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Why Showtime Wants Series That Are 'A Little Bit Dangerous,' Even If That Means Moving Away From Big, Serialized Dramas

By Aaron Dobbs | Indiewire September 19, 2013 at 12:12PM

In 1976, Showtime became one of the first cable channels to achieve national distribution. The network began producing original programming in the early '80s, but it wasn't until the arrival of "The L Word," "Weeds" and "Dexter" in the mid-2000s that it's identity really came together.
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Claire Danes in 'Homeland'
Kent Smith/Showtime Claire Danes in 'Homeland'

In 1978, Showtime became one of the first cable channels to achieve national distribution. The network began producing original programming in the early '80s, but it wasn't until the arrival of "The L Word," "Weeds" and "Dexter" in the mid-2000s that it's identity really came together. More successes followed, but the 2011 premiere of "Homeland" changed everything with record ratings and critical adoration. "Homeland" earned Showtime its first Emmy Award for Best Drama Series, beating television's most talked-about dramas: HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" and "Game of Thrones," AMC's "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men," and PBS's "Downton Abbey." "Homeland" accounted for one-third of Showtime's network-best 32 Emmy nominations this year, and Sunday's Emmy Awards will reveal if the show maintains its Best Drama Series title.

Sunday also marks the season one finale of Showtime's newest hit, "Ray Donovan," which has attracted record ratings, even outpacing "Homeland" by approximately 30%. Meanwhile, the week after brings not just the return of "Homeland," but also the series premiere of "Masters of Sex" (which you can watch for free online now). Showtime recently announced an ambitious slate of new series, including "Penny Dreadful," from three-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan, and "Trending Down," created by noted author Shalom Auslander and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, with a pilot directed by John Cameron Mitchell.

"Homeland" was the first series greenlit by David Nevins after he took the reins as President of Entertainment at Showtime Networks in 2010. After stints overseeing programming for NBC and Fox, in 2002 he became President of Imagine Television, overseeing notable series like "24," "Friday Night Lights," "Parenthood" and "Arrested Development." In the third installment of our regular series of interviews with network heads, Indiewire spoke with Nevins about the impact of "Homeland" on Showtime's identity, why they've entered the feature documentary world but likely won't make any original movies anytime soon and "Arrested Development" season four (and beyond).

David Nevins
David Nevins

How do you feel the expectations of TV audiences have changed over the past five to 20 years, and how does Showtime's original programming fulfill those expectations?

Audiences have become extraordinarily sophisticated in terms of narrative. They can consume and process an enormous amount of story in a very short amount of time. People have seen every story under the sun through all the different storytelling media, so it's very hard to stay one step ahead.

For years, people were trained to see television as comfort food and the safest of storytelling media, but now that's changed. They've come to view television as a cutting-edge medium. It partly shifted with NBC, the first broadcaster to really [challenge those expectations], and then HBO picked up the mantle and brought more change to cable television. Now we've achieved a degree of extraordinary latitude with what we can get away with. The audience's willingness to be taken down an odd rabbit hole has increased exponentially in the last 10 years.

How would you describe the characteristics that define a Showtime series, and what do you look for creating your development slate?

I'm trying hard to be out in front. I think people expect us to lead the charge into the next new thing. So I try really hard not to simply follow trends; not to go into territory that other people already own. I want to be challenging in the storytelling, characters and relationships we present. I think our stuff should feel a little bit dangerous; a little bit forbidden. It should have something to it you can't get elsewhere.

How would you characterize any difference in Showtime's programming focus since your arrival three years ago?

I think there is a slightly different sensibility. I'm looking for things that have scope and intensity; that, more often than not, have multiple points of view and layers. I like shows that feel full and complicated and have different elements that people can love about them and identify with.

'Ray Donovan'
'Ray Donovan'

What are your thoughts on the current competitive landscape in television, and how does it influence your own programming choices?

I want Showtime to be the place for the most progressive and innovative television out there. There are other people making premium television that is closer to what Showtime has always done, so that forces us to be more original. AMC and FX are doing it really well, and I think you're starting to see even more mainstream basic cable networks trying to edge it up a bit.

Then there are the online-only programming services like Netflix and Amazon also playing in that space. [Companies have discovered that they're] better able to monetize niche audiences. Shows that are highly serialized can live and be watched over time and therefore have more value.

How do you see television and these highly serialized stories continuing to evolve and challenge formal boundaries over the next few years, and what is Showtime's role in that changing landscape, especially considering the new platforms you mentioned, like Netflix and Amazon?

I've been doing that kind of programming for most of my career, as a network programmer in my early years with "ER" and "The West Wing," and then as a producer with "Arrested Development," "24," and "Friday Night Lights." These were the most serialized shows on television in their eras. I was always pushing up against the reigning orthodoxy of network television. I always did shows that did really well on DVD and not so well in network repeats, which turns out to be the right formula for today and premium television.

But I also believe in going against the stream. I'm making a pilot right now called "The Affair," which is not big, sprawling and expansive; it's tight, intense and intimate in a way only television can be. I think that goes against how most premium shows, including our own, are being developed these days. I can also foresee a more episodic structure being of interest to us, particularly in terms of comedy. Just because intense serialization is working right now doesn't mean that it's the only thing that I'm going to put on the air for the next five years.

'Dexter'
'Dexter'

So are you and your team extremely hands on with your shows?

Relatively speaking, we're pretty hands-on. We have strong controlling showrunners, but it's my job to facilitate the best versions of their voices. That's what a good producer does. So we're deeply engaged.

More frequently, we're seeing people from outside the world of television -- filmmakers, playwrights, longform journalists, radio producers -- developing series. What is Showtime's approach to seeking out new voices for your scripted projects?

I try hard to be guided by what interests me and by compelling people. Michelle Ashford, who created "Masters of Sex," is just a great TV and movie writer who's highly revered around town but has not yet had her own big success. I think she's due. Shalom Auslander [creator of "Trending Down] is known as a comic novelist more than anything else and has never written television before, but he's a truly singular voice. Sarah Treem who wrote "The Affair," is quite young and has done some television ["In Treatment," "How to Make It in America" and "House of Cards"], but she really made her name as a playwright. John Logan is one of the top five screenwriters in Hollywood, but he's never created his own television show.

The great thing about television right now is that the best writers -- the world's greatest novelists, journalists, playwrights and screenwriters -- are all interested in having their own TV shows. For somebody who got into this business in the first place with a desire to know and work with great writers, it's a great time to be doing what I do.

Why do you believe "Homeland" became such an instant success, and how has it impacted the way audiences look at Showtime?

"Homeland" caught on due to a combination of extraordinary execution and extraordinary timeliness. Also, it shows really interesting characters and relationships that people hadn't quite seen before. It was interesting to journalists first, and then people just became addicted. As for what it means to Showtime: We're really playing in the big leagues. Our stuff is not just well-regarded, but it can also win the big prize.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Interviews, Network Interviews, Showtime, David Nevins, Homeland, Ray Donovan, Masters Of Sex





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