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Longevity, Biz Savvy Makes Showtime CEO Matt Blank an Industry Statesman

Matt Blank will mark his 20th year as CEO of Showtime in February, a rare milestone for any exec in the television biz.

That kind of longevity inevitably breeds stature in the industry. To many, Blank is synonymous with the pay cable business, thanks to his leadership at Showtime and the heavy lifting he did as a marketing exec at HBO in the pioneer days of the 1970s and ‘80s.

But friends and colleagues say Blank at this stage of his career has achieved something more than stature. He commands the kind of respect that is earned after enduring battles at the negotiating table, debates in boardrooms and strategy sessions in conference rooms.

“Matt is a tough businessman,” says Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav, a longtime friend and business associate who has seen him in action many times during the years that they’ve served together on the board of cable’s chief lobbying org, the National Cable and Telecommunications Assn. “He speaks his mind. He says it with humor; he has a very biting sense of humor. But in a room full of the biggest distributors in the industry, he’ll raise his hand and say, ‘What about the content?’ He’ll fight it out at one time or another with everyone in that room, but he does it in a charming way.”

The growth Blank helped engineer over the past decade started with a gutsy decision to wean the network of its traditional dependence on movies and plow more of its resources into original series. The pricetag for those movies was going up sharply at a time when new theatrical titles were more exposed than ever — through premium VOD, electronic sell-through and early homevid release strategies.

HBO had moved aggressively in the direction of series, but it still had a strong complement of theatrical movies to fall back on. Showtime went all in on series as the clock ticked on its access to a steady stream of major theatricals. In 2007, Blank delivered the news to Showtime’s primary studio suppliers — Paramount Pictures, Lionsgate and MGM — that the cabler was cutting back its spending on movie output deals. (That spurred the trio to launch of the rival Epix premium service.)

There were gloomy predictions about Showtime’s fate and running afoul of its distribution deals if it didn’t deliver enough movies. Blank was convinced it was the right move, as was his boss, CBS Corp. chief Leslie Moonves.

“This was a conscious decision that the dollars we were paying would be better spent if reallocated to building this great original programming — paying for something that was uniquely ours,” Blank says. “Had we not been successful it would have been a very, very different story.”

Moonves has played an important role in offering support and stability to an enterprise that hadn’t had much of either at the corporate level. In the early years, Showtime was dogged by rumors it would be sold or merged with another cabler.

Josh Sapan, CEO of AMC Networks and a longtime friend and associate of Blank’s, notes the number of bosses that have appreciated his abilities. “There have been a lot of overseers, and each one has come to realize that Matt has got the goods,” he says. “He has a combination of strategic thinking, a good management style and creative leadership. Those strengths are rarely found to be well-integrated in one person.”

In taking over Showtime in early 2006, Moonves was quick to issue a challenge to Blank’s team.

“Leslie brought a real passion for building Showtime,” Blank says. “From day one, he asked me why can’t you be more competitive with HBO?”

But even before that, Blank was focused on trying to make Showtime an attractive option for talent. He made savvy hires of programming leaders, first in 1994 with Jerry Offsay, followed in 2003 by Bob Greenblatt and in 2010 by David Nevins, that dramatically upgraded the creative community’s perception of Showtime.

“My job is to make sure we are offering a great environment for creative people to do great work and know that we will get behind their shows,” Blank said. He noted that most of Showtime’s original series have had solid multi-season runs; there have been few one-and- dones.

Blank is effusive about Nevins’ role in accelerating Showtime’s momentum over the past few years. The script for “Homeland” was put into development only weeks after Nevins started in the job of entertainment president in July 2010, he observes. “Ray Donovan,” “Masters of Sex,” “House of Lies” and other shows Nevins has championed have become subscription and profit drivers for the company.

Moonves is famously tough on his division heads, but he has high regard for Blank’s encyclopedic institutional knowledge. “Matt knows the cable business as well as anybody I know,” he says. “He knows all the players, and he’s good at figuring out where the business is going.”

Blank honed those skills during the first dozen years of his TV career, when he worked in marketing for HBO. In the mid-1970s, that meant traveling all over the country to launch HBO in cities small and large. If he got lost in a small town, he trained himself to look up to find the telltale trunk cable wiring running alongside electrical and telephone lines. If he could follow that trail, he’d more than likely make his way to the cable office.

For a kid from Queens, travels to far off places like North Dakota, Mississippi and Nebraska to arrange HBO launch parties in Elks Club and Rotary Club halls was the real-world education of a lifetime. In just a few years, he visited some 39 states. One of his most vivid memories was spending day in Philadelphia in 1976 convincing Comcast founder Ralph Roberts to spend $100,000 on the company’s first satellite dish (plus another $10,000 for a concrete base) in order to launch HBO on Comcast systems.

“It was a tremendous cultural experience,” he recalls of his early days with HBO. “You learn a lot about people and you learn about business when you go out and see the birth of something.”

It also taught Blank indelible lessons about the fundamental selling points of premium cable — tenets that remain true to this day despite the monumental changes in the media landscape. Showtime itself has expanded from three networks when Blank joined — Showtime and the Movie Channel — to a multiplex of 27 themed and HD channels.

“We are not so much in the eyeballs business; we’re in the hearts and minds business,” Blank says in describing the connection Showtime needs to have to ensure that consumers fork over the extra fee for the service every month. “We’re still in the hearts and minds business today but the eyeballs have followed — and that has only helped us spread our ‘hearts-and-minds’ credo to a wider audience and in the culture.”

Blank notes that premium cable by necessity was ahead of the curve in bracing for the new era of on-demand viewing. Showtime and HBO helped train viewers to use such time-shifting services with the rollout of On Demand options well over 10 years ago.

 

“Because we were a premium channel, we always felt we had to be there first when it came to technology,” Blank says. “Long before the world was talking about those models, on-demand was an important part of the Showtime offering. And we saw the benefits right away — tune-in went up, usage went up and viewer attribution (of programs) to the brand went way up.”

Now with the distribution marketplace poised to expand even more with the entry of over-the-top players, Blank is giddy at the long-term subscriber growth prospects for Showtime. After all, 10 years ago, few would have predicted it would see nearly 10 million in subscriber gains, or win the best drama series Emmy, as“Homeland” did in 2012.

Having watched the pay TV business grow up, Blank can’t help but be a proud father and reflect now and then on how far it’s come.

“When we’re winning Emmys or holding a big premiere or seeing our shows written about in the New York Times, I never forget what it was like in the beginnings of this business,” Blank says. “It’s something I’m proud of, and something that gives me great balance.”

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