Original thinking

'Isaak,' 'Queer' indicative of eclectic lineup

Jerry Offsay is feeling pretty lucky these days.

As Showtime’s president of programming for the past seven years, Offsay has turned the pay-cable network from a movie-rights buyer into cable’s largest producer of original fare. Subscriptions are leaping ahead, and a diverse schedule that includes programming targeted to African-Americans, Latinos and gays figures prominently on a sked that in the last three years has won Peabody and Emmy awards, Golden Globes and an Oscar.

But that’s not why Offsay is feeling lucky.

In turning itself into a production behemoth, Showtime also became the most vulnerable cable target in the event of a writers strike. When a post-deadline agreement was hammered out between writers and producers, Showtime, which considers June its premiere month, breathed a corporate sigh of relief.

“A strike would have wreaked havoc, particularly with our new series (“Going to California” and “Leap Year’s”),” Offsay says. “We’re spending millions to promote them, and it would be a huge loss of momentum to have to start running reruns six weeks in. It would be better to wait until next summer than to launch a show without enough episodes.”

In fact, hours have become the soul of Showtime’s original programming.

The strategy hasn’t been trumpeted with the same kind of fanfare that attended the cabler’s plan six years ago to produce an original movie every week. But Offsay, who does nothing halfway, is clearly committed to the hourlong format, commissioning eight of them this summer, more than any other cable network.

“People watch TV on a weekly basis and build up habits,” Offsay says. “A series is the most efficient and most desirable way to grab an audience.”

The lineup includes freshman hit “The Chris Isaak Show,” the fifth season of sci-fier “Stargate SG-1,” and the second seasons of “Soul Food,” based on the hit 1997 movie of the same name, and “Resurrection Blvd.,” which focuses on a Latino family that runs a boxing gym.

It’s the latter two shows, along with the gay-themed “Queer as Folk” and miniseries “Armistead Maupin’s More Tales of the City” that have earned Showtime a reputation as the model for programming diversity.

“We aggressively pursue niches because it’s good business sense, and because it’s good programming,” Offsay says, noting that African-Americans, Latinos and gays each make up more than 10% of the population — with blacks representing 23% of the subscribers to such feevees as Showtime and rival HBO.

That’s the kind of disproportionately large subscriber base Offsay would like to tap into among other underserved groups. He points to the upcoming miniseries “Fidel” and the original movie “The Princess and the Barrio Boy” to illustrate the network’s commitment to developing Latino programming.

Dennis Leoni knew both Offsay and his agenda when he pitched a show called “La Reforma,” about Leoni’s days growing up in Tuscon, Ariz. The pitch was rejected as not being edgy enough, but the writer was fortunate a short time later to find himself watching Showtime on a night that featured boxing.

“I married boxing to ‘La Reforma’ and got ‘Resurrection Blvd.,’ ” Leoni says.

Offsay maintains that niche programming such as “Soul Food” and “Resurrection Blvd.” holds its overall audience even as it scores big numbers among target groups. “Queer as Folk,” he says, is doubling Showtime’s primetime average Sundays at 10 p.m., while drawing an equal number of men and women.

The programming chief credits the growth of the direct satellite industry for some of Showtime’s recent success, but with the network adding roughly 1 million more subs than rival HBO last year, according to market researcher Paul Kagan Associates, it’s clear that the push into originals is having an affect.

This season’s new hours, “Queer as Folk” and “The Chris Isaak Show,” are both scoring good buzz, with singer-songwriter (and sometime “Tonight Show” man-on-the-street interviewer) Isaak signing on thanks to Showtime’s artist-friendly policies.

“What’s best is they leave me unchaperoned,” says Isaak. “We wanted a show where the band could play itself and I could play me.”

Offsay and the Showtime creatives have given the edgy Isaak free rein over TV’s only scripted hourlong comedy, featuring inside-the-biz humor, a well-placed song or two and a ubiquitous naked woman on a turntable.

“To all the people who were offended by the show last year, I’m sorry,” Isaak says. “And next year it’s gonna be worse.”

“Isaak” is Showtime’s only laffer — the network, at present, produces no half-hours — a move necessitated, Offsay says, by the rising price of comedy writers.

Each Showtime series episode costs roughly $1.2 million — more for the f/x-heavy “Stargate.” To compare, HBO lays out twice that much for an episode of “The Sopranos.”

The move into drama follows on the heels of Showtime’s decision to make its original film division more upscale, sending the 12 or so thrillers it used to produce each year to sister pay web the Movie Channel.

“All our shows are now pulling in the same direction,” Offsay says. “It’s smart TV.”

Movie projects in the past three years have included Peabody Award winners “The Baby Dance” and “Strange Justice,” Golden Globe winners including best TV made-for “Dirty Pictures,” Emmy winner “12 Angry Men” (George C. Scott for best supporting actor) and an Oscar Winner (Bill Condon’s screenplay for “Gods and Monsters”).

Upcoming pics include “Sister Mary Explains It All” (starring Diane Keaton), “Snow in August” (Stephen Rea and Lolita Davidovich), “Ruby’s Bucket of Blood” (Angela Bassett, with Whoopi Goldberg exec producing) and Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” starring Nathan Lane.

“In the last two months,” Offsay notes, “we’ve had Alan Alda and Steven Weber in “Clubland” and Bill Hurt, Julia Ormand and Lynn Redgrave in “Varian’s War.” “These are actors who don’t have to do TV movies. They do them because they deeply believe in the project.”

With 200 original movie scripts and 25 series in development, and a yearly budget of around $375 million, the programming engine is hitting on all cylinders.

“We have very little to complain about as a network,” Offsay says. “I’m kind of waiting for the bubble to bust. It’s an embarrassment of riches.”

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