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Showtime tweaking a successful formula

The premium channel, riding high thanks to hit series featuring quirky, complicated characters, will try to broaden its appeal with more original and 'cool-guy' programming.

January 08, 2011|By Meg James, Los Angeles Times
  • David Nevins, Showtimes new entertainment president, plans to add more original fare and blend in sports and shows with cool-guy testosterone appeal to draw more men and younger viewers.
David Nevins, Showtimes new entertainment president, plans to add more… (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles…)

Television networks alter their scripts when fortunes begin to crumble.

But Showtime is calling for a rewrite when it's already on a winning streak.

At a time when it could be savoring its success — a string of acclaimed hits, millions of new subscribers and profit that has risen more than 20% in the last year — Showtime instead is plotting a potentially risky new tack. The network has a new entertainment chief who wants to tweak Showtime's distinctive brand: programs built around deeply conflicted and morally challenged characters such as the serial killer Dexter, the pill-addicted Nurse Jackie and the drug-dealing mom in "Weeds."

David Nevins, the network's new entertainment president, said he planned to add more original fare and blend in sports and shows with "cool-guy" testosterone appeal to draw more men and younger viewers to the premium channel.

"The next phase is about being bigger, more expansive, and having more diverse points of view," Nevins said. "We sort of played out a certain kind of character in an extremist, suburban situation. It's time for the next new thing."

Call it Act 2. Showtime's mandate in recent years has been to be "taken seriously as a place for consistent A-level programming," said Nevins. The network, one of the most profitable units within CBS Corp., has done that by sweeping up Emmy and Golden Globe awards for its deviant characters.

Nevins is not contemplating an abrupt shift. On Sunday, Showtime will premiere two new shows: "Episodes," a comedy co-production with the BBC, and "Shameless" a big-budget bet that will include a healthy dose of the network's patented pathology, with William H. Macy starring as a drunken layabout who uses his government disability check to pay his bar tab while his kids struggle to hold the family together.

The Showtime formula has helped it add viewers while rivals lost them. The network has nearly 19 million subscribers, an increase of 37% over the last five years. That's quite a feat during a recession, when strapped consumers have been cutting back and while its chief competition, HBO and sister channel Cinemax, lost about 1.5 million subscribers last year.

Last summer Showtime hired Nevins, who previously ran Imagine Television, where he developed "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood" for NBC. He replaced Robert Greenblatt, the architect of Showtime's current programming strategy, who has since been tapped by Comcast Corp. to rebuild the NBC network.

"It's a great luxury to come to a place where it is not about rebuilding from the ground up," Nevins said. "I'm interested in shows that do more than a deep dive into one character. But we're not running away from 'Weeds,' 'The Big C' and 'Nurse Jackie.' They are all working, so this is going to be more of a gradual evolution."

Nevins has greenlighted a pilot for a psychological thriller, "Homeland," starring Clare Danes as a CIA agent. He also wants to create complicated male leads, and has been deeply involved in developing "House of Lies," which takes a comedic take on corporate culture through the eyes of a cutthroat consultant. In a coup for Nevins, Oscar nominee Don Cheadle signed on for the lead role. "He brings cool-guy appeal wherever he goes," Nevins said.

Three years ago, the network surprised the industry by refusing to pay the steep prices studios demanded for films that had just completed their box office runs. Movies have long been a staple for premium channels such as Showtime, Starz and HBO. Showtime's decision — which saved $100 million annually — was a sign that the traditional pay TV world was changing. Netflix, Amazon and Apple iTunes now offer film streaming services that compete with the movie channels.

"We still think that it was a smart decision," said Matthew Blank, chief executive of Showtime Networks Inc. "Viewers have far more access to movies prior to their run in the pay-television window. Proprietary original programming has become our most important asset."

Entertainment companies, realizing that their bottom lines depends on it, are wrestling with how best to handle the digital distribution of movies and TV shows.

"People are now looking at other services for their videos," said Deana Myers, an analyst with the consulting firm SNL Kagan. "Cord-cutting is an issue, and so is cord-shaving as some people drop higher-priced channels to save money. These networks don't want to lose customers to Netflix."

CBS certainly doesn't. Showtime, which at first seemed an odd fit within its corporate parent, is now a major source of profit.

CBS' Showtime Networks, with includes Showtime, TMC and Flix, should generate more than $1.4 billion in revenue in 2011, according to Kagan. The firm estimated that the channels this year would haul in more than $530 million in operating income.

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