As the coronavirus outbreak continues to keep television and film production on an indefinite hiatus, Showtime is shifting its programming strategy to spotlight its documentary series and features by plugging them into the Sunday night schedule, the network’s most-watched programming block. The premium cabler has also picked up the Matt Tyrnauer-directed four-part docuseries “The Reagans,” Variety has learned exclusively, which will premiere later this year.
“While we’re waiting on [production to resume], I think that it’s been a terrific opportunity to continue to raise the profile of nonfiction and to highlight some of the tremendous work and storytelling that’s taking place out there,” said Vinnie Malhotra, Showtime’s executive vice president of nonfiction programming.
“We were already in discussion about strategies along these lines,” he said. “But this has kind of accelerated the idea that we are going to take some of our really strong, really exciting upcoming nonfiction projects, whether they’re series or features, and start to move them into scheduling slots that I think had traditionally been reserved for scripted dramas or comedies. And I think now on Sunday nights in primetime, moving through the year, we’ll start to see some really great opportunities for series like ‘Outcry.’”
Sunday night is currently occupied by Showtime’s more high-profile shows, such as “Billions” and “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels.” In the summer, the network will move docuseries and documentary features into the coveted spot, starting on July 5 with “Outcry,” a five-part series about the controversial conviction of high school football star Greg Kelley.
Among the other documentaries set to air on Sunday nights are the four-part series “Love Fraud” (Aug. 30) and feature-length “Belushi” (Sept. 27).
The premieres of ”Outcry” and “Love Fraud” were both originally slated for April and May, respectively. Season 5 of “Billions” and Season 2 of “Black Monday” are being interrupted, and are slated finish later in the year, due to the pandemic.
Viewers have been turning to television for entertainment during the shelter-in-place period that has shut down movie theaters and outdoor events. Netflix’s “Tiger King” captured national attention when it debuted on the streaming service on March 20, just as the stay-at-home orders began rolling out through the country.
Malhotra is optimistic about how viewers will receive Showtime’s forthcoming mix of scripted and nonfiction programming.
“I think traditionally in other places, the documentary brand has always felt like it’s like a little bit different from what they’re doing on the scripted side, but I think at Showtime, we’ve never had that mentality,” he said. “We’ve always looked at it as: Storytelling is storytelling. The mediums might be different in which you present them, but they should be in concert with one another. There should be similarities in terms of what we’re looking for in stories, whether it’s scripted or nonscripted.”
To that point, Malhotra has shepherded several scripted series based on true events, such as “The Loudest Voice” (a dramatization of the rise and fall of Fox News founder Roger Ailes) and “The Good Lord Bird” (based on a novel about abolitionist John Brown).
While “The Reagans” — a separate series from the 2003 scripted Showtime show of the same name — does not yet have a set premiere date, and it has not yet been confirmed whether it will join the Sunday night block, Malhotra did say that “obviously it’s something that would lend itself to that strategy” that Showtime is adopting.
As for what success would look like with this new programming strategy, Malhotra says that it isn’t as much about the ratings — “I think we’re guaranteed to get more engagement by putting it on Sunday night in primetime” — but about viewers and subscribers feeling as though the shift from fiction to nonfiction in the schedule feels seamless and uninterrupted.
Releasing “The Reagans” during an election year will no doubt garner comparisons to the present political climate, but Malhotra says that the intent of the series is to surface what happened behind closed doors and in the halls of the West Wing in that era.
“I think that in Reagan, you deal with something so specific that I don’t think that we’ve ever really seen as much in the modern era with other administrations and presidents, in that Ronald Reagan was dealing with something toward the end of his time in the White House. How that manifests itself, and how the people around him and how the White House manage through that time period is incredibly intriguing and really interesting to watch.”
Tyrnauer, the former Vanity Fair editor who directed “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” and “Studio 54,” presents the series about Ronald and Nancy Reagan with “a different type of spirit and life,” said Malhotra.
“You’re going to get the palace intrigue, as much as you’re going to get the nuts and bolts of what happened through those years,” he said. “And so, it is a very human look at the years of the Reagans and what led up to those years, what took place in behind the walls during those eight years and really told through a lot of the inner circle and the people that I think were a part of all of the highs and lows of that time period in American politics.”