The Re-Rebirth of Showtime
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.
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."
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.