The Re-Rebirth of Showtime
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."