Showtime welcomes back ‘Homeland’

Suspenser gives pay cabler a series to lure subscribers

Showtime execs are eagerly awaiting the second season bow of “Homeland” on Sept. 30. And for good reason: “Homeland” is the kind of show that takes a pay TV network to the promised land.

In its first season last year, the series was an unqualified home run for CBS Corp.’s pay cabler. The intense political thriller proved a broad-based commerical and critical hit that had immediate traction in the social media universe and in awards races. Those are the two most crucial arenas for generating the word-of-mouth that motivates viewers to sign up for Showtime in order to see the show that everyone’s talking about. No amount of advertising and promotion can match the impact of fans obsessing online about every plot twist and turn, or raving about the nuances of the perfs by stars Damian Lewis and Claire Danes.

“Fairly early on, it sort of became a show that created conversation on Monday morning in a lot of high places,” says David Nevins, president of entertainment for Showtime Networks. ” ‘Homeland’ helps send a message that we’re doing cutting-edge stuff at Showtime. … That’s the brand-building power of a hit show. It makes people pay attention.”

For sure, the pay cabler has been fortified by hits in the past, from “Dexter” to “Weeds” to “Californication.” But “Homeland” was unusual in that it’s subject matter and storytelling style was more broadly accessible than past series.

“Homeland,” based on an Israeli format, is an ensembler unraveling a sweeping, suspenseful story rooted in headline issues of national security and terrorism. It’s a significant contrast from the cabler’s past emphasis on intimate portrayals of larger-than-life characters, a la the crafty serial killer played by Michael C. Hall in “Dexter.”

The tonal shift also reflects the behind-the-scenes change at Showtime in 2010 that saw Nevins take the reins as programming topper from Robert Greenblatt (who moved on to NBC). “Homeland” was the first scripted series developed on Nevins’ watch.

On the heels of wrapping its first season, “Homeland” nabbed the Golden Globe award in January for best drama series (a first for Showtime), as well as lead drama actress honors for Danes. With nine Primetime Emmy noms, the show has a good chance of landing in the winner’s circle again at the Sept. 23 Emmycast, a week before its sophomore sesh opens.

Anthony DiClemente, a Wall Street analyst who follows CBS Corp. for Barclays, concurs that excitement around a hit series like “Homeland” has positive reverberations for the entire network.

“It has two very important effects in terms of subscriber trends: Retention of existing subscribers, who are less likely to turn away, and the conversation drives new subscriber additions,” DiClemente says.

A strong bench of original series has fueled Showtime’s impressive subscriber growth in recent years — winning an uphill battle at a time when viewers have more choices than ever for TV and films. Showtime’s subscriber base has grown a whopping 75% during the past eight years, from 12.2 million in 2003 to 21.4 million as of March.

Making a big impression on viewers is Job One for any pay cable show. Job Two is to make an equally big impression in the creative community. The success of “Homeland” gave Nevins’ team more freedom to develop other ambitious dramas and attract top-tier stars. The pay cabler has two edgy drama series on deck to premiere next year: “Masters of Sex,” starring Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan as sex researchers Masters and Johnson; and “Ray Donovan,” featuring Liev Schreiber as a professional “fixer” for L.A.’s rich and famous.

“Homeland” was “certainly a factor in attracting people like Michael Sheen and Liev Schreiber,” Nevins says. “Michael Sheen does Oscar-caliber work every year. He wants to play a complicated adult character.”

Overall, says Nevins, “Homeland” has been a workhorse for the network, much as “Weeds” and “Dexter” were nearly a decade ago when Showtime first started to challenge HBO’s dominance of the pay TV landscape.

“We’re a subscription business,” Nevins says. “For us, it’s about (creating) the perception that Showtime is a programming service you want to watch — you need to watch — to be in the pop culture conversation.”