How Showtime Plans to Cut Through the Noise This Election Cycle

Though the network will not air live coverage during the election cycle, Showtime still very much so intends to have its finger on the political pulse, doubling its dose of “The Circus” during this presidential election year.

“Between ‘The Circus,’ ‘Our Cartoon President,’ and ‘Desus & Mero,’ we feel like we’ll have a very steady stream of either real coverage or satirical coverage,” Showtime entertainment co-head Jana Winograde told Variety on Monday. “One of the things we love about all of those shows are they give us an always-on presence. They’re very well-timed for the political cycle this year to make sure that we’re on when the stories are on that need to be told. And in between we have ‘Vice.’

“The Circus” will debut this season on Jan. 26, a week before the Iowa caucus on Feb. 3, and will cluster episodes around primaries, conventions and elections.

“[Hosts John Heilemann, Mark McKinnon and Alex Wagner] will be in the thick of it at all of the crucial moments in the presidential election,” said Showtime entertainment co-head Gary Levine.

Cutting through the noise is no easy task in the 24/7 news cycle era. But Showtime head of nonfiction programming Vinnie Malhotra doesn’t necessarily believe all of the political news coverage that’s out there is intellectually nutritious.

“Having grown up in the news world and watched and been part of a lot of political reporting and campaign trails over time, when I watch [TV] news now, I don’t see a lot of reporting taking place anymore, I don’t see a lot of context,” Malhotra told Variety. “What I see is a lot of AM talk radio on television. It’s kind of the Roger Ailes effect, spread across cable… I feel like what’s gone is reporting.”

Compared to, say, the left-right punditry that’s omnipresent on CNN,  Malhotra — who has previously spent time at CNN and ABC News — said the weekly “Circus” can provide much-needed context to the daily flurry of headlines.

“We’re going to give you a lot more depth; we’re going to spend a lot more time on, say, the Elizabeth Warren campaign or we’re going to get more perspective on the evangelicals about Donald Trump or the GOP,” said Malhotra. “We’re really trying to get underneath the layers a little bit, and show you not just the process, the behind-the-scenes of the debate, but also helping [you] understand.”

Showtime is doubling its output of the series this year, he said. In the fourth and most recent season, which aired in 2019, ran for 16 episodes. In its first season, which covered the 2016 presidential election, the show spanned 26 episodes.

And current is where the premium cabler wants to be. Its upcoming documentary film slate includes “Kingdom of Silence,” about the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. and the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and “Love Fraud,” about the search for a man who conned women on the internet for over two decades, and the action his victims took to seek revenge.

“We don’t necessarily want to do history in the more traditional sense,” said Malhotra. “Ken Burns’ Vietnam series is a terrific one, but is not something we would ever do. I think we want to stay contemporary. When we touch history… it’s always in the context of what’s relevant today, what [has] currency in the current conversation. Because when we’re successful, we’re the stories of our time.”

Meanwhile, on the scripted side, Showtime at TCA on Monday announced that ‘Shameless’ had been renewed for an 11th season, its last. If news of the pickup seems early, it’s because the network has a specific scheduling strategy in mind.

“The reason we picked up ‘Shameless’ early this year was to rush it back into writing and ultimate production for its 11th and final season,” said Levine. “But it’ll be [premiering] this summer instead of the fall, and that will strengthen our summer. We want to put on ‘On Becoming a God [in Central Florida]’ behind it, because we really believe in that show and it feels tonally compatible with ‘Shameless.’”

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