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Flawed characters may fade away on Showtime

The premium cable channel's new programming chief, David Nevins, made a mark with heartwarming family dramas, including "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood."

June 28, 2010|By Meg James, Los Angeles Times

Now comes the hard part.

After seven years of transforming itself into a showcase of original dramas about subversive characters, Showtime is poised for another makeover.

The premium channel confirmed that its programming chief, Robert Greenblatt — who nudged into the television zeitgeist distinctive shows about a police blood splatter expert/serial killer; a Southern California widow turned pot dealer; lusty and beautiful young royals of the Tudor era; and a burned-out, pill-popping nurse — is leaving the network next month when his contract expires.

Showtime on Monday named David Nevins — a veteran producer who has developed more heartwarming fare, such as NBC's "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood" — to succeed Greenblatt. Nevins will be tasked with stocking Showtime's pipeline with shows worthy enough to keep subscribers paying as much as $12 a month for the channel owned by CBS Corp.

"I've spent my entire career searching for the next new thing, shows that push the boundaries," Nevins said Monday. "Showtime has been consistently delivering risk-taking shows, and I would not be taking this job if I didn't think that I could continue it."

Nevins will face considerable challenges. Juggernauts from ABC, NBC and HBO have struggled to maintain their winning streaks, and Showtime has grown reliant on Greenblatt's slate of original shows to fuel the channel's growth.

At the same time, the pay TV market has become increasingly competitive. Although Time Warner's HBO continues to reign supreme, competitor Starz has been upgrading its original fare, last year hiring HBO's former head Chris Albrecht as chief executive. And no longer are premium outlets the only provenance of original programming. AMC, TNT, USA, FX and other basic cable channels have stepped up their efforts in original shows, mining such hits as " Mad Men," " Breaking Bad," "Sons of Anarchy," "Burn Notice" and "Men of a Certain Age."

"We've got a lot of momentum, and we would like to have David work on keeping the ball rolling," said Matthew Blank, chief executive of Showtime Networks, which includes the Movie Channel and Flix.

Nevins will arrive at a particularly busy time. In August, Showtime will launch "The Big C," starring Laura Linney as a suburban mother and teacher diagnosed with cancer. And it has several other new series in production to premiere next year.

"He's going to get a trial by fire," Blank said.

Indeed. Emboldened by success, Showtime two years ago decided to hang tough when it tried to negotiate with its movie suppliers, including Viacom's Paramount Pictures and Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. The impasse prompted Paramount and Lions Gate to break off talks and launch their own movie channel, Epix, a nascent operation that eventually could compete against Showtime. Although Showtime gets films from several small studios, including Summit Entertainment, which boasts the "Twilight" franchise, it does not have a partnership with a top studio, making the channel more dependent on its original shows.

"You need a comprehensive programming strategy," said Deana Myers, television analyst with the consulting firm SNL Kagan. "Movies have been important to premium cable channels. People might not turn to a channel looking for a Warner Bros. movie, but they do recognize when they don't see big hit movies in a channel's lineup."

Showtime spends nearly $600 million a year on programming, according to SNL Kagan.

When Greenblatt joined the company in 2003, the channel had 12.4 million subscribers, many of whom were paying to see the Hollywood movies available on Showtime's channels rather than its lackluster original programs.

He turned a channel known for shows such as "Soul Food," "Resurrection Boulevard" and "Queer as Folk" into a network that delves into social pathology with shows such as "Dexter," "Weeds," "The Tudors," "Nurse Jackie" and " United States of Tara."

Now there are more than 18 million subscribers, and Showtime Networks is expected to rake in about $1.3 billion in revenue and as much as $500 million in operating income this year, according to people familiar with the matter.

Industry analysts have been impressed that Showtime has maintained subscribers despite the weak economy and retrenchment in household spending. But some also note that in recent years Showtime has structured flat-rate deals with

cable operators that give them an incentive to sign up additional subscribers and keep more of the revenue.

Showtime has been betting that the new subscribers, once hooked, will remain loyal viewers, allowing the channel to leverage higher renewal fees from cable operators. Although the strategy has worked so far, it could hit a bump if Showtime's hits fade or if financially strapped consumers decide to cut back further on expenses.

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