Showtime Chiefs Talk ‘Flourishing’ TV Biz, Expanding Palette of Programming

Showtime Networks CEO David Nevins offered a full-throated affirmation of the health of the traditional TV business during his Q&A Saturday at the Television Critics Association press tour, even as he acknowledged the challenge that it faces in figuring out “how to compete against our deep-pocketed friends invading from the North.”

More shows, more diversity, and stepped-up efforts to nurture new creative voices are the pillars of Showtime’s battle plan for navigating the Peak TV era. The pessimism that is hanging over the linear TV world as Netflix, Amazon and now Apple move headlong into the business of TV series programming is “missing the bigger picture,” Nevins told reporters.

“There are numerous signs of the industry flourishing. Content and the demand for it is in full flower,” Nevins said. “All of the hand-wringing about the massive changes in the industry (misses) that the changes in the industry are good for lovers of television and good for the artists and craftsmen who make it. … This is a fantastic time to be working in television if you’re well positioned for its challenges.”

Nevins, who was joined on stage by programming president Gary Levine, emphasized that Showtime’s efforts to adapt to the new world order of streaming and on-demand platforms has paid off in the form of more than 2 million subscribers who have signed up for its standalone streaming options since its debut in 2015.

“The last two months of the year have been the strongest two months in our history in terms of new subscribers,” Nevins said. He cited the momentum created by veteran dramedy “Shameless,” the introduction of buzzy comedy “SMILF,” and anticipation for the return of “Billions” in March and this week’s debut of Lena Waithe’s Chicago-based drama “The Chi.”

Showtime has made a concerted push to increase the volume of original programming served up every quarter, both scripted and documentary and unscripted fare. “SMILF” emerged as a sleeper success thanks to many rave reviews for the comedy about a single mother from auteur creator-star Frankie Shaw. The success of “SMILF” compared to comedy “White Famous,” which was canceled after one season, reinforced the importance of having a distinctive and passionate vision behind every show.

“Voice matters,” Nevins said. “We’ve got in Lena and Frankie two really interesting next-generation voices.”

Showtime has made efforts to expand the racial and cultural diversity of its scripted series as well as the variety of programming on its air. Showtime’s documentary initiative has grown substantially in the past few years. Upcoming projects highlighted by Nevins include “The Trade,” a deep dive into the supply chain that has fueled the opioid crises; “Chelsea XY,” a study of National Security Administration whistleblower Chelsea Manning; and “The Fourth Estate,” a chronicle of the New York Times during the first year of the Trump administration.

“Diversity pays dividends,” Nevins said. “We’ve tried hard to expand the palette in different directions with different kinds of voices and different kinds of shows.” Levine cited the development of fantasy novel series “The Kingkillers,” with Lin-Manuel Miranda on board to craft music for the show, as an example of a new arena for the cabler. 

Pressed about how Showtime can compete in the chase for programming against new entrants with multi-billion dollar budgets, Nevins and Levine emphasized the importance of talent scouting and the ability to provide vital support systems for creative people, especially those who are budding talents.

“Yes it’s hard to compete but time and again, look at the shows that break through — it’s not necessarily the giant star vehicles,” Nevins said. Levine added that Showtime has “never had the deepest pockets compared to our competitors. But to anybody who thinks that spending the most money is a guarantee of success, I refer you to the New York Yankees. We have the money when we need it, and we’re also smart and shrewd about how we spend it and where we spend it.”

Among other highlights from the session:

Sexual harassment: Nevins said Showtime is “redoubling” its efforts to strengthen policies and procedures for the company and its productions for victims of harassment to come forward. The outpouring of harassment allegations in the past few months touched Showtime in November when Mark Halperin was fired from docu-series “The Circus.” Levine said the healthy workplace culture of Showtime’s close-knit team is the most important defense. “I take pride in the culture of Showtime,” Levine said. “Egos out of control, politics and power trips are what let bad behavior flourish.”

“I’m Dying Up Here”: Levine said he sees the series set in the 1970s Los Angeles comedy club scene as having “untapped potential,” which spurred the second season renewal despite its low ratings. He acknowledged that pairing the show with “Twin Peaks” this past spring was a bad fit. “I think how comedians translate pain into comedy is inherently dramatic,” Levine said. “One of the things we believe we offer our creators is that we give a show every chance to survive and thrive.”

“Homeland”: The seventh season of the network’s signature drama is again very White House focused, with Elizabeth Marvel returning as the Commander-in-Chief, but it will not be a Trump allegory. “The White House of ‘Homeland’ is an interesting combination of a Bernie Sanders-like lefty isolationist,” Nevins said. “There are certain similarities to the current administration but definitely more left.”

“The Affair”: Speaking to reporters after the session, Nevins said he expects the sliding-doors drama to run five seasons. The show begins Season 4 on June 17.

(Pictured: David Nevins and Gary Levine)

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