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Showtime Takes Boutique Approach Amid Intense Competition for Talent, Premium TV Viewers

Showtime is coming to a crossroads as its signature series for most of the past decade, “Homeland,” heads into its ninth and final season next year.

This transition comes at a fraught time for established premium TV players. The competition has exploded and the benchmark for content expenditure is now set not by longtime rival HBO but by a digital upstart with seemingly limitless coffers and a $300-plus share price (aka Netflix).

Showtime Networks CEO David Nevins is steering CBS Corp.’s pay cable unit through a significant expansion as it delivers more original scripted and unscripted series, documentaries, specials, and sports-related programming than at any time in its 42-year history. Growth spurred by the availability of the channel as a standalone streaming app since 2015 has helped bolster the company at a time when it has to offer more programming to remain a must-keep for pay TV viewers.

In the larger scheme of the Peak TV universe, Showtime’s selling point to subscribers and the creative community is: “We’re a boutique,” Nevins says.

It’s a big one, as boutique operations go. Nevins emphasizes his focus on making sure there’s a level of hands-on development, production, and marketing support from the highest levels of the company for everything that goes out on Showtime’s air.

“I think more and more the appeal of being at Showtime is that you don’t sit on a shelf with a thousand other titles,” Nevins tells Variety. “One of the reasons creative people are coming to us is that we have a reputation for making each shot count.”

Despite the gold rush underway for talent deals, Nevins points to the caliber of Showtime’s partners on new series including “Kidding,” from Jim Carrey and Michel Gondry (bowing Sept. 9); the limited series “Escape at Dannemora” (Nov. 18) toplined by Benicio del Toro and Patricia Arquette and directed by Ben Stiller; and the untitled miniseries about Roger Ailes to star Russell Crowe, from director Tom McCarthy and producer Jason Blum.

While “Homeland” is heading for its last round, Nevins has confidence that younger series including “Billions” and the critically praised Lena Waithe drama “The Chi” are ready to pick up the drama mantle, along with the enduring “Shameless.” The Frankie Shaw comedy “SMILF” was also a sleeper success last year and is poised for growth in season two, judging by the strong traction that season 1 has enjoyed in Showtime’s on-demand platforms, Nevins says.

“Both ‘The Chi’ and ‘SMILF’ are going to have big sophomore years,” Nevins says. “Lena’s diving in hard. Those are good examples of us pushing the boundaries of the medium and working with untested creators who have really unique voices and a lot to say.”

“Billions,” the sudser set in the world of high finance, is heading into its fourth season. It’s a fan favorite that also has grabbed plenty of critical praise, but so far has been overlooked by Emmy voters. “That show is the nucleus of the future for us,” Nevins says. “It is as well-written and well-acted as any of the shows that are nominated.” And “Shameless,” he promises, is “stronger than ever” in its ninth season, which bows Sept. 9.

Other scripted series in the pipeline include the Don Cheadle comedy “Black Monday,” rooted in the 1987 stock market crash; “City on a Hill,” starring Kevin Bacon as an FBI agent in early 1990s Boston; and a long-gestating adaptation of video game “Halo.”

Another big focus for Nevins is to make sure Showtime has buzzy unscripted series and documentary projects that take on headline issues. The company announced plans for a multi-part documentary series “Shut Up and Dribble,” a look at the influence of African-American NBA stars, on the heels of President Trump’s Twitter swipe at LeBron James on Aug. 4. The series, produced by James’ banner and directed by Gotham Chopra, has been in the works for more than a year.

“There’s a certain amount of luck in this but it also shows that we’re fishing in the right waters,” Nevins says, giving credit to Showtime documentary chief Vinnie Malhotra.

“The Circus,” the real-time political docu-series that launched in 2016 to cover the roller-coaster presidential campaign, has become a staple of Showtime’s schedule amid the charged political environment. “We feel like ‘The Circus’ opened up what is a topical newsy show for premium TV that is not in the Jon Stewart/’Daily Show’ mold,” Nevins says. “You’ll see more of it on a year-round basis.”

The show faced some turnover after its second season last year when Mark Halperin was fired as co-host amid sexual harassment allegations that were unrelated to “Circus.” But Nevins says the addition of Alex Wagner as co-host with Mark McKinnon and John Heilemann was a boon to the show as it brought a different perspective on the inner workings of politics. “We’ll continue to expand with some other correspondents,” he says. “Beyond the main three hosts, this is a show that needs other points of view.”

Sacha Baron Cohen has stirred some controversy for Showtime with his undercover improv series “Who Is America” which debuted last month. The series came together in secret as Baron Cohen developed outrageous archetype characters and then sought out real-life politicians and celebrities for what have proven to be embarrassing encounters. Sarah Palin has called Baron Cohen “evil, exploitative, and sick” for duping her into an interview for an upcoming segment. Nevins makes no apologies for the show. “He is a genius,” he says of Baron Cohen.

Showtime is also preparing to launch its first stab at a weekly late-night series with the duo Desus Nice and the Kid Mero, who hosted a nightly show on Viceland for nearly two years that ended in June after they signed with Showtime. “For people under 35 they are a home run,” Nevins says, adding that there’s a chance the show will air live when it premieres early next year.

The range of material that Showtime is fielding is personally satisfying to Nevins, who joined the company in 2010 as head of programming and was promoted to CEO in 2016. It’s also vital to keeping Showtime in the top echelon of premium outlets as so much of TV viewing migrates to on-demand platforms.

“There is a lot of opportunity and this is a key moment for our business,” Nevins says. “There’s going to be a finite number of brands that make this transition. We’re very confident that we’re going to be one of them.”

(David Nevins with “SMILF” stars Rosie O’Donnell, Frankie Shaw, and Connie Britton)

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