“Did you see last night’s ratings for ‘Ray Donovan?’”
It’s the morning after the show’s second-season finale, and Showtime president David Nevins sounds like a proud father, high-fiving a visitor to his Westwood office and firing off stats: The Liev Schreiber drama hit a series-high 2 million viewers. “It’s up 40% from last year,” he says, with a broad grin.
Nevins has good reason to be happy on this late-September day. “Ray Donovan” indeed blossomed into a ratings hit for his network in its sophomore season (even with behind-the-scenes drama forcing a change in showrunner for season three). “Masters of Sex” also wrapped its second season with heightened critical acclaim for the show and the performances of stars Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan.
With a week to go before the fourth-season relaunch of “Homeland,” the early reviews are mostly good as the drama reboots itself in an effort to rebound from season three’s flights of fancy. And the reaction to “The Affair,” this year’s post-“Homeland” series launch, has been uniformly strong.
All of this activity, plus the promise of a slew of hot prospects in the works — including the return of “Twin Peaks” in 2016 — has Nevins revved up. He is proudly, fiercely competitive, and he has channeled that energy to drive Showtime to new heights since arriving at the CBS Corp. pay cable group in July 2010. The first show he put into development, “Homeland,” turned out to be the resonant hit that defined a new era for the cabler, and brought Showtime its first Emmy win for drama series.
“I want the best shows, the best writers, the best actors,” Nevins says. “I grew up on the competitiveness of ABC, CBS, NBC. I thrive on it. Is that wrong?” Not in the eyes of the big boss.
“First and foremost, look at the creative people that he’s brought to Showtime,” says CBS Corp. president-CEO Leslie Moonves. “And look at how he’s nurtured the shows. He brought the sensibility of knowing what makes a commercial show, but being at Showtime now, he can throw a lot more curveballs at it.”
CBS recognized Nevins’ success earlier this year, promoting him from entertainment president to a newly created post as Showtime Networks president, and expanding his purview under chairman-CEO Matt Blank. That move was a clear sign that Nevins, 48, is on a path to eventually take the reins from Blank, who will mark his 20th year as CEO in February. For now, all Moonves will say is that CBS Corp. intends to keep Nevins “at this company for a very long time.”
With a broader job description, Nevins’ challenge is to see around corners and help Showtime navigate the trials ahead for the subscription TV business at a time when viewing habits are changing and digital distribution options around the world are multiplying. HBO’s headline-generating decision to launch an over-the-top service next year is sure to accelerate the process for Showtime and others.
“The big existential question for us is: How to do we prepare for all the new ways we can distribute ourselves?” Nevins says. “How do we prepare our programming, how do we prepare our marketing and how do we craft our distribution strategy?”
In its 38-year history, Showtime has never been closer to HBO in terms of profitability, profile and esteem within the industry. Wall Street analysts have been swooning as Showtime Networks’ profit margins climbed to the mid-40% range — “You’ve done an amazing, amazing job with it,” Merrill Lynch analyst Jessica Reif Cohen gushed to Moonves at an investor confab in September — while annual earnings have shot up to nearly $1 billion since CBS Corp. took control in 2006.
The transformation started under former Showtime entertainment president Bob Greenblatt (now NBC Entertainment chair), who was tasked by Blank with moving the mothership channel’s focus from longform production to a high volume of original series. Greenblatt delivered shows that put Showtime on the map: “Dexter,” “Weeds” and “Nurse Jackie,” among others.
Nevins came in at an opportune time to build out that foundation, with the business energized by notable subscriber growth, and the surge in demand for high-end series from international outlets as well as upstart SVOD players. The promise of a robust aftermarket for Showtime productions has given the business a new dimension — and encouraged CBS Corp. to invest more heavily in programming.
The rivalry with HBO is mostly unspoken in a conversation with Nevins about his vision for Showtime, but it’s there in the subtext as he talks about Showtime’s place in the TV universe and all that it has to offer as a playground for storytellers. His ambition for the network is unabashedly huge, and his training as a producer always looking for the “yes” from a network buyer has served him well in a job where the goal is to keep subscribers motivated to shell out the extra $10 or so a month.
