream job. Be mindful.
You don't need to thoroughly understand the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to take some guesses at the kinds of people who run cable channels or broadcast networks. But it's kind of a fascinating game nonetheless, particularly if you see the same people in the same structured psychological study -- the Television Critics Press tour, for example -- over a long period of time.
You will notice some trends. Early jubilance, for example. ("I'm going to take this moribund Content Provider and really do some exciting new things with it!") Measured optimism is also popular. ("We're not going to rebuild in a day, but we can start the process of change.") When these executives get on the Sisyphean treadmill and come up short more often than not, you often see a defensive retreat. ("Nobody said this was going to be easy and to not consider year-to-year flatness as a kind of victory is being naive about the business, I think.") And at some point, you get to witness defeat.
It doesn't look pretty.
Through day seven of the Television Critics Association press tour, we've seen a lot of different looks. Or, rather, the looks are there to be studied if you really care about such things, which I do. Even though seven days may seem short to you, three of those days were from the jam-packed cable portion and, besides, the TCA is kind of a dog-years type of operation.
But I'm as fascinated at what I've seen recently as I am excited to see and evaluate those who have yet to come before us. Most remarkable was seeing CBS' Les Moonves get back in the game -- a game he not only loves, but one where he helped write the rules -- when he filled in for CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler, who lost a dear friend prior to the network's arrival and couldn't be here. For Moonves, the give-and-take from the stage was something he sort of perfected in the not-too-distant past. And you could tell from the critics who covered him back then (myself included) what fun it was to witness the original No Muffler Executive. He came out on fire -- informative, funny, honest and even blunt. This early question says it all:
“Beverly Hills Cop seemed like a sure thing. What could possibly have gone so wrong with that pilot that you didn’t want to move forward?"
Moonves: "We do a lot of pilots, and the best get on the air. And we felt we had better choices than that pilot."
Or how about this beauty:
"Les, question about Cote de Pablo. Just curious what happened there, why you weren’t able to hang onto her. And are you concerned about losing the leading lady on your No. 1 show?"
Moonves: "I really want to clarify. We offered Cote de Pablo a lot of money. And then we offered her even more money (laughter) because we really didn’t want to lose her. We love her. We think she was she was terrific. And we, obviously, were in discussions. And the rest of the cast and the producers were aware what’s going on. And ultimately she decided she didn’t want to do the show. It was purely her decision. We’re, obviously, getting a lot of emails. There’s a lot of Twitter buzz about her, and rightly so. She’s a wonderful lady. Look, NCIS, the highest-rated show on television last year -- we don’t like losing anybody. But we did everything humanly possible. We feel like we exhausted every opportunity, and she just decided she didn’t want to do the show."
There's a word for that: textbook.
Of course, Moonves is way above the entertainment president label he held years ago, and CBS is crushing everything in its path, so it's not like he's losing much sleep.
Bob Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, was a little more beaten down by the end of his executive session, but he's been shouldering the burden of rebuilding NBC, which is a little like rebuilding Versailles with a skimpy budget, impossible city codes and poorly trained craftsman. That session veered from positive to dubious to defensive to funny, pleading, dismissive and ended, with a laugh, when Greenblatt half-exasperatedly said, "I don't know what I'm saying anymore."
Nevins? The guy's pulse seemed to be flowing like a quiet river, and I don't remember anyone seeming so calmly focused at one of these things in a while (FX's Zen-master John Landgraf excepted). And this after a group of angry fans trying to save the now-canceled Borgias buzzed the outdoor Showtime lunch presentation begging the channel to do right by its viewers.
Rattled? Nope. It was the second question of the session, and Nevins said that creator Neil Jordan had come up with a two-hour wrap concept, but it didn't work out. "We looked hard at doing a two-hour finale. And the economics of it just didn’t make sense, so we didn’t move forward. And I think it came to a good stopping place at the end of Season 3. I know we all got buzzed at lunch by the airplane. I feel bad at the money that’s being spent. As I was pulling in today, there was one protester out there. And I opened my window and asked him what he thought of the finale. And he said, 'I haven’t seen it.' Apparently he was a paid protester."
Nevins took the same "what are you going to do?" approach to critics who thought Homeland slipped last year. He understands this is all part of the business. You make a show that some people love but, after three seasons, maybe that's all you can do with it. If critics have qualms about your glossy key series, that's their right. He's not going to freak out and never speak to you. He listens. He doesn't have to agree. But he likes talking about Showtime, about the creative and business aspects of the industry, and he knows how to do it with intelligence and appreciation. That last part is key.
It's a great job, this gig of his. Showtime just hit 23 million subscribers, up from 18 when he started. Homeland is established, new series Ray Donovan had the highest-rated premiere in the channel's history (6 million) and was an easy renewal for a second season. Longtime hit Dexter is going out strong, and the channel is currently creating buzz for its newest series, Masters of Sex (which was on Tuesday's panel), and building the buzz for Penny Dreadful, a "psychological horror series" from John Logan and Sam Mendes. The channel also signed Philip Seymour Hoffman to star in the comedy series Trending Down, which was a real coup. Beyond that, Dominic West and Ruth Wilson have signed on for the new drama series The Affair. The Ridley Scott-directed pilot, The Vatican, starring Kyle Chandler is also almost finished.
Nevins reiterated at his TCA executive session that his "goal was to create a more varied and diverse schedule with no fallow periods, to find programming that was expansive that would allow our network to break through to a wider audience." He's done just that and barely seems to have broken a sweat, much less had a fever dream of desperation as so many programmers do.
Doing battle with HBO, Netflix, Starz, Hulu and countless ad-supported cable channels churning out great scripted series would normally be the kind of thing that calls for the periodic Xanax tablet. But this is an interesting batch of modern programmers in that tangle of competition, and they all seem to have one common trait: They love what they do. Not because each might be doing well at any given moment. But because they like this period we're all living in, this Renaissance Age of fabulous dramas, and more precisely they like making them and having a hand in the creation and guidance of them.
Will any of them get beaten down over time? Sure. It happens with alarming predictability. But a guy like Nevins doesn't seem to be guessing at a lot of the things that have made Showtime successful. It looks like he knows what he's doing. And it looks like he's having a good time doing it.
We'll see how Fox's Kevin Reilly, FX's Landgraf, ABC's Paul Lee and PBS' Paula Kerger appear when they arrive on Thursday, Friday, Sunday and Tuesday, respectively.