‘Man Who Fell to Earth’ Series Shifts to Showtime From Paramount Plus (EXCLUSIVE)

Column: Shuffle reflects new windowing challenges for platform programmers

David Nevins Your Honor Showtime
Courtesy of Showtime

The Man Who Fell to Earth” has landed at Showtime.

The drama series starring Chiwetel Ejiofor was originally developed for Paramount Plus, née CBS All Access. The show’s segue to Showtime is the second half of the decision made last month to send “Halo,” the long-awaited adaptation of the popular Xbox video game, to Paramount Plus after it had been years in the making at the cabler.

The series shuffle is a perfect illustration of the calculations going on at major networks and studios all across town as entertainment’s biggest players launch content-hungry streaming platforms.

Programmers were once challenged to figure out which night and time slot would be best to turn a new show into a big hit. Today, execs stare at grids of multiple platform options and strategize how quickly, or not, to give a show a second (or third) window on a sibling channel.

David Nevins, chairman-CEO of Showtime Networks and chief creative officer of CBS, explains that the platform swap for “Halo” and “Man Who Fell to Earth” was driven by the realization that “Halo” was shaping up to be more of a broad-appeal drama than “Man Who Fell.”

The latter series hails from Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet, two in-demand filmmakers who drew inspiration from the 1963 Walter Tevis novel of the same name. It was previously adapted into an offbeat 1976 movie from director Nicolas Roeg that starred David Bowie.

The goal is a sophisticated and alluring take on the story of an alien who comes to earth at a turning point for human evolution, this time led by Chiwetel Ejiofor, the Oscar-nominated star of “12 Years a Slave.”

“Man Who Fell” marks Showtime’s effort to expand in a significant way into the fantasy genre field that has been so lucrative for HBO with “Game of Thrones” and  Starz with “Outlander.”

“Halo,” once seen as Xbox’s entry into the TV content arena, had been in development at Showtime in one form or another since 2014, until it moved to Paramount Plus last month. “Man Who Fell” makes more sense for the Showtime audience as a swing for the fantasy audience than “Halo,” Nevins says.

“ ‘Man Who Fell to Earth feels like the best version of that,” he says. “It’s more purely adult in its appeal. You want to match the show to the place where its going to reach tis maximum potential.”

As ViacomCBS refines its three-pronged streaming strategy (which includes the voluminous Pluto TV free streaming service), the series shuffle makes sense in terms of the audiences that Paramount Plus and Showtime are trying to reach.

“‘Halo’ was an attempt to broaden Showtime to a more four-quadrant audience,” Nevins says. “It was [ordered] before we really laid out the strategy for Paramount Plus. Now that we know we’re doing free with Pluto, broad pay streaming with Paramount Plus and premium pay with Showtime, we’re really diving into making these kind of brand decisions.”

Nevins oversees ViacomCBS’ content council, a regular gathering of leaders of the conglomerate’s various content engines. Most of Hollywood’s media giants have reorganized to centralize programming decisions for multiple outlets under a single command. The art these days is knowing where to place a show and plotting the most effective downstream windowing strategy to get it the most sampling and media attention.

Showtime is coming off a strong year, even if the focus for ViacomCBS is on the care and feeding of Paramount Plus. “Your Honor,” the limited series potboiler starring Bryan Cranston as a compromised judge, was a quiet smash, ranking as one of the most watched series in Showtime’s 45-year history. “It had incredibly high completion rates,” Nevins notes, citing a metric that is important to streamers.

The March 4 debut of Paramount Plus has spurred questions from media analysts about whether Showtime’s content resources should be diverted to the fledging streamer. Nevins, who has headed the pay TV stalwart since 2010, counters that the Showtime brand is too valuable to give up at a time when Peak TV production overwhelms viewers with choices.

“We think the pureness of the Showtime brand is valuable in both the streaming world and the traditional TV world,” he says. The general disruption in the marketplace, accelerated by the pandemic, has forced media CEOs to “find a different way to think about things.” 

Instead of wrestling internally over budgets and shows, programmers must be supremely objective.

“We need to think about where a show is going to have the best chance to build long-term asset value,” Nevins says. ViacomCBS’ platform and content leaders “have to think about how they’re going to help each other with internal windowing. You’ve got to be smart and strategic about it.” 

Showtime is revving ahead on a number of big priorities for the rest of this year and next, plowing ahead with production on series including family saga “American Rust,” and “First Ladies,” a star-packed look at famous first spourses over the years.

“We’re going to have an incredible back half of the year in terms of programming,” he says, but some dates may slip as Showtime gets through “the logjam” of delayed production.

Pandemic conditions and other circumstances have pushed back some of Showtime plans but Nevins assures that they are not letting up on high-profile series. “First Ladies” is a high priority for 2022. So is “Super Pumped,” the anthology series from “Billions” chiefs Brian Koppelman and David Levien,

Showtime has also ordered another drama series, “Shaka Zulu,” from filmmaker Antoine Fuqua telling the story of Africa’s warrior king who united tribes on the continent in the early 19th century.

“We’ve done the costume dramas of Europe but African history has never been done in a real way,” Nevins says. The series will be penned by two first-generation Nigerian immigrants, Olu Odebunmi and Tolu Awosika, who have been friends since they met in high school in Fullerton, Calif. “It has a great authentic voice to it,” he says.

Among other series in active production are the “Dexter” revival (in limited form) and the adaptation of Philipp Meyers’ “American Rust” are in production now. Nevins also has high hopes for drama pilots “Let the Right One In” and a new spin on “American Gigolo.”

The executive helping to program ViacomCBS’ move into the streaming future sees an easy chance that more shows will move around networks as the various projects come into sharper focus. It’s not a sign of a failing, he says, but strategic thinking among the broader content team.

“We’re working on a daily basis with people to develop what they’re passionate about and what they think is going to serve the company well. ‘Halo’ and ‘Man Who Fell to Earth’ should be tentpole series assets all over the world for Paramount Plus.”

(Pictured: “Your Honor” and Showtime chairman-CEO David Nevins)

Cynthia Littleton