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The Re-Birth of Showtime

Show Time at Showtime
Joe Pugliese

First, Bob Greenblatt brought the heat. Then newbie David Nevins supersized it with a surprise slate of anti-artsy hits charged with action, sex, currency -- and, yes, even awards -- that have the town talking.

As Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa put the finishing touches on their Homeland script in spring 2010, several networks started calling.

Fox, which aired the writer-producers' counter-terrorism hit 24, got the first crack at the serial drama centered on a female CIA agent who believes a freed American POW has been turned by al-Qaeda. The network's entertainment chief Kevin Reilly loved the writing but feared the pilot was more Manchurian Candidate than action-heavy 24. The Gordon-Gansa spec was floated next at NBC, which had similar concerns, and then at FX, where execs were said to be nervous because they had been burned by a short-lived Steven Bochco war series, Over There, and because its serialized Damages was struggling to lure viewers.

Enter David Nevins, 45, who had arrived only days earlier as Showtime Networks' new president of entertainment. Having worked closely with Gordon and Gansa in his previous role as president of 24 producer Imagine Television, Nevins called their WME agent Rick Rosen at his home on a Saturday afternoon with a stunning offer: He would commit to ordering Homeland to pilot on the spot. Even better, he would fast-track the Twentieth Television production for the following fall and couple it with Showtime's top performer, Dexter. Upping the ante: The series would be timed to debut around the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks -- and, they would later find out, months after the death of Osama bin Laden.

"David went in really fast and made a very strong offer -- an offer we couldn't refuse," says Gordon, who recalls Nevins telling him that this project was precisely the kind of programming he wanted to make in his new job. 

Showtime, a network once known as a soft-core porn peddler (remember The Red Shoe Diaries?) and, later, a home for critically admired (if narrow) fare, had never had a major zeitgeist breakout nor a true drama series front-runner on the awards circuit. The challenge was daunting -- the network paled in comparison to big-daddy rival HBO's financial resources and A-list pedigree, and longtime chief Bob Greenblatt, who had famously put Showtime on the map, had only recently left. What's more, Nevins hadn't worn a network executive hat since he left Fox in 2002.

But a year and a half after Nevins bet on Homeland, a plot twist even its protagonist Carrie Mathison couldn't predict has happened: Showtime has become, arguably, cable's buzziest network. After debuting in October to 2.8 million weekly viewers, Homeland grew to a first-season average of 4.4 million -- far from the 9 million who tuned in to AMC's The Walking Dead finale or the 9.3 million who regularly watched HBO's Game of Thrones last spring, but a noteworthy uptick from the ratings of the female-driven dramedies (Nurse Jackie, The Big C) that defined the network under Greenblatt. Of Showtime's four top-rated shows, three -- Homeland, the corporate comedy House of Lies and the dark ensemble dramedy Shameless -- have launched in the past 14 months. (Dexter, with nearly 5.5 million viewers in its sixth season, remains the top ratings driver.)

It's still a ways away from having the viewership or awards glow of HBO, but something is going right at Showtime. Among influencers, Homeland has driven the kind of water-cooler chatter that draws new viewers to a network. And it didn't hurt when President Obama named it one of his favorite shows and later invited star Damian Lewis to a White House dinner in mid-March. Now, Homeland, which took home the Golden Globe for best drama in January (one of three trophies Showtime received) and two Writers Guild of America Awards in February, is positioned as Mad Men's biggest threat as Emmy season heats up.

"For the first time, we really have a show that everybody is talking about," says Showtime CEO Matthew Blank, who has guided the network for more than two decades. "I like to say we're not in the eyeballs business like most networks are; we're in the hearts and minds business, and I think Homeland has owned the television hearts and minds like nothing we've done before."

Nevins' strategy -- which one agent describes as "more masculine, more entertaining, more adrenaline" than his predecessor's -- comes as Showtime's subscriber numbers are reaching new heights. Amid tough competition, fears of cord-cutting and a dismal economy, Showtime has ballooned more than 75 percent from 12.2 million subs in 2003 to 21.3 million in 2011, adding nearly 2 million customers in the past year alone -- stats that have surprised and impressed analysts like RBC Capital Markets' David Banks, who was skeptical when Showtime dropped its output deals with such major movie companies as Paramount and Lionsgate half a decade earlier. HBO, while still considerably larger and more profitable, has remained static at 28 million to 29 million subs, though an HBO insider suggests Showtime's growth, like Starz's, has more to do with beneficial affiliate deals than it does strong programming. (Interestingly, whatever competitive bragging rights are sought by each pay cabler, the success of one traditionally lifts that of the others, given how premium packages are sold by carriers.) 