“Hopefully, we hit you with two or three shows across our 10 that you love. If you’re a really passionate Showtime viewer, maybe you love five out of our 10 shows,” he says. “The goal is getting you to two or three, and if you love those, you’re not going to cancel your subscription.”
With due respect for the previous regime, Nevins says he felt when he arrived in 2010 that Showtime needed to diversify its lineup. “I wondered why we were trying to niche ourselves in the premium space when we can do anything,” he explains.
To that end, he’s always searching for shows that are “dangerous, a little scary and push the medium forward,” he says. “You expand your definition as you go, and try to make adventurous choices.” The success of “Penny Dreadful” has him on the hunt for another genre show, even though he admits it’s not in his comfort zone. “I’m interested in doing science fiction in a way that’s smart and character-driven. That’s going to be a challenge.”
On Nevins’ watch, Showtime has invested in scripted series, moved aggressively into original documentaries and specials, and added nontraditional sports programming to its mix. The constant in all of it is material that sparks his curiosity and meets his high bar for storytelling that compels. The criteria is pretty much the same, whether it’s a mysterious marriage drama like “The Affair” or a docu-study of the life of NBA star Kobe Bryant. Greenlights, he says, are mostly about intuition.
“It’s having an instinct for sticky writing, something that surprises me, something that I don’t know where it’s going in the first four pages,” he says. “It’s weird how intuitive it is. It’s also about having a sense of what the culture is ready for. It’s about finding what the right show at the right time is.”
The climate at Showtime provides a clinically perfect environment for Nevins to harness the skills honed during his previous 20-plus years in TV. He rose through the development ranks at NBC starting in 1992, just in time to ride the Must-See TV wave.
Nevins moved to Fox as the No. 2 programming exec in 1999, before shifting in 2002 to Imagine Television as president. During his tenure, Imagine scored with convention-busting shows “Arrested Development,” “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood.”
He prides himself on being a hands-on producer, piloting his new Tesla to and from table readings for all of his L.A.-based shows. “Shows can get disconnected, and it keeps me in touch.”
Nevins is glad his Showtime perch still allows him to function much like a producer. He structured his lean core team of programming execs — Gary Levine, Amy Israel, Robin Gurney, Randy Runkle, Joan Boorstein and casting chief Amy Britt — in an effort to avoid the problems he’s encountered in the past.
“I don’t want a whole team of people thrown at our shows,” he says. “I want one person who feels like they have some creative autonomy, and their ass on the line with a show. I want execs who act as producers, not shepherds.”
Levine, executive VP of original programming, whose tenure long predates Nevins, is the one tasked with paying attention to the whole, Nevins says. “He’s as good a dramaturg as there is in this business.”
Those who have known Nevins for years say it’s no surprise he wound up heading a network.
John Wells, exec producer of “Shameless,” says the exec’s style hasn’t changed much since they first met in the early 1990s when Nevins was the junior drama executive at NBC who was fired up about the potential for Wells’ “ER.” He also pushed hard for “The West Wing” to get made amid great skepticism that an idealistic political drama could succeed on NBC.
“David has always been very smart about how to tackle a story,” Wells says. “You get a lot of development executives who are frightened to express an opinion until they know what their bosses think. David has always been very honest.”
The fact that Nevins also has a head for business was established early on at his first job out of college, working for producer Lewis Chesler. Chesler opened the door to Nevins because the two shared an alma mater: Massachusetts’ Amherst College. Not long after he started at the grunt level, Nevins was working on Chesler’s shows, including HBO’s “The Hitchhiker,” and running the L.A. office when the boss was off shooting in Canada.
“He was extraordinarily smart and very well-read,” Chesler recalls. “Even as a kid, he was diligent and very excited to be working in development.”
