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

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

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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