At this rate, Showtime is on track to generate about $800 million a year in profit by 2013 (compared to HBO's roughly $1.5 billion) and will comprise more than a quarter of parent company CBS Corp.'s total enterprise value, according to a recent Morgan Stanley report. "It's a financial dynamo," CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves says of Showtime, noting that it has grown about 15 percent to 20 percent each year since 2006, not just in regard to subscribers, but also revenue and EBITDA. "Everybody knows the profit level HBO brings to Time Warner, and Showtime is a significant part of our profit."

Of course, since the network merely licenses -- as opposed to owns -- much of its programming, it isn't able to collect on the shows' ancillary revenue or spend lavishly on budgets and lengthy shooting schedules the way HBO does with its homegrown fare. Homeland, for instance, produced and owned by Twentieth, is made for less than $3 million per episode, which sources say is about a third of the cost of a Boardwalk Empire hour. What's more, HBO is a global behemoth in a way that Showtime is not, with 60 HBO and Cinemax branded channels in 60 countries and another 200 markets in which it sells all of its content. ("Showtime's brand means nothing overseas," snipes an HBO source.) But Nevins -- along with his bosses Moonves and Blank, both eager to own more of its fare going forward -- has positioned the weaknesses as an advantage, pitching his network as leaner and meaner than HBO and a place where good material has a better chance to get on the air.

That pitch appealed to Gansa. Following a recent afternoon in the Homeland writers room on the Fox lot, he acknowledges he was relieved to hear that the Fox network had passed on the show because he and Gordon didn't want to return to the 24-episode season schedule; and he claims he had little desire to see his series go to HBO, where he would be competing for airtime with the likes of Martin Scorsese (Boardwalk Empire) and Michael Mann (Luck). "We just felt that our chances were going to be better at a place that was going to look at the material for what it was, rather than who was bringing the project," says the Homeland showrunner. "I had been developing at HBO [with limited success] for a couple of years, and I knew the mountain that you had to climb there, the people that you were competing against, and frankly the star-f--ing that goes on."

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Call it the Nevins-ization of Showtime. In place of half-hours centered on damaged 40-something women, in the network's pipeline is a broader variety of adrenaline-charged ensembles -- darker, edgier and more culturally relevant -- designed to appeal as much to males as they do females. His goal: more sports, more documentaries, more laugh-out-loud comedy and more widely appealing drama.

In addition to a development slate that includes an adaptation of Stephen King's Under the Dome, THR can reveal that Nevins and his five-person programming team, many of whom are holdovers from the Greenblatt era, are working on an untitled drama from Oscar winner Alexander Payne that explores the impact of a new Indian casino on its tribe members and its greater Midwestern community. Also being prepped is The Maze, a Bourne Identity-style international political thriller from Oscar-nominated Frost/Nixon scribe Peter Morgan. Nevins even met recently with cable-news bad boy Keith Olbermann for a meal. Although he's tight-lipped about the details, he says, "It didn't really go anywhere." Asked whether he had envisioned a sports or politics show for the disgruntled Current TV host, Nevins suggests he "didn't get that far."

Over lunch in late February, the D.C.-bred father of three lays out the larger strategy that he's already put in motion. "Showtime got taken seriously with Weeds, Dexter and Nurse Jackie; what I've done is challenge some of the formulas because we had gotten a little rigid in what we were doing," Nevins says between bites of Dover sole. "There needed to be some rebalancing. Because we're a monthly expense in pay cable, you never want to have one or the other side of a household saying, 'Why are we spending eight bucks a month?' "

The still-green executive, whose easygoing if competitive personality plays as confident without being cocky, is careful not to jab Greenblatt, who as NBC's entertainment chairman has spent the past year-plus trying to get his fourth-place network out of the ratings basement. But Nevins' strategy is a pointed diversion. Subversive characters remain a critical piece of the Showtime mandate, but with Nevins, there's a bigger push toward mass entertainment. He acknowledges that he largely shuns the slower-paced snootiness that has come to define a genre of cable, preferring instead what he describes as particularly relevant and broadly entertaining fare.

