Showtime's David Nevins Talks Philip Seymour Hoffman, Hunt for a Comedy Hit

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The network's entertainment president, joined by Netflix's Ted Sarandos, NBC's Jennifer Salke and NBCUniversal Cable's Jeff Wachtel at a Thursday HRTS panel, talks about "tantric television" as all four execs debate stacking and compare their evolving goals and metrics.

Sunday's sudden death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was among the first subjects broached during a Thursday panel for the Hollywood Radio and Television Society.

Showtime Networks entertainment president David Nevins, one of four entertainment execs at the event, did not address how his cable net planned to move past the loss of the actor -- who was supposed to star in the fall comedy Happyish.

"I just got back from New York last night," said Nevins. "I have not quite processed it personally, let alone what it means as a programmer. I was very excited to put that program on the air. Shalom [Auslander] created a character that's in a state of existential torment. He made it very funny, and Phil made it very funny."

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The series, which had completed a pilot but not yet gone into production, was to be Showtime's only comedy debut this season. And as Nevins mentioned later, comedy is a top priority.

"There's enormous hunger in the audience," he added. "Who doesn't want a great comedy? I'm dying for the next great comedy. The demand is there. The desire is there. It doesn't mean everything is going to work."

All four on the Beverly Hilton stage -- Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke and NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment president and CCO Jeff Wachtel included -- also spent much of their time on the evolving model of content digestion, inspired by Sarandos' all-at-once originals that started rolling out this time last year.

"The thing that I don't have to do and my team doesn't have to do is program a schedule," said Sarandos. "That's extremely difficult. That drove some of our thinking about launching everything at once. You want to get people when they're in love."

"That sounds really fun," said Salke, to a round of laughs. Salke, who noted that the pressure on morning-after ratings was becoming less and less of a focus, still did not preach too much patience in programming. "You can build success over time, but I still feel like you have to hook people right away -- you can't hang around hoping people show up."

Nevins compared Showtime's model, which draws most viewers for its originals in time-shifting, other platforms and encore viewings, to Netflix's. But he also challenged Sarandos' evangelizing of the full-season rollout.

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"It seems like a lot of bullshit to me, because you've still got to wait," he said. "How long is the wait between seasons one and two of House of Cards? You binge all day and then you've got to wait a year anyway. An artist still has to sit there with a chisel and chisel it."

Nevins also had the the most quotable line of the panel with his definition of "tantric TV."
"It feels like your flexibility as a programmer has gotten wider," he said. "I do believe in the tantric form of television: slow, steady and consistent. … You don't want to give them too much."

Sarandos was given the obligatory ratings question, of course -- but he hasn't changed his tune.

"We don't plan on releasing metrics. … It's irrelevant to us; we don't sell advertising," he responded. "I think our ratings success would be spun into a negative story to our suppliers. There is no win to me saying, 'We beat X network on Sunday night.' [And] I didn't want to put pressure on a show to perform so it would be perceived as a hit or not as a hit. I think we made the right decision."

When the conversation turned to stacking rights, Sarandos took issue with media reports that suggest networks couldn't get deals done because Netflix wouldn't pay. "It's a money problem," he noted, explaining that it isn't that Netflix won't pay if a network wants to maintain full-season stacking rights but rather that the company won't pay as much if it doesn't have exclusivity. He reiterated that he had no issue with networks offering five or so episodes to their viewers on VOD.

"We have ongoing conversations collectively in our company," said Salke, addressing the hot-button issue. She was also the only one on hand who could really speak to the recent headlines touting a shift away from pilot season.

"We've all acknowledged that pilot season makes no sense and is crazy," she said. "We're trying to figure out how to do things year-round. There are great things about it, but the problem with pilot season right now is that we're casting so many things against each other right now and going after a small pool of directors. It does bring the quality down a little bit. More than often, you're starting to beat your head against a wall."