By all accounts, Nevins has never lost that passion. “We love having him at table reads, because he’s not sitting there checking his phone all the time,” Wells says. “He’s actually listening with the kind of enthusiasm that is genuine and backed up by real intelligence.”
Moreover, Wells credits Nevins with having a deft touch when it comes to being able to engage in the nitty gritty of script development, without trying to dictate changes.
“David has a wonderful ability to tell you where he thinks there’s a problem (in a script), but without trying to come up with a specific solution,” Wells says. “Most of the problems that writers have with notes come when (an executive) insists on implementing a specific solution.”
Nevins cites his experience working with TV superstars like Wells, Tom Fontana and James Burrows for teaching him how to be an effective creative exec. “I learned more from showrunners than any other executives (about) how to be a creative leader and affect material for (the) good,” he says.
One of the most important influences on his thinking about television is his perception of the uniqueness of TV as a storytelling vehicle. “Television is a medium of imperfection,” he says, sounding like he’s sharing an insight he’s imparted more than once over the years. “You’ve got to understand that, and rail against it at the same time. You’re trying to be as perfect as you can, but it’s never perfect, and it’s never done. It’s not a fixed text like a movie or a play.”
Knowing this has also made him more respectful of the role that the cast plays in forging a successful series. “Actors take part in the authorship of the character in way that they don’t in any other medium,” he says.
He points to the CVs of Showtime’s stars, noting their high IQs. “If there were a battle of the network stars, “College Bowl” style, Showtime would win,” he says. “Don Cheadle, Liev Schreiber, Claire Danes, Emmy Rossum — they all did well on their SATs.”
Nearly five years ago, when Greenblatt told Blank and Moonves that he intended to move on after his Showtime contract ended in mid-2010, the leaders were in a bind. Greenblatt was a hard act to follow, and there weren’t many strong candidates readily available. But Moonves and Nevins shared a lawyer in Ernie Del, and Moonves heard through the grapevine that Nevins might be ready for a segue after eight years at Imagine TV.
The two had known each other from the early “ER” days, when Moonves headed Warner Bros. TV. Moonves never forgot Nevins’ enthusiasm for the show even when others had doubts. In early summer 2010, the men met on a Sunday morning at Moonves’ Malibu beach house. By the time Nevins left a few hours later, the Showtime job was his.
“We sat there on the porch talking about all kinds of things,” Moonves recalls. “We hadn’t seen each other in a while, and as we talked, I just thought, ‘My god, this is the right guy.’ ”
With the recent expansion of his duties, Nevins is working more closely with Moonves, Blank and top CBS execs on plotting long-term strategy for Showtime Networks. Beyond the hard work of programming, the bigger-picture issues facing Showtime and other pay TV outlets are at once vexing and invigorating. In a 2012 speech to an incoming freshman class at Amherst, Nevins counseled the students to look for opportunities to step outside their comfort zones, and to channel the nervous energy that comes with feeling vulnerable in uncertain circumstances.
He’ll have the chance to practice what he preaches as Showtime grapples with the question of balancing its tried-and-true traditional business models with opportunities for network distribution and content licensing that might upend past practices. CBS Corp. and Showtime are learning a lot about the new world order by studying the usage of the Showtime Anytime authenticated streaming service, which has seen a fast uptick with younger demo-friendly shows like “Penny Dreadful.”
“What makes my job interesting beyond the programming is figuring out all the different pieces,” Nevins says. “What should our SVOD policy be? What’s the best way to monetize (Showtime) over the long term that protects our subscription business but maximizes revenue? All of these things have big ramifications for our programming, our marketing and our budgeting.”
Considering Blank’s long experience in the cable biz and the CBS Corp. brain trust, there is a formidable team attacking all of those questions. But the pressure is on Nevins to continue to stock the programming pipeline with buzzy titles.
“We are up to the challenge,” he assures. “I just see enormous opportunity in the fact that all of this business revolves around our ability to deliver great shows.”