For Gary Levine, Showtime's veteran executive vp original programming, the more mass (some might say pedestrian) focus has taken some adjustment. "David and I have an interesting tug-of-war at times. I'm trying to keep what we've been building in that rarefied atmosphere, and he's saying, 'No, no, we can now move it a little more to the mainstream without losing the essence of what is a Showtime show,' " he says, adding that it's a fine line that Nevins has been able to walk deftly.

Ask those doing business with Showtime to describe Nevins' style, and they'll talk of a refreshing transparency (Greenblatt was famously guarded), a willingness to collaborate and a desire for noisier fare. "Things that really push the envelope and are a little bit on the dangerous side is something David is open to," notes WME's Rosen, "with the understanding that if something is going to be on pay cable, there has to be a reason for people to pay for it."

Nevins seems willing to roll up his sleeves to win those eyeballs, attending table reads for every episode of series from Shameless in L.A. to Episodes in London. Though Gansa recalls a few "knock-down, drag-out battles" in Homeland's early days, he confesses that the suggestions given by Nevins and his team genuinely improved the series. Among the early notes: making Danes' Carrie a more deeply troubled character (she didn't have a mental illness in the initial script) and replacing original Scottish actress Laura Fraser, who played a more soulful version of Jessica Brody, with V's Morena Baccarin.

House of Lies' Don Cheadle says it was Nevins who convinced the Oscar-nominated actor to take a stab at series television. "David said, 'I got this great story for you,' " Cheadle says of a role that wasn't explicitly written for an African-American and a series that centers on a group of people, management consultants, about whom he knew very little. "I laughed all the way through and couldn't anticipate what was happening from one moment to the next, and when you read something like that, it gets you very interested."

But two to three months before the January launch of House of Lies, Nevins panicked. Just as the Occupy Wall Street movement was gathering steam, his team was running with the tagline, "They put the con in consulting," and getting zero traction. "Sometimes we're cocky, and we're like, 'We don't need to test our marketing, we know what we're doing,' " he says, a tinge of embarrassment in his voice. "But I was like, 'This is not smelling good to me, we better test what we're doing here.' "

His fears were confirmed when test results came back: Audiences were interested in Cheadle but had no idea what the show was, and what they saw they didn't think they liked. Nevins knew a major repositioning was in order. "This wasn't a show about rich assholes; it was a show about people sticking it to rich assholes," he says, acknowledging that the latter needed to be reflected in every piece of marketing going forward.

"The show could be perceived as either terribly insensitive of what was going on in the country or incredibly timely," says creator Matthew Carnahan, praising Nevins' foresight to pull the 99 percent-1 percent conversation into the promotion of the series to ensure the latter became its reality. THR chief TV critic Tim Goodman said of the series: "Although consultants as good guys (even thieving good guys) is itself a tough sell, House of Lies makes it all work by having the victims -- companies, executives -- look like even more unsympathetic dupes who deserve what they get because of their greed." House of Lies has been averaging 3.4 million viewers, and if its April 1 finale holds up, it would become Showtime's highest-rated comedy.

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"This is so f--ing great," says Nevins as he watches Jon Voight, 73, dance topless with a hooker amid a cloud of marijuana smoke.

It is mid-March, and Nevins is sharing dailies on his iPad from his Ray Donovan pilot, a Liev Schreiber-led drama about a fixer with his own demons. Minutes earlier, Nevins had been making his way around the Malibu set with the kind of excitement of a budding actor getting his break. Schreiber had just completed a scene in which he breaks the hand of another man, one of many windows into his character's complexities, and now a fully clothed Elliott Gould is standing knee deep in the Pacific as his character unravels in the wake of his wife's death.

