Showtime's David Nevins on Risk, Anti-Heroes and Netflix's 'Interesting' Strategy

“I want our producers to take risks … sometimes you get beat up for them, but the enemy of good television is boredom and predictability,” Nevins said during his turn at TCA.
The Hollywood Reporter
David Nevins

Hot off of his 31 Emmy nominations, Showtime entertainment president David Nevins took the stage Tuesday afternoon to face journalists gathered for the semi-annual Television Critics Association press tour.

But before he was deluged by questions, Nevins used the platform to make a series of announcements, including inking a rare two-year overall deal with Dexter showrunner Scott Buck, and to tout the network’s recent gains. In addition to continued subscriber growth – 23 million subscribers, up from roughly 18 million when he joined the company three years ago — his original series continue to grow, with newcomer Ray Donovan delivering the strongest freshman premiere numbers in Showtime’s history. Similarly important to Nevins is that that programming as well as the schedule on which it airs is more “varied and diverse” than ever before.

Here are the highlights from the half-hour panel.

Netflix, Shmetflix

Nevins stopped short of using the word “curious” -- as HBO’s Michael Lombardo did days earlier -- to describe Netflix’s strategy, but he did call the service’s controversial move to keep ratings under wraps “interesting.” “For me, ratings numbers are just a function of showmanship,” he told reporters. “It’s meaningful when I can say Ray [Donovan] is the biggest first-year show we’ve ever had.” He’s similarly confused by his latest rival’s decision to release all of its episodes at once. “I still believe in giving them out one at a time,” he adding, noting that the water-cooler conversation that takes place each week is both “interesting” and “meaningful.”

All About Risk

Asked about Homeland’s future, Nevins acknowledged that change was necessary. Seasons one and two were really founded on the “fulcrum of trust and mistrust” between Brody (Damian Lewis) and Carrie (Claire Danes); and while that still exists in season three, the characters are now extremely estranged and don’t know what the other is doing. To hear him tell it, that change is at once risky and important. “I’ve never been scared of change. In Friday Night Lights [which he produced during his tenure at Imagine], we flipped almost the entire cast in one season,” he reminded the room, adding: “I want our producers to take risks … sometimes you get beat up for them, but the enemy of good television is boredom and predictability.”

A Little Less Dark

As the entertainment chief at Showtime, Nevins gets pitched every kind of reprehensible anti-hero imaginable. And since his is a destination where “your license is sex, violence and bad behavior,” as he puts it, he’s more able than most to push the envelope with regard to how reprehensible his characters can be. But Nevins used the TCA stage to argue that his latest antihero, Ray Donovan, is representative of a pendulum shift away from the particularly dark characters that have come to populate the cable landscape. “We’re now seeing some movement back to the middle,” he suggests, noting: “I don’t think you can go much further to the left of what Bryan Cranston is doing on Breaking Bad.”

About That, Bob

It was subtle, but Nevins shot back at a jab his Showtime predecessor Bob Greenblatt, now entertainment chairman at NBC, made earlier in the press tour. Without making mention of Greenblatt’s comment about how much easier it would be to have a hit if he were in Showtime’s business -- “if we could put on one show a year,” he said Saturday, “it would be the best show you ever saw because we’d have 85 million people working on one show, handcrafting every word” -- Nevins noted that he now has, depending on how you count them, 10 or 11 comedies and dramas. “That’s pretty much as much as a broadcast network … but they stay on the air,” he said, noting that the network is now replacing them at a rate of two or three new shows per year. 

A Producer's Saga

Some 24 hours after Showtime announced that Ray Donovan non-writing executive producer Bryan Zuriff was taking a leave of absence from the show following his guilty plea in an online gambling cable, Nevins was forced to address what it will mean for the series. The answer: Not much. "As a non-writing producer, I don’t think it’ll have a creative impact [on Ray] going forward," he said from the stage, adding that he hopes things work out. Zuriff entered the plea in federal court last week, admitting to accepting a financial instrument in connection with unlawful Internet gambling. Of the news, Nevins added: "My basic reaction was one of sadness and disappointment." 

New Affair

In addition to announcing Josh Hartnett and Eva Green to star in horror drama series Penny Dreadful, Nevins revealed that Golden Globe nominee Ruth Wilson will play the female opposite Dominic West in the network's drama pilot The Affair, from the producers of In Treatment. Wilson (Luther) will play Alison, a young married woman trying to piece her life back together after tragedy.

Additional reporting by Lesley Goldberg.