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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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Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan in 'Masters of Sex'
Craig Blankenhorn/Showtime Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan in 'Masters of Sex'

During season two of "Homeland," a fair amount of internet chatter questioned if the show had jumped the shark and become too unbelievable. Did you and the producers attention to that audience reaction, especially as you prepared for season three?

The show walks a risky storytelling tightrope, and I thought it ended last season in a beautiful place that had real resonance. It was a show about terrorism, but there had never actually been a terrorist act [within the show].

Season three is set in the aftermath of a real terrorist event that, not to be too punny, really hits home. It's an attack against the CIA. It's not the same show every year, and it's not the same story. [The writers] shake it up, and that's the challenge of this show. They go in interesting, novel directions in season three that will be extremely surprising yet again and involve some very ballsy choices. I have now seen six episodes, and I am so proud of what the writers, actors, and all the people who make the show have accomplished.

Premium channels like Showtime and HBO have regularly argued ratings don't matter as much as subscribers, but Showtime publicized the record ratings "Ray Donovan" achieved its first weeks, and a great deal of talk at the recent summer TCA tour focused on Netflix's decision to not release its viewership numbers. How important are ratings to you and what role do they play in your programming?

Ratings are just a marker of how popular an individual show is; where we're having impact in the world. I only talk about ratings as a matter of showmanship -- to say that a lot of people out there are becoming obsessed with this new show we premiered. But it's just one marker. Ratings aren't really what matters, but when you throw around that word "hit," you've got to quantify it.

'Nurse Jackie'
'Nurse Jackie'

You spoke at the TCA tour about an anti-hero pendulum that you believe will swing away from the Walter White/"Breaking Bad" extreme, but if you look at new shows like "The Bridge" and "Low Winter Sun," they continue to feature main characters who aren't just complex but seriously flawed. One might make the same argument regarding both "Ray Donovan" and "Homeland." Are you actively looking to push this anti-hero pendulum in the other direction? And do you feel your new slate of series announced in July moves towards such a goal?

I'm not trying to till soil that has already been well-farmed. I want our characters to be complicated and original. So we have William Masters coming up [in "Masters of Sex"]. Is he flawed? Is he complicated? Is he unique and strange? Yes, but I think he's all these things in ways that I haven't quite seen before. His issues are those of repression and licentiousness, and he's playing on a slightly different scale.

John Logan has a whole show full of flawed anti-heroes. He's doing a psychological monster show, "Penny Dreadful." But they're not anti-heroes as defined most recently by "Dexter," "Breaking Bad," and "The Sopranos."

Earlier you mentioned "Arrested Development," and I know there were rumors that you looked at bringing it to Showtime. Do you wish you had been able to do that?

Yeah, I would have loved to have had it on Showtime. I love the show and all the people involved, and I always loved it as a viewer. It would have been fun to have worked with all those guys again, but it didn't quite make financial sense for us.

Did you watch the fourth season? And since you say you loved it as a viewer, do you hope they continue, as has been discussed?

I definitely hope they continue. As a fan I liked it, and I want more.

'Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic'
'Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic'

Showtime hasn't made an original feature-length movie since 2005's "Our Fathers," and never had the success in that arena that HBO has. Recently, however, you've made a deliberate entry into the feature documentary world. I'm curious what prompted that decision, and do you foresee a time when you may start making original scripted features again?

On a fundamental level, we believe in investing our capital behind renewable resources, so that's why series are so important. You fall in love with a show; you have a chance of seeing it again next year. That's why we haven't made the major investment in making made-for-television movies.

With the documentaries, we felt like if we created some brand identity and expectations, it would have the same effect as the series. So we've been building around high-profile, culture-moving, subversive personalities. If you enjoyed ["Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic"], guess what? We're going to have something really interesting to say about Suge Knight coming up. [Antoine Fuqua is directing this documentary expected to air next year.]

It felt like there was a bit of an opening for us to have an impact with documentaries. It's possible that some day we could make movies, but considering the amount of money required to make and market them, I'd rather just keep adding series.

So with that in mind, should we also not expect to see Showtime join the current trend of making limited series? Six-plus episodes, and then you're done?

We'll do it in special cases. We did a special miniseries version of "The Big C." We're doing a limited documentary series [on climate change] called "The Years of Living Dangerously," but in general, for an expensive scripted production, I'd rather have the ability to bring it back for seasons two and three.

'House of Lies'
'House of Lies'

Part of the CBS deal with Time Warner was that Time Warner Cable customers would finally have access to Showtime Anytime. There doesn't seem to have been as big a push behind it as HBO made with HBO Go. Would you say that perception is accurate, and what are your feelings about eventually offering it as an a la carte option to people who either don't have cable or don't subscribe separately to the main channel?

Well, I'm not going to get into what our future strategy is going to be on that, but I will say that Showtime Anytime will be available to almost every one of our 21-22 million subscribers by the end of the year. And we didn't put it out there; it was a subject of all the dealmaking, so that was part of the deal. Time Warner had it big as part of the whole negotiation in order to get it, access to that extra product. So we took a slightly different tack, but by the end of the year, we'll be in pretty much 100% of the country, and its uptake is growing rapidly, finally, in the last few months. I think "Dexter" and "Ray Donovan" have really pushed that. I think you'll see another spurt in the uptake to Showtime Anytime when "Homeland" comes back on.

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





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