As costumers, dialect coaches and a sizable crew scurry about the beachfront property on day seven of a 15-day shoot, Nevins keeps his distance from the cameras to avoid falling back into producer mode. With those around him inching down the cliff to capture the beach scene, he grins widely from his perch above the California coastline, knowing the drama has the hallmarks of a Nevins show: masculinity, contemporariness and the kind of in-your-face sexual content that separates pay cable from even edgy fare on FX and AMC. Showtime viewers are no stranger to that onscreen raunchiness, having seen explicit sex scenes on Homeland (in a car), House of Lies (girl on girl in a bathroom) and Shameless (in a sink).

"Ray Donovan has all of these different shades of men in transition, which is why I like to say it feels like Passages for men," he says, referencing Gail Sheehy's book about adult life stages as he waxes on about the modern-day Los Angeles pilot, featuring Schreiber, Voight and Gould's characters at significant turning points in their own adult lives. "It's so interesting to me that it is written by a woman [Southland's Ann Biderman] who really seems to understand male psychology with a depth." Nevins is still several weeks away from making any decisions about the future of Ray Donovan.

Also in contention for a slot on Showtime's 2013 schedule is Masters of Sex, adapted from Thomas Maier's book about the intriguing lives and unusual relationship of married professor William Masters and his former assistant Virginia Johnson, 1950s era pioneers of the science of human sexuality. This project, too, plays into Nevins' desire to offer what the other networks cannot with both its explicit language and many sex scenes, including an early one in which Masters observes a prostitute and her client having intercourse.

"I've been leery of doing period fare, but I think the subject is so specific, so provocative and so contemporary that I got over it," explains Nevins, who was urged to read the Maier book when he bumped into producer and longtime friend Sarah Timberman on a plane ride to New York shortly after taking the gig. "By the time the plane landed, I said, 'Yes, we have to do this,' and she said, 'I think I can get [The Pacific writer] Michelle Ashford, who both of us have known for a very long time,' " he recalls, adding of the New York-based project starring Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen, "It was at the top of the list from that moment on."

He has spent multiple days on the set of both pilots, one of the perks of working in cable, where far fewer projects are in production at any given time (Showtime typically has three to four projects going, with plans to expand). That freedom to be hands-on, as he was for nearly a decade at Imagine -- where he produced such series as Friday Night Lights, Arrested Development and Parenthood -- is chief among the reasons Nevins agreed to take the gig. (Although this time around, he sits before the bank of cameras with a headset dangling from his neck taking stock of what the producers have gathered, since he has been off running the network.)

To hear Nevins now tell it, he had considerable doubt as he drove to Moonves' house to discuss the job opportunity on a Sunday morning in June 2010. "I went from, 'No, I love being a producer,' to 'Yes, it's the one network job that could be really fun where I can still sort of feel like a producer' in 36 hours, and there was very little of the calculation that you're supposed to do," recalls the onetime NBC and Fox executive, chuckling as he continues, "And clearly the handbook says you're supposed to go into a network when it's sucky, and then you can be the hero and bring it back."

Friends and peers reveal that they felt for Nevins in his first year on the job. Despite his reputation and track record, he spent the first year and a half in the position hearing comparisons to his revered predecessor. "I didn't tell him at the time, but I thought, 'Wow, how's he going to do that?' " recalls Gordon. "I felt not only scared for David, but also pressure because by being so all-in on this show and putting that kind of support behind it, he was laying a lot of his eggs in our basket. In many ways, I wanted this show to succeed as much for David as I did for Alex and me."

Nevins downplays any pressure he might have felt. "There may have been a little bit of the, 'OK, prove it to us. What does this guy got?' " he says. "But I had confidence that when we put the stuff out there, it would at least be interesting, and I understand what it meant to be doing premium television."

Still, he was eager to make his mark quickly, deciding Homeland and House of Lies would be the first two series he'd champion after just days on the job. He sent both scripts to Moonves, who was as impressed by the projects as he was by Nevins' tenacity. "David was really taking hold of the job and saying, 'I'm going to push for what I want to do,' " Moonves says, recalling his new hire voicing slight concern that Homeland might be "too network" initially. "I remember saying: 'That's OK. I'm a network guy,' " Moonves says, " 'and just because it's on Showtime doesn't mean it has to be way out there.' "

Nevins spent the year or so that followed making certain both series fit with his mandate for Showtime, or "the inappropriate network," as his young children with wife Andrea Blaugrund, a filmmaker, have come to know it.

