Showtime Boss Talks Subscriber Growth, 'Twin Peaks' and Mark Halperin

David Nevins, joined by programming chief Gary Levine, also offered a post-mortem of why 'SMILF' worked and 'White Famous' did not.
Eric Charbonneau/SHOWTIME
David Nevins

Not to be outdone by FX's John Landgraf, who delivered a handful of stats to reporters on Friday morning, Showtime Networks CEO David Nevins came armed with his own staggering numbers about TV growth for his Saturday afternoon session at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour.

Though he avoided the term "Peak TV," it was all over his opening remarks before a half-hour Q&A with reporters. Nevins announced that 4,482 episodes of scripted television were produced in 2017, per the DGA. The coming year will be even bigger, as he cited an anticipated $72 billion spend (across outlets) for 2018. And while the increase is being driven by Silicon Valley, "our invaders from the North" as the exec called them, four-fifths of that is still being attributed to traditional TV producers. It all apparently amounts to good news for Showtime.

"2017 was the biggest year of subscription revenue in Showtime history," said Nevins, struggling to keep a straight face early on in his presentation as an emergency alarm kept interrupting him at the Pasadena hotel where he was speaking. The last two months of the year also ranked as the two best on record for sign-ups, outpacing earlier in the year when Twin Peaks launched.

And speaking of Twin Peaks, Nevins and programming chief Gary Levine were also queried about the future of that franchise, though sexual harassment (see ousted network talent Mark Halperin) and the recent comedy launches dominated the topics of conversation.

Will there be more Twin Peaks?

Showtime will likely have to answer questions about the future prospects of Twin Peaks for years, considering how long it took the 18-hour revival to make it to the network in 2017. Speculation will likely be spurred by the open-door status that network brass claim to have with its creators. "We're thrilled we did Twin Peaks," said Levine. "It was incredibly good for our brand and our network. But it took 25 years. The door at Showtime is always open to Mark [Frost] and David [Lynch] for Twin Peaks or whatever else they want to talk about."

Why SMILF worked and White Famous did not

Showtime's appearance with TV critics happened just one week after the cabler canceled freshman comedy White Famous. When asked for a postmortem, Nevins matter-of-factly stated that the show just wasn't sparking enough conversation. "When you're making a decision about the show, you ask if it's moving the needle or if it will in the future," said Nevins, then turned to the renewed SMILF, a show that did seem to move that proverbial needle. "Voice matters. The last two months of the year have been the best two months in our history, in terms of sign-ups. SMILF and Shameless was a great combination that worked really well together and drove a lot of business. In [The Chi creator] Lena [Waithe] and [SMILF creator] Frankie Shaw, you've got two really interesting next-generation storytellers." As for another first year comedy, Nevins defended his somewhat surprising renewal of I'm Dying Up Here by noting that the show's audience grew 30 percent by the end of the season. Soft ratings were partly blamed, at least internally, on airing after Twin Peaks. "We make no apologies for Twin Peaks, except as a lead-in for I'm Dying Up Here," added Levine.

Moving on from Halperin

Two months after cutting ties with Circus star and executive producer Mark Halperin, who has been accused of sexual harassment by women at past jobs, Nevins recounted how he found out about the matter — and why Alex Wagner was going to join the show either way. "I became aware with a phone call from Mark probably a day or so before the story broke," said Nevins. "We were already in conversations with Alex Wagner about joining, she was going to come on regardless. It was very difficult to be kind of blindsided like that. Once it became clear, we decided very quickly that the show should go on without him." Speaking to the wider sexual harassment, Nevins said they've been doubling down on fostering a safe culture at the network and individual productions. "I don't consider myself naive," he noted, "but I've also been taken aback by the intensity of this."

Future prospects for Shameless and The Affair

Chatting with reporters after the panel, Nevins talked about the future of several other shows. Shameless, renewed for a ninth season, will likely see a tenth as well. What happens beyond that is still up in the air, because the ratings bump that it has seen from Netflix has given new life to the Warner Bros. production. (This recent season won't be on Netflix for nine months, however, a reminder to streaming viewers that the show is on Showtime.) As for The Affair, Nevins noted that a fifth and final season will likely follow the fourth one premiering this summer.