As he calls it a wrap on a seven-year run as Showtime’s programming chief, Robert Greenblatt spoke to Variety’s Cynthia Littleton about the changes the pay cabler has undergone during his tenure and what he’s thinking about for the future.
What stands out in your mind as major achievements for you at Showtime?
The degree to which we were able to break through the clutter with some programming that people seem to really love. I’ve always tried to be innovative, going back to the Fox days (as a programming exec), and certainly as a producer. To be given this platform to reinvent it the way I saw fit was just such an extraordinary gift. And then to see the shows embraced the way they have been is just the icing on the cake.
Not to suggest that there’s a formula for success, but there are common elements to your signature shows like “Weeds” and “Dexter.” What are those elements?
I think we just set out to make noise and get attention and do it in way that didn’t just seem gratuitous. … When we hit on the notion of having these iconic flawed characters in leads of our shows, things just really started to gel. That isn’t the only thing we do, but it has become a defining element for us. We’ve had great success in figuring out who those characters are and then we’ve been so lucky to get amazing talent to come aboard. … And it goes without saying that they have to be really well written, otherwise you’re not going to get a Michael C. Hall or Laura Linney or Edie Falco. Writers come here with a notion that they’re going to be able to write something with a specific actor in mind.
Writers often talk about how much they like doing business at Showtime because it’s a very small group of execs who work on the shows. Did you consciously keep your development team small?
Yes. We always wanted to stay hands-on. If we were a broadcast network there would be so many more shows to put through the system that we wouldn’t be able to be this hands-on. Because we’re only doing one or two shows at a time we can stay really focused. I’m still involved in the fifth year of “Dexter.” We follow things all the way through and that forms an enormous bond with writers and producers that really makes a difference. It’s a difficult process no matter where you are for writers to pull off these inspired feats. But it just makes it better if there’s only a couple of people in the mix.
When you first took the Showtime job, the network was very much overshadowed by HBO and its original series, including your own “Six Feet Under.” Was that daunting for you at the start?
It was daunting. Early on no one would let up on it. All I wanted to do was get down to the business of figuring out how to remake this place. Eventually, once we had some success and some shows that really broke out, people started to get past it. But I guess it will always be there. It’s the Coke-Pepsi, Hertz-Avis thing that will probably always be there. I do think that because we’ve been given such great credit over the past of the years we’ve been able to define our own persona, so the comparisons are much less prevalent.
Any regrets? Any shows that got away?
I don’t really have any regrets. It’s not like I’m sitting here thinking, “If only we’d had this or that we’d be a different network.” The biggest challenge in this job is that there’s always more shows sitting on the shelf that we have to wait to get on the air, because we don’t have as much volume. There are a couple of shows that I wish had made bigger splashes. “Sleeper Cell” and “Brotherhood” were good shows that never could quite garner the attention we needed to keep them going.
What are you thinking about for your next chapter?
I learned a seminal thing when I worked with Peter Chernin and Barry Diller (in the early years of Fox), and that was the need to do things that were really attention-getting. We were the fourth network that no one thought would ever succeed. We had to convince people to do business with us. I’ve just felt in every situation I’ve been in, including shows I’ve done as a producer, that you have to do things that nobody else is doing. … Showtime was a process of figuring out a whole new approach to an existing brand. So I’m interested in something that needs reinvigorating, or building something new. I haven’t yet had the time to figure out what that might be, but I wouldn’t be interested in stepping into something that didn’t need some radical rethinking.