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Now, some 20 months into the job, Nevins, an avid reader who has helped found an L.A.-based synagogue and a charter school, has proved he can launch a series. Next on his agenda is to go where his competitors are not. Straight-ahead genre fare is off-limits, for instance, because HBO (Game of Thrones) and AMC (Walking Dead) are already there, though many suggest he's clamoring for their commercial impact. Genre comedy, on the other hand, is an area Nevins hopes he can own, and he's working to get the script right on an adaptation of the graphic novel Chew, about an FDA agent who cracks cases by tasting his evidence.

Coming into the role, he had high hopes for doing straight-up comedy, particularly because so many cable half-hours -- many on his network -- feel more dramatic than they do funny. But getting the genre right has been harder than anticipated. "I thought the fact that I could do R-rated comedy and go to places that even basic cable cannot would be a huge advantage," he says. "But I still need sophisticated and smart, so just a bunch of frat-guy humor isn't going to cut it, and that's what I get pitched."

Nevins is now developing a comedy about a young couple exploring an open marriage as well as one about a group of brilliant, quirky young people who move to a lavish apartment in Las Vegas to pursue the $10 million prize at the World Series of Poker's Main Event. Also of interest are higher-profile stand-up specials, though he's coy about which comedians he's courting.

Similarly appealing are documentaries, a genre where he believes he can stir the pot with larger-than-life characters, dead or alive. Nevins' first foray includes Dick Cheney (the former vice president has agreed to participate in an R.J. Cutler film), Suge Knight and Richard Pryor docs. He'll look to acquire documentaries from the festival circuit as well. Nevins, whose wife has directed such docs as 2011's The Other F Word, will start with four a year but has plans to ramp up to six. Miniseries, long dominated by HBO, hold considerably less appeal, he says, but one need only look to the recent media generated by Game Change to see the potential for timely telepics.

That leaves sports. He's particularly excited to add a weekly Jim Rome series to his network, which already airs sports documentary series The Franchise, set to follow the Miami Marlins this season, and weekly football show Inside the NFL. Although Rome's day-and-date show will start as a truncated series, Nevins foresees expanding it to a year-round offering. Politics, a passion for the liberal exec, also is something with which he has toyed; he says he "takes a lot of exploratory meetings with interesting people." (A drama project in development with Salman Rushdie came about through Nevins' desire to sit down with the British-Indian novelist.)

These days, there are many more interesting people seeking time on Nevins' schedule. A leading TV agent acknowledges the perception shift within his agency: "Now people are saying, 'Well, wait a second, I don't have to go only to HBO,' " he says of Showtime. And the network's entertainment chief, who wasn't instantly sure he'd accept the gig, is now thrilled he did. "I'm cynical about a lot of things," says Nevins, "but not television. I still really feel a sense of possibility."

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SHOWTIME'S CACHET GROWS THROUGH THE YEARS: The network's nominations and wins at the Emmys, Golden Globes and SAG Awards

1988-1995: 24 noms, 3 wins
In 1988, It's Garry Shandling's Show nabs four Emmy noms. Later, Beau Bridges and Laura Dern are nominated for series work.

1996-2003: 120 noms, 17 wins
Helen Mirren earns an Emmy for starring in The Passion of Ayn Rand; Jack Lemmon (Inherit the Wind) collects his final Globe.

2004-2012: 212 noms, 43 wins
Dexter nabs four Emmys and two Globes. In January, Homeland picks up Showtime's first drama series Globe.

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THE PRICEY BATTLE FOR SUBSCRIBERS: A mix of the networks' ratings drivers and critical darlings.

HBO

  • True Blood: 12.6 million
  • Boardwalk Empire: 8.6 million
  • Game of Thrones: 9.3 million
  • Luck*: 4.3 million
  • Enlightened: 1.7 million

SHOWTIME

  • Dexter: 5.5 million
  • Shameless*: 4.8 milion
  • Homeland: 4.4 million
  • House of Lies*: 3.4 million
  • Episodes: 1.9 million

STARZ

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  • Spartacus: Vengeance*: 6.0 million
  • Boss: 2.9 million

* Season to date. Includes digital, on demand and live+7 viewership.