The world of premium pay cable is a pretty exclusive one, with a handful of options and really only three major entries. We talked about the grandaddy of them all, HBO, last week, and will delve into the world of Starz one week hence, which leaves us with the network that was formerly the second most popular one in the land, but has since slipped to third with a stagnating and plateaued subscriber base that doesn’t seem as interested in its fare as it used to be.
Meaning it’s time to talk about Showtime.
It’s rare enough for a network to stick around for 40 years, much less a pay cable network, but that’s the distinction that Showtime passed this summer, making it one of the oldest such entities on your cable dial. It’s also in a strange place, sort of betwixt and between with its programming, which no longer holds the place in the Zeitgeist it did for a good stretch of time.
Showtime was created in 1976 and operated as an independent entity until 1982, when it formed the Showtime Networks and was acquired by Viacom, where it remained until 2005, when CBS was spun off from the corporation into its own operation, and Showtime went with it. It remains a subsidiary, putting it under the auspices of Les Moonves. More specifically, it operates under the eye of Showtime Networks CEO David Nevins and President of Programming Gary Levine, who was promoted to replace Nevins in the role 11 months ago. That’s about two months before Nevins took over in his current position, replacing longtime CEO Matthew Blank, which puts a brand new pair of executives in charge of the company’s direction.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the reins have been handed to a couple guys with completely fresh perspectives, as Nevins has been with the company since 2010, when he joined the network as its entertainment president, and Levine, who has been around since 2001, and had a hand in getting every major series — including Dexter, The Tudors, Californication, The L Word, Homeland, Shameless, Ray Donovan, and The Affair, as well as the network’s documentary productions — on the air. That’s a lot invested in current programming.
The thing is, Showtime currently has around 23 million subscribers, which is less than HBO — still the top dog — and, as of last year, less than Starz, as well. That’s not a good trend to be starting, especially after so many years as the second-ranked such network. There’s more to it than that, of course, with the venture into the streaming world, but one thing at a time. The network’s financials have mostly been solid of late for CBS, with revenues in the fourth quarter of last year rising 12 percent, even as operating income dropped over five percent. Overseas sales of Showtime original programming made the difference, making up for lackluster subscription numbers. Moving into 2016, the numbers weren’t quite so solid, with drops in revenue through the second quarter of this year for both the three months ending on June 30th ($536 million in 2016, against $615 million the year before), and the six months ending on the same date ($1.061 billion in 2016, against $1.154 billion in 2015).
Again, not the direction you generally want to see your numbers headed.
Part of the problem is the programming, which might be entertaining, but it’s not necessarily … well, it’s not terribly exciting. Homeland was the network’s signature series for a time, but the luster has faded on that, especially since the creators killed off Damien Lewis’ Brody character at the end of Season Three. Claire Danes continues to do outstanding work on the show, but the complaint that we’re seeing the same thing over and over again is a valid one that also can apply to formerly buzzy shows like Ray Donovan, Shameless, and The Affair, all of which have received some awards love over the last few years (or at least some major nominations for either the shows themselves or the talent in them), but have also seen plenty of critique about repeated storylines and themes.
The key phrase in that previous paragraph is, “formerly buzzy shows.” Across the board, each of those shows arrived on the scene with a lot of fanfare, then slowly but surely watched it fizzle away. While one could argue that this is true for every TV show to some degree, Ray Donovan just finished its fourth season, The Affair is about to enter season three, the upcoming fourth season of Masters of Sex is being branded as a creative reboot after a lackluster third stanza, and while Shameless is several episodes into its seventh year on the air, it’s that show’s outlandishness and envelope-pushing that draws attention. Well, that and the continued stellar work of William H. Macy (and, to a lesser extent, Emmy Rossum), who hasn’t yet won an Emmy for his role as Gallagher family patriarch Frank, but certainly should before his run is over.
Either way, the show only drew about 1.5 million viewers per episode during its sixth season and is down to about 1.1 million so far in season seven. The Affair’s second season finale scored 1.11 million viewers, an all-time series high after averaging about 800,000 per episode. Homeland‘s last season garnered about 1.5 million viewers per episode, down 33 percent from its high watermark, and Ray Donovan’s fourth season was down from 1.3 million per episode to 1.2 million, though it did get a renewal for season five. Masters of Sex scored an average of just under 600,000 views for the entirety of its third season and is down below a half million in the midst of season four.
Even the network’s newest intended gem, the Wall Street drama Billions, starring proven TV stars Paul Giamatti and Homeland vet Lewis, barely registered 1 million viewers per week and was ignored by this year’s Emmy Awards. This, despite mostly stellar reviews and a strong marketing campaign, but not much in the way of word of mouth. Season Two premieres in early 2017, so we’ll see if it can gain anything in the way of traction with viewers.
To be fair, not every show can be Game of Thrones, but for a point of reference, HBO’s Vinyl only drew about 650,000 viewers per episode and was cancelled. Showtime doesn’t currently have any half-hour comedies on the air, what with Californication long gone and the Don Cheadle vehicle House of Lies ending this summer (though the inside Hollywood sitcom Episodes is coming back for its fifth and final season in 2017, and there is another show we’ll discuss in time), so Silicon Valley is perhaps the best comparison to a show like Shameless for comparison. It draws 1.7 million viewers at a time. Episodes only gets about 350,000 viewers per. Even the Dwayne Johnson show Ballers, not exactly the highest brow comedy HBO has to offer, gets almost 1.2 million per week.
