tv reporter

Showtime's premium: 'racier, darker, edgier'

It was not so long ago that Showtime was struggling to emerge from the shadow of rival premium network HBO. But today, the network is generating its own buzz with original series that are being recognized by the Emmys and Golden Globes and pulling in some of its highest ratings ever.

The attention given such shows as "Weeds" and "Dexter" is a nice payoff for Showtime president of entertainment Robert Greenblatt, who began aggressively developing original series when he joined the network in 2003. His goal was to improve the quality of all of the network's series — current and future — and to "make the whole network come up to the level of what I think premium television really means."

Says Greenblatt: "It always goes slower than you want it to go, but we're moving really steadily in the right direction."

Indeed, it hasn't been all success since his arrival — "Huff," "Barbershop" and "Fat Actress" were short-lived — but Greenblatt says it's important to take risks with "bold, arresting, groundbreaking" series.

He also emphasizes that ratings aren't the primary factor in what drives him to renew or cancel a show. Because the premium network isn't beholden to advertisers, Greenblatt also takes into consideration critical acclaim and kudos, which led to a second-season pickup of the critically praised but low-rated drama "Brotherhood."

"For us, it's a matter of having a great lineup of shows that (subscribers) want to spend money on," he says.

But it's also a matter of limited shelf space, which led to the demise of the acclaimed "Sleeper Cell" after two installments.

"I would love to do more, but it really comes down to the economic question," he says. "These shows are very expensive to produce."

From a producer's standpoint, Showtime is the "ideal partner," says Kevin Beggs, president of television programming and production at Lionsgate, producers of the envelope-pushing "Weeds," which centers on a pot-dealing widowed mother in the suburbs.

"I've got plenty of experience with other shows and other scenarios where the network lacked the conviction and didn't really push all the way through, but these guys have been consistent from the beginning," he says. "Their fortunes have turned over the last two years, and I take great pride in being part of that."

Greenblatt adds that Showtime's series sell well overseas but admits that domestic syndication is more of a challenge because it takes longer to build up a significant number of episodes because of the network's shortened seasons (typically 10-12 episodes) and the shows' "racier, darker, edgier" content.

Next up for Showtime are the debuts of "This American Life," a series based on Ira Glass' radio show (March 22), and "The Tudors," a drama about the early years of King Henry VIII's reign (April 1).

Over the long term, Greenblatt says he's looking to add another comedy and possibly reintroduce original movies. But overall, it's all about "staying the course with a limited but top-drawer list of shows."