With no catchy taglines or slogans, Showtime has muscled its way into the premium-cable elite. “A brand needs to be much deeper than a slogan,” chairman David Nevins says. “It needs to be a marker of quality.”
Sixteen floors above the Wilshire corridor in West Los Angeles, Showtime chairman and CEO David Nevins sits in a plush corner office lined with mementos, including a prop knife from the Dexter finale and ringside tickets to the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight, which Showtime presented on PPV.
"People look to us to be adventurous," he says. "They look to us for the next new thing. Everything we make better be pushing the limits of the medium forward."
Every business has its longstanding rivalries. Coke and Pepsi. Marvel and DC. For its first 30-odd years, Showtime Networks (now owned by CBS Corporation) ran a distant second to HBO. But over the past decade, Showtime has significantly closed the gap, thanks to a bold slate of ambitious, even risky programming.
"Their identity compared to an HBO is a little more pop, a little less literary, a little less nuance, and a little more blatant and bold and sexy," says New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik. "They're best at smart, pulp entertainment. In comedy, they have a sub-brand of doing interesting things with damaged or self-destructive characters."
Showtime can skew male (Ray Donovan, House of Lies) and female (The Chi, SMILF). It's dabbled in thrillers (Homeland), black comedies (Shameless), adult dramas (The Affair), docu-series (The Circus) and animation (Our Cartoon President). It's taken viewers on journeys into worlds TV rarely explores, from hedge funds (Billions) to management consulting (House of Lies) and drug addiction (Patrick Melrose).
Fox 21 president Bert Salke calls Showtime "the thinking man's network," noting, "They make smart television. HBO tries to be more things to more people: comedy specials, more half-hours. Showtime is a bit more interested in spectacle. David's interested in storytellers."
Under Nevins's guidance for the past eight years, Showtime has muscled its way into the premium-cable elite while resisting easy brand categorization. Notably, the network has no catchy taglines or slogans.
"A brand needs to be much deeper than a slogan," Nevins says. "It needs to be a marker of quality. In the last couple of years, to have a brand that can encompass SMILF, Billions and Sacha Baron Cohen [Who Is America?] — I think all those shows make sense together. They're all aspects of the same sensibility. They're timely, zeitgeist-y, daring — all feel like they're very singular. "
Gary Levine, Showtime's president of programming, says, "There are no formulas. There's a certain subversiveness at work in our shows, but along with all of that, we want to make them entertaining."
People in the business of pitching and selling to Showtime say an undefined brand can be liberating.
"It's helped more than hurt them to not have a brand," says Dave Holstein, executive producer of Kidding, the Jim Carrey comedy that will return for a second season next year. "It's freeing, for me as a showrunner, to not have to live up to a one-word directive of what the mission is."
Ray Donovan showrunner David Hollander concurs: "There's no clear line as to what is a Showtime show, and that's to their benefit. This brand of Showtime, under David's leadership, is very much going to play to what David is interested in."
Since taking the reins in 2010, Nevins has boosted subscribers by 29 percent. According to Q1 '18 numbers provided by SNL Kagan, HBO leads all pay-cable networks with 37.2 million subs, followed by Showtime (25 million) and Starz (23.5 million). The conventional TV business model, however, continues to evolve at breakneck speed.
"People try to make it HBO vs. Netflix or Showtime, and the reality is, traditional linear TV is under attack and there's lots of opportunities for many companies," says Rich Greenfield, media analyst for BTIG.
Nevertheless, in a world where Disney and Apple are joining Amazon, Netflix and Hulu in the ever-expanding streaming universe, Greenfield believes Showtime's biggest challenge moving forward will be ramping up its content. "Their present-day pace is not enough for the longer term," he says. "They're going to need bigger budgets and more shows."
Nevins points out that Showtime will have 12 shows this year, twice its output from just a couple of years ago. Much of the impetus comes from its streaming channel, which launched in 2015 and has made the network more direct-to-consumer, profoundly transforming its business model. "It's changed the way we market and the way we schedule," he says.
New programming, which used to roll out once a quarter, now rolls out every few weeks. Streaming has also lured cord-cutters to Showtime at bargain prices. Viewers who used to spend more than $100 a month just to have cable and its premium channels can now stream Showtime on top of their Amazon or Hulu subscriptions for as little as $9 a month.
"We're a club," Nevins says simply. "We need you to want to be a member, and buzz makes you want to be a member of that club."
Nothing was buzzier for the network this summer than Who Is America?, the undercover prank show hosted by provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, Da Ali G Show). The series was kept under wraps for 18 months; only a cryptic tweet by Cohen alerted viewers to its existence just days before its July premiere.
Despite mixed reviews, the show was a force on social media, with Cohen's most incendiary bits going viral — like the segment that drove a Georgia state lawmaker to resign. Most important, its premiere drove the network's best single day of streaming sign-ups. "Streaming," Nevins says, "has unlocked a lot of value at Showtime."
Launched by Viacom in 1976, Showtime used to be better known for first-run movies and soft-core erotica. "When I came to Showtime, HBO had two once-in-a-lifetime hits at the same time," Levine says, referring to The Sopranos and The Wire. He came aboard in 2000 to help put Showtime on the map for series.
Under the leadership of a new president, Bob Greenblatt, the channel made a serious bid for respectability with edgy shows like Dexter, Weeds and Nurse Jackie.
When Greenblatt jumped to NBC in 2010, then-CBS president Les Moonves tapped Nevins to replace him. (Nevins added the CEO mantle in 2016. In October of this year, he was named chairman of Showtime Networks as well as chief creative officer of CBS Corporation, with a portfolio that includes CBS Television, CBS All Access and the CW network.)
A former exec at NBC and Fox, Nevins had turned producer, running Imagine Entertainment's TV division for eight years and developing prestige series like 24, Friday Night Lights and Arrested Development, for which he won a producing Emmy in 2004.
"The tempo was very different when I got here," he says. "Showtime was a little modest in its ambition. I didn't want a culture that was comfortable being number two, in other people's shadow. I wanted to set the tone that we could and should be the boldest, most adventurous programmer in the business."
The first show that Nevins green-lit more than fulfilled on his vision. Homeland — a post–9/11 spy thriller starring Claire Danes as a CIA officer with bipolar disorder — became Showtime's first series to win an Emmy for Outstanding Drama. It also won a Peabody Award and fulfilled Nevins's desire to make shows that contribute to what he likes to call the "cultural conversation."
Based on the Israeli series Prisoners of War, Homeland was developed in the States by executive producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa (24) and produced by Fox 21. The series will conclude in 2019 with its eighth season.
Bert Salke says its immediate success assured Hollywood that Showtime would continue to prosper after Greenblatt. "The handoff from Bob to David was much smoother than people might've guessed," Salke recalls. "Homeland allowed the town to feel there was not going to be a drop in quality at Showtime; there wasn't going to be a down period."
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This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 11, 2018