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Showtime Boss David Nevins on Competing With Netflix, ‘Twin Peaks’ Success and Donald Trump

JERUSALEM — “As long as the demand from the audience is there, a lot of us can thrive,” said Showtime CEO David Nevins in a Q&A with Avi Nir, CEO Keshet Media Group, kicking off the two-day long INTV conference in Israel, acknowledging that the network is trying to “punch above our weight” in the light of Netflix and other streamers.

Nir peppered him with questions about competing with Netflix, but Nevins insisted the business is “not cannibalistic,” he said.

“It’s a deluge right now, particularly from the streamers — Netflix more than anything,” he said. “They’re still in high-growth mode. They’re not trying to deliver earnings.” 

They’re also playing a “different game” when it comes to megabucks deals with showrunners, like those recently inked with uberproducers Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes. “They’re chasing a big announcement,” he said. “The size of it is advantageous to them.”

But while Netflix is aggressively adding hours upon hours of content, Nevins said he and his premium counterparts can compete with the promise of a more curated approach. “There’s a counter-narrative that’s beginning that’s helpful to us,” he said. “There’s so much stuff going on that the creators are beginning to fear being the 600th show on the shelf. Big, high-profile, expensive shows sometimes come and go without leaving their mark on the world. For better or worse, we need to make our shows count.”

His strategy, he said, is to find quality shows that can register with audiences: “Make good choices. Make good bets. Create a great creative environment where people can feel like they’re doing their best work.  Give them creative support and nurturing,” he said. “We have a much more boutique style. Our shows are handcrafted by their creators.”

Among those shows are “Twin Peaks,” the limited series from auteur creator David Lynch. Nevins also praised the experience of working with Lynch on “Twin Peaks,” pointing out that the series had a halo effect of bringing new viewers to the cabler, driving “a lot” of subscriptions. “It wasn’t just art, it was commerce as well,” he said. “The show had magic to it, and it was an honor to be able to put it out into the world…. It certainly paid off.”

Moving forward, he said the network has to strike the right balance between maintaining the creative momentum of long-running shows while adding new series to grab attention. “There’s a real premium on innovation,” he said. “Every year you have to come out with something that’s new and exciting….There’s always the promise of the next new thing to keep people subscribing.”

Viewers are still flocking to “Homeland” and “Shameless,” which are now in their seventh and eighth seasons, respectively, Nevins said. “Homeland” hasn’t “lost its mojo” yet, he said, pointing out that viewership for the Alex Gansa-led drama is still climbing. “I tend to prefer shows that are different year over year,” he said. He’s also seen a trend of viewers coming specifically for their favorite shows, like “Billions,” given that they can just pay for three months to watch it. “It’s easy on, easy off,” he said.

Nevins also teased upcoming programming, including the Ben Stiller-directed “Escape at Dannemora,” the Benedict Cumberbatch-led “Patrick Melrose” (“an incredible, comic dark tour de force”) and the upcoming documentary about Donald Trump’s relationship with the New York Times (“The Fourth Estate”).

“I think it’s going to make a lot of noise,” he said, pointing out that the docu shows Trump on tape talking to Times reporter Maggie Haberman, refuting the president’s recent tweet that the reporter was “not given access.”

In this era of fake news, said Nevins, “You can go a long way with a lie, but it doesn’t get you all the way to the end zone.”

At the end of the panel, Nir put the 2014 Variety cover with Nevins on the big screen and asked him what Variety would say about him and Showtime in 2020. Quipped Nevins, “Hopefully we stay on the cutting edge and we keep innovating and Showtime continues to thrive… and I still have a hairline.”

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