CBS is in the midst of very public will-they-or-won’t-they merger chatter as it reportedly circles Viacom, teasing a union that would promise big changes. But at CBS-owned Showtime, new co-presidents of entertainment Gary Levine and Jana Winograde are bullish that their premium cable network is established enough and autonomous enough to continue on its own merry way, unencumbered by machinations overhead.
“There’s a culture here of stability,” says Levine in his deep, mellifluous voice at Showtime’s West Hollywood headquarters. “A lot of people have been here a long time [and] feel comfortable here. So even though there are some changes going on with parent corporations and stuff, we feel very secure and very solid.”
Nevertheless, Levine and Winograde’s joint ascent is the apparent product of trickle-down executive shifts, following Leslie Moonves’ ouster as CBS CEO last
September amid a flurry of sexual misconduct allegations. Their boss, Showtime CEO David Nevins, soon added chairman and CBS chief creative officer to his list of responsibilities, filling the creative gulf left by Moonves even as he continues to run Showtime as CEO.
Levine is an 18-year vet in Showtime’s original programming unit who’s seasoned in the storytelling and creative demands of premium TV. Winograde is a 2017 addition who ran business operations at the network after two decades at ABC and has been at the forefront of reinventing the linear TV business model. Together, they present a sort of left-brain, right-brain united front.
“When any decisions need to be made, we tend to make them together,” says Winograde. “It’s been fairly seamless.”
Greater production demands and stiff competition for talent mean that the network’s programming budget has increased, but Levine takes pride in not emptying Showtime’s wallet to outbid competitors.
“That being said, we are committed to growth, both on the scripted and unscripted programming side,” says Winograde. She cites “Desus & Mero,” Showtime’s recent first foray into late night, as “a great example of that.”
Betting on the right shows is vital to subscriber growth online: Originals account for more than 80% of viewer consumption on streaming service Showtime OTT, said CBS chief digital officer Jim Lanzone on a recent earnings call.
Showtime’s growth story now is “obviously in the [over-the-top] space,” says Winograde. The execs are cognizant of the streaming evolution that has called upon others to enter the paid subscription business; Showtime’s advantage is that it has always been pay-to-enter.
Churn, or customer attrition, is less of a concern for Showtime than it is for pure-play streamers because so much of its business model relies on traditional cable providers. Across traditional and digital platforms, the network grew total subscribers 8% year over year in the first quarter of 2019.
Its four-year-old direct-to-consumer streamer offers some critical data about viewer habits: for example, the first show that a new customer watches after subscribing; the first shows viewed in the initial seven-day period; or which shows are being watched all the way through.
“Now we have all these other indicators of value,” says Winograde. That could be a show with less-than-stellar ratings that’s actually a strong subscriber-getter, or a series that helps bolster retention. “It’s surprising, sometimes, how much value a show can have that — just looking at the ratings — you wouldn’t have figured or vice versa.”
CBS doesn’t break out streaming subscriber figures by division, but CBS All Access and Showtime OTT have collectively reached more than 8 million subscribers — putting them ahead of schedule — with an ambitious target of 25 million by 2022.
Showtime is now looking for growth out of “The Loudest Voice,” “City on a Hill” and upcoming legal thriller “Your Honor,” starring Bryan Cranston as a straight-arrow judge whose teenage son commits a hit-and-run, killing the son of the biggest Mafia don in New Orleans.
Other shows that are in the works include “The L Word: Generation Q,” Jonas Cuarón’s “Hombre” and a TV adaptation of popular shoot-’em-up video-game “Halo,” the latter of which is being transformed into a series that will somehow ultimately befit Showtime’s brand of complex character drama.
“The saddest thing to me is when — and I get these from time to time — I get a group email from a director or a writer saying, ‘Please watch my show that’s dropping this Friday on Netflix,’” says Levine. “It literally drops, and you know, one out of 20 or 30 might actually cause some ripples and resonate. Every show we do, we go with trumpets blaring and the full force of this network behind it.”