So, you can see that the numbers aren’t where they should be, and that doesn’t even include the shows that are no longer with us. The critically acclaimed Penny Dreadful ended after three seasons, the Steve Coogan comedy Happyish was the rare show killed after a single year, which makes Roadies, Cameron Crowe’s foray into TV, an even worse story. The high-priced musical drama ended even more miserably than Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger’s Vinyl, each of which only lasted one season, but Roadies was the second-lowest watched show on the network, with just 300,000 viewers. Only the Andrew Dice Clay vehicle, Dice, was lower, with a shade under 200,000 per, but that show, interestingly, was renewed, to the confusion and consternation of many media observers.
An interesting side note to that last show is that the entire six-episode first season of Dice was released online before it actually premiered on the network. With the burgeoning Showtime OTT (over-the-top) streaming service racking up some solid subscription numbers (over 1 million in the 15 months since its inception), the decision clearly came after looking at how many views the show got through that method.
Since I mentioned it, let’s delve a little into this new service. In the wake of declining viewership, a push has been made to chase the cord-cutting crowd. Just like everyone else in the premium cable world, Showtime has its own service that is starting to get some traction, and in fact it has now teamed with both Hulu and Amazon to give its customers a discounted monthly price for the privilege ($8.99, from the standard price of $10.99) if they subscribe as add-ons through those services’ own membership programs. Promotions like that certainly don’t hurt the bottom line, nor the subscription numbers, which compare favorably to HBO Now’s, with both right around the 1 million mark. Those numbers are only going to go up, which will hopefully offset any ongoing losses or further stagnation suffered by the cable network itself. At the very least, it’s an excellent start.
Something else that Showtime does well is unscripted programming. Its documentary work is easily at the same level as HBO and maybe surpasses it, especially with ongoing series like James Cameron’s Years of Living Dangerously, the 2016 election series The Circus, and its ongoing examination of the dark side of technology with Dark Net, as well as movies like Weiner. Likewise, the network’s sports programming has been a staple for decades. Aside from its continued success with broadcasting championship boxing matches, it picked up Inside the NFL after HBO dropped it eight years ago, and the program is now in its 40th season. Other popular programs are the NHL’s All Access series (which alternate between following the two teams playing in the annual New Year’s Day Winter Classic and the teams playing for the Stanley Cup), and the news magazine 60 Minutes Sports, a sister show to the long-running CBS Sunday night staple.
The development rolls have some fascinating fare, perhaps not least of which is the Twin Peaks sequel from David Lynch that will hit the network next year. Showtime ordered nine episodes, but the way Lynch works, no one actually knows how many there will ultimately be. It all depends on how he cuts them together. It joins two shows about comedians already ordered to series, one of them about the origins of the stand up movement in the 1970s, I’m Dying Up Here, and the other from Jamie Foxx — who also co-stars with Jay Pharaoh — about an up and coming African American comic, called White Famous. Those go along with Purity, a 20-episode adventure series set to air over two years and starring Daniel Craig, and Guerilla, another 1970s-set drama from Emmy and Oscar-winning writer John Ridley and Idris Elba, who also stars.
For a network in need of some buzz, and no small amount of star power, there is a ton of opportunity for it right there. Other projects green lit to pilot include an untitled series created by and starring rising star Frankie Shaw, a relationship comedy with SNL alum Taran Killam, Morena Baccarin and Jim Belushi, a documentary series to be made in conjunction with Rolling Stone Magazine, and doc specials about John Belushi and Whitney Houston, the latter from noted filmmaker Nick Broomfield.
There are close to two dozen other projects in some form of development, like Falling Down, based loosely on the ‘90s Michael Douglas movie, the comedies Fatwa with Aasif Mandvi and Keeping It Real with Walton Goggins, an adaptation of Patti Smith’s award-winning autobiography Just Kids, an untitled marijuana-themed comedy from Joe and Anthony Russo (aka the directing team behind several of Marvel’s biggest movies), an untitled ‘80s Mafia drama from Leo DiCaprio, an adaptation of the video game Halo executive produced by Steven Spielberg, and an ongoing series about The Life and Times of Teddy Roosevelt.
Part of Showtime’s problem over the last few years is, as mentioned above, a lack of shows that are truly buzz worthy, that create public discourse and rabid fan ship that grab the public’s attention and just about force them to watch the network, or else risk being on the outside of mainstream conversations about such popular programs. Nevins and Levine have had their work cut out for them in this regard, and they know it. They are badly in need of another Dexter, another Weeds, another Homeland.
Look back over the previous few paragraphs and you’ll see a list of projects that are genuine possibilities to fill that role. Not just one or two, mind you, but several of them. It is certainly spending plenty of money on talent both in front of and behind the camera to chase that ideal, and with a new mandate in the executive suites, so could there be a rebirth for the network, both creatively and financially.
It might not be possible to overtake HBO, but if there ever was a time to reclaim its standing as the number two premium pay cable network and a force to be reckoned with at the Emmys, this is it. The question is, can they? If they hit the jackpot with a couple of those promising projects, the answer will be unequivocally yes.
For more entries in our network series, click here.