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Showtime aims to be a TV sports heavyweight

The premium network is making a bigger push into a crowded TV arena with '60 Minutes Sports' and a Jim Rome-hosted live series.

March 05, 2013|By Greg Braxton, Los Angeles Times
  • "60 Minutes Sports" looks at the sport of extreme obstacle course racing.
"60 Minutes Sports" looks at the sport of extreme obstacle course… (60 Minutes Sports / Showtime )

Showtime, already on a winning streak with the acclaimed "Homeland" series and other hits, is muscling for more turf on the crowded field of TV sports.

The premium network is making an aggressive push in the sports arena that is extensively covered by broadcast networks, specialty venues such as ESPN and the NFL Network, and its chief rival, HBO. The arena got even more crowded Tuesday when News Corp. announced plans for Fox Sports 1, a new national cable channel that hopes eventually to challenge the ESPN empire.

While boxing, "Inside the NFL," and other sports shows have traditionally been part of Showtime's lineup, executives contend that a rich, exclusive pay-per-view deal with boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. — which they are calling the biggest in boxing history plus regularly scheduled sports hours on Wednesday's prime-time lineup built around a sports-oriented "60 Minutes" magazine and a live-audience series with outspoken commentator Jim Rome, mark a new era for the network.

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"Sports has always been a big priority with us from the beginning," said David Nevins, Showtime's entertainment chief. "We want to take it to a place where it could really have an impact while doing things differently from other networks. Uniqueness is very important to us."

Since its inception in 1976, Showtime has played second-fiddle to HBO, which traditionally had more subscribers, more original programming and more awards. But Showtime has narrowed the gap in recent years with attention-grabbing series such as the serial-killer drama "Dexter," dark-edged comedies such as "Nurse Jackie" and "House of Lies" and especially, the espionage drama "Homeland," which in its first season scored numerous accolades, including Emmys for best drama, actress (Claire Danes) and actor (Damian Lewis).

"Part of the value we have in where we're going is what 'Homeland' and the Emmys have brought us," Nevins said. But while that series and others on Showtime have loyal viewerships, he added, "Some men aren't interested in scripted shows. So sports was our perfect way to reach out to them."

Acknowledging the relentless onslaught of sports across the dial, Stephen Espinoza, executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports, said he is determined to make Showtime's menu stand out "with provocative, distinctive storytelling. We can approach story lines from a different angle. There's been a focus on events, but not enough on people. What I believe you'll see on Showtime is authentic storytelling and genuine emotion."

Fueling the more intensive sports strategy is CBS Corp., which owns Showtime and includes the CBS Television Network under its umbrella. The new "60 Minutes Sports," which will have an original episode each month, with a repeat airing two weeks later on Wednesday, will be an extension of CBS' "60 Minutes," TV's most popular newsmagazine. Showtime has previously aired installments that included an investigation into disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong and a profile of Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi. The new edition will feature anchors and talent from "60 Minutes" and be put together by the same producers who assemble the CBS show.

"You will see the same quality on this show that you see on Sunday," said Jeff Fager, CBS News chairman and executive producer of "60 Minutes."

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The show might be seen as a direct challenge to "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel," HBO's sports magazine that launched in 1995 and features lengthy sports-related pieces. But Showtime executives said they believe they have an advantage because of the "60 Minutes" name, and that such comparisons are irrelevant.

"'60 Minutes' is one of the most unique properties on television, and one of the most revered brands ever on TV," Nevins said. "It gives our show instant credibility. We can go places and do things that others can't."

Wednesday's edition puts a focus on extreme sports: Anderson Cooper profiles surfer Garrett McNamara, who holds the world record for the tallest wave ever surfed, while another segment centers on "obstacle racing," in which participants pay money to compete in races that include challenges such as mud, ice water, barbed wire and electric shock.

The newsmagazine will alternate every other Wednesday with episodes of the second season of "Jim Rome on Showtime," featuring the acerbic broadcaster. An original episode will air each month on the week following the original "60 Minutes" airing, and repeat two weeks later at the same time. The show, which premiered last season, will now feature a live audience. Nevins said Rome's stature — he also has a daily show on the CBS Sports Network, a show on CBS Radio and a live syndicated radio show — gives him the ability to attract top athletes.

"Showtime is encouraging me to push the envelope and take chances," Rome said. "It's going to be real and raw."

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