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Showtime Chiefs Talk ‘Twin Peaks,’ ‘Penny Dreadful,’ Daniel Craig Drama and Digital Growth

The advent of Showtime’s digital standalone offering last year has delivered a windfall of more than 1 million subscribers that promises to transform CBS Corp.’s pay TV service, according to Showtime Networks CEO David Nevins.

The subscriber growth has boosted revenue and bottom line numbers, allowing Showtime to invest more heavily in a broader range of programming, particularly documentaries, Nevins told reporters Thursday in his Q&A alongside Showtime programming president Gary Levine at the Television Critics Association press tour at the Beverly Hilton.

The alternative distribution model has meant that Showtime is “reaping the benefits of all the trends reshaping the television business,” Nevins said. He said that the OTT Showtime service has added more than 1 million new subscribers since its launch in October — new sign-ups that do not appear to be compromising its traditional subscriber base that flows through traditional MVPD players.

“We’ve built a new business in the last year,” he said. “We’re well-ahead of where we expected to be with no cannibalization of the base business.”

All told, Showtime’s subscriber base stands at nearly 25 million. CBS Corp. earlier this year projected the Showtime digital service would have 4 million subscribers by 2020.

The focus on drawing new subscribers contributed to the Showtime’s decision to shift its programming pattern from having two scripted series airing on a quarterly basis to one scripted original launching almost every month (which leads to overlap in the episodic runs of various series). Nevins acknowledged that monthly focus on launches “puts more stress on our marketing budgets, but net-net it’s a plus.”

“Masters of Sex” kicks off Showtime’s fall campaign next month, followed by “Shameless” in October, “The Affair” in November, “Homeland” in January and “Billions” in February. Nevins showed a lengthy clip of the new series “I’m Dying Up Here,” set in the late 1970s Los Angeles comedy club scene, which is set for a spring debut.

Showtime’s original documentary productions have also done well with multiplatform viewers, which has encouraged the service to invest in ambitious projects, Nevins said. Among the upcoming efforts is a look at the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, “Burn Motherf—– Burn,” from filmmaker Sacha Jenkins.

Nevins and Levine of course addressed the most hotly anticipated upcoming Showtime series, the sequel to “Twin Peaks,” which the execs indicated would arrive sometime around the middle of next year. They’re expecting to seen the first cut footage from director/co-creator David Lynch in the near future. But even the dailies have been captivating, Levine said.

“We were both instantly transported,” Levine said. “The tone, the feel  — it is so singular. We can’t wait to show it to the world.”

Nevins said after the formal Q&A that they are considering unconventional ways of programming “Twin Peaks” when it does arrive, although they won’t be dropping all episodes at once. They still don’t know exactly how many episodes Lynch will deliver, and the running times may well vary beyond the standard hourlong format.

Another big investment for Showtime is “Purity,” based on the Jonathan Franzen book with Daniel Craig set to star. Todd Field is to direct all 20 segs and co-write with Franzen and David Hare, with Scott Rudin on board as producer. “Purity” will air as a contained 20-episode series across two seasons in 2018 and 2019.

“Purity” is a good example of how the definition of what constitutes a TV series is changing as the programming business becomes more multiplatform and more global, Nevins said. The traditional business model of squeezing out as many episodes of a show as possible has given way to much more flexibility in formats and series lifecycles.

The three-season run of “Penny Dreadful” is another sign of the times. Showtime opted not to promote the third season of the horror drama as its final outing to maintain a sense of surprise. Creator John Logan envisioned the show as a three-season arc encompassing the story Eva Green’s Vanessa Ives. Showtime could have continued on but they came to the mutual decision to let the curtain fall on Logan’s creation.

“John didn’t want to cast a pall on the final season, and he also didn’t want to tip the death of Vanessa Ives,” Levine said of the decision to keep the news secret until the finale.

“Penny Dreadful” has been one of Showtime’s most-watched shows on digital platforms, and it was also a co-production with the U.K.’s Sky Atlantic.

“It’s a marker of where television is today,” Nevins said. “From a financial point of view that show has been a very successful show. In the old days three seasons and out (was) a financial black mark. In this case it’s a success.”

Showtime has upped its output of original programming, scripted and unscripted, but there is a natural limit on how much they can handle at any given time.

“The eco-system for premium television is really strong,” Nevins said. “There’s more competition, pricing and wages (for creatives) are going up and the value of shows is going up way faster than the cost of making it. (But) Gary and I do still believe in the fairly hand-crafted way of going about it. I don’t want to start buying willy nilly.”

In other tidbits from the Q&A:

  • Nevins said the future of first-year comedy “Roadies” would be decided at the end of the first season run, which wraps at the end of the month. “It achieved a feel-good warm ensemble,” Nevins said. “I think it gets better episode by episode.”
  • Showtime confirmed three comedy pilot orders just before the Q&A began: the Jamie Foxx-produced “White Famous,” the divorced-guy vehicle “Mating” from producer Jason Katims and “SMILF” from actress Frankie Shaw. The cabler is in transition on the half-hour front as existing comedies such as “House of Lies” and “Episodes” wind down. “The comedy quotient of those pilots might be a little higher than in the past,” Levine said.

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