Showtime's New Political 'Circus' Has "a Certain Kind of Danger"

Circus Premium Doc Comp - S 2016
Courtesy of Showtime

Circus Premium Doc Comp - S 2016

"It's a new genre," says chief David Nevins of the red-hot "premium documentary" format that gets a big test.

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The 2016 presidential campaigns have been a boon for the news business. Now Showtime is attempting to put a premium cable spin on the race with The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth. It's the next chapter for Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, co-authors of Game Change and Double Down about the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, respectively, and hosts of Bloomberg's With All Due Respect.

P.T. Barnum-esque title aside, the half-hour series takes a page from Showtime's recently completed A Season With Notre Dame in that footage will be gathered weekly and edited quickly for maximum topicality. Explains Heilemann, "I'm sure there will be moments when we're beating our heads against desks and having to pull all-nighters."

Circus is set to bow at 8 p.m. Jan. 17 and will run until the election in November. Heilemann, Halperin and former political strategist Mark McKinnon (who worked on several Republican campaigns, including those of George W. Bush and John McCain) each will be embedded with a different campaign each week.

"There's a certain kind of danger to this that's attractive to me," says Showtime chief David Nevins, who agreed to an unusual cross-network partnership with Bloomberg Politics to obtain the show. "I don't know what's going to come back on a weekly basis, but I think that kind of spontaneity, if it's well-produced, can lead to riveting storytelling."

The hosts have negotiated access to all of the campaigns, adds Nevins. The show's crew has been spotted with Ted Cruz in Iowa. And the first episode also will feature Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. 

Of course, technology and the explosion of social media have made campaigning, always a fishbowl, even more intense. But Nevins is banking that Halperin and Heilemann's deep Rolodex of contacts and journalistic bona fides will distinguish Circus from the surfeit of political news dominating the media cycle and give Showtime a topical competitor to HBO's Sunday hit Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.

"They have access at all levels of each of the campaigns," says Nevins. "People are willing to talk to them — people want to talk to them."

Adds Halperin: "There already are cameras everywhere, so we’re just asking them to let us show things with our cameras and use our collective expertise to actually capture what the campaign is like. I think they’re all pretty used to being documented on a regular basis."

Interestingly, a selling point for many of the campaigns was the 2014 documentary series Mitt, about 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who insisted that the documentary had to stay under wraps until after the election. 

"Many people who thought he was robotic and stiff on the campaign trail saw him in the movie and said, 'Wow, that’s an approachable, compelling, sincere guy," says Heilemann. "And a lot of people on that campaign, including Gov. Romney, regret now that they did not put it out earlier. And I think a lot of the campaigns this time take that as an instructive example."  

There was interest in The Circus at rival HBO, which has a robust documentary business under Sheila Nevins. And Halperin and Heilemann have relationships with HBO executives through the scripted adaptation of Game Change. But HBO has a plethora of topical political programming including Oliver's show, Real Time With Bill Maher and its Vice newscast. At Showtime, The Circus will get a priority time slot and ample promotion; it bows during a free preview weekend that will make Showtime available to more than 70 million homes. (Plus, Nevins and Halperin have history; they were on the basketball team together at Walt Whitman high in Bethesda, Md.)

At a time when longform documentary is making news and riveting audiences (Netflix's Making a Murderer, HBO's The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst), Nevins sees Circus as the next evolution of the network's nonfiction aspirations.

"It's part of the whole trend toward premium documentary, which is an increasingly important part of what we do," he says. "I think it's a new genre."