Matt Blank: The Master of Showtime

By Chuck Ross

Matt Blank first joined Showtime 25 years ago, in 1988. He came to Showtime from HBO, where he had been senior vice president of consumer marketing. In 1991 he became Showtime's president and chief operating officer, followed by president and CEO, and then chairman and CEO in 1995.

How Blank and his team have transformed Showtime over the years into a first class provider of original programming has been extraordinary. Last year, for the first time ever, an original Showtime series, "Homeland," won the Best Drama Emmy from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

Just this past Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013, Showtime aired the finale to season one of "Masters of Sex." I thought it was the finest hour of TV I've seen all season.

Please join us in congratulating Matt as our Cable Television Executive of the Year.

A recent edited interview that I conducted with Matt follows.

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TVWeek: When “Homeland” won the Emmy for Best Drama last year, was that a game changer for Showtime?

Matt Blank: I wouldn’t call it a game changer, per se. We’ve received a lot of recognition for our shows, a lot of nominations, Golden Globes and Emmys over the years. We all like to say that the awards aren’t important, but that was a first for Showtime, in that major category, and I think it meant a lot to us internally, in terms of the recognition that the company and the brand received. And I think it means something in the community as we continue to let people know that this is a place where great work can be done. Great work that will be recognized. And that this is a place for great shows. And that great shows can be successful here.

I think when we talk about measures of that -- when you have a show like "Dexter" that runs for eight years, it says to creators and to talent that shows can run for a good long time and be successful on Showtime. "Nurse Jackie," six seasons. “Californication," seven seasons. "Weeds" ran for eight seasons. So I think the awards and the recognition that those shows get is important, but it’s also important that these shows are successful, and successful for a good long time. Important people in front of the camera and behind the camera work here, and should want to work here.

TVWeek: Did the Emmy for "Homeland" for Best Drama have a huge impact on retaining customers, or on getting new customers?

Blank: I don’t think that Emmy itself is as important as the fact that we now have so many hits on Showtime. "Homeland" is a huge hit for us. The finale of "Dexter" was our largest original hour ever. "Homeland" launched incredibly successfully. And "Ray Donovan" launched with bigger numbers than "Homeland." "Masters of Sex" had a big cume number and was a big launch for us.

The brand is strong. We can now launch shows off of very successful shows. Consumers are seeing Showtime as a place for really great new shows. So the Emmy for Best Drama for “Homeland” was probably most important to the fans. The fans love to hear that.

TVWeek: Along those same lines, how important has it been over the years that the professional TV critics like your shows?

Blank: We’d rather be liked and loved than not loved. I think we’ve been very fortunate this year with the two new shows that we’ve launched. “Ray Donovan” and “Masters of Sex” have both been widely acclaimed. "Ray Donovan" was very well reviewed, and I can’t remember anything we’ve ever done that’s been as well reviewed as “Masters of Sex.”  But I don’t know how many of our viewers are reading those critics to look for what they are going to watch next, as opposed to the fact that they are watching “Homeland” and all the other shows we have and they are seeing all our great promotion and the types of shows that are coming. And if they like the shows they are already watching on Showtime, they are probably going to like the new shows we are creating for them.

TVWeek: Matt, you’ve now been here at Showtime for 25 years. You ran marketing at HBO before you came here, to also do marketing, as I recall. I think it’s fair to say that your evolution here has mirrored the evolution of Showtime and its growth.

Blank: I came here for one reason: I saw opportunity. I saw that there was opportunity for me to advance and to do some things I hadn’t been doing [at HBO], where they had a more top-heavy management environment. I think at that time Showtime had been viewed as a historically undermanaged company. So there was opportunity in running the company better. What did that mean, in terms of the future? Well, I believed there would be alternative distribution to cable, which would provide more opportunity to a Showtime than the legacy cable business at that time. And by the way, we have done very well in cable since that time.

But that proved to be true, first with the direct to home satellite broadcasters, and then with the telephone companies entering the business. All providing a bit more of a level playing field for Showtime competitively, and accelerating the household growth for multichannel video platforms.

Two, if we could improve over a period of time -- and it took much longer than I thought it would -- the financial metrics of the company, there would be more opportunity to invest in original programming. And I also always believed that once we had better programming the brand could be promoted better, could be marketed better, and that this then would become a "brand" company. Showtime is a rare example of a company in this space -- or any space -- that was a big trailing brand, and a brand that wasn’t that well respected by our distributors or by our consumers or by the media, that turned it around and has become a market leader.

TVWeek: As you know, I began my career selling cable subscriptions door-to-door in the mid- to late '70s, and I can confirm that the perception of Showtime years ago is exactly as you describe it.

Blank: I always wanted us to be in a situation where we just didn’t count on being packaged into a sell by our distributors -- that there would be large, fundamental demand for Showtime in the consumer marketplace. I think that has finally happened. It has taken a very long time, but we believe Showtime can drive a sell in this category, and that our product is driving consumers to our brand. And that’s the biggest accomplishment that we’ve had.

TVWeek: Is there a moment when a show came on the air where you said, “We’re really on the right track now.”

Blank: I think "Weeds" and "Dexter." I think those were the first two series of what I would refer to as the "new" Showtime over the past decade or so. And from those shows I think there came any number of success stories: "Californication," "Nurse Jackie," "Shameless," "Borgias," and in particular, "Homeland," "Ray Donovan," "House of Lies,” and now “Masters of Sex.”

TVWeek: What’s been the role of sports in this evolution of Showtime?

Blank: Sports have been an ebb and flow over the past 30 years or so. Showtime was in boxing -- had some good boxers for a while and then, in the mid-'90s, was able to sign Tyson away from HBO. He went off to prison -- we had to re-sign him when he got out of prison. We were with him during all the ups and downs of that period. The Holyfield ear biting, the Lennox Lewis fight, and the end of Tyson’s boxing career.

In much of the following years we were playing a game of catch-up. In the last year or two our boxing program has really taken off. Getting [Oscar De La Hoya's] Golden Boy to work with us, and him bringing Mayweather to us, has elevated our boxing program to as strong as it ever was in the Tyson days, and perhaps stronger.

Being able to get "Inside the NFL" -- which has been a number of years now -- was a huge coup. We think we’ve improved that show. It’s a great show.

"60 Minutes Sports" is important on any number of levels. First of all, "60 Minutes" is one of the great shows and great franchises in the history of television, not just television news. For CBS News to want to do this show with Showtime was a tremendous confirmation of the brand’s success -- that our colleagues from CBS believed that this was a great place for that show. And the ability to take that franchise to Showtime, and brand it to Showtime, as "60 Minutes Sports" has just been unbelievable for us.

The sports documentaries -- "Game of Honor," for which we won an Emmy, about football at the service academies. The Lawrence Taylor doc. Doing a live show with Jim Rome. Our experiment with "The Franchise," which we hope to continue. There seem to be more opportunities manifesting themselves for us to do things in a uniquely premium TV way. So sports is a really important asset for us.

TVWeek: Would you be interested in doing more with big live sports events like we find on basic cable?

Blank: It’s harder when you’re in so fewer homes to play in the big-time sports world. Boxing is unique. We don’t sell advertising. It’s hard when you’re only in 22 million homes to do other sports and compete for those rights. Too expensive and tough to do it, any number of ways.

TVWeek: There’s been continual talk about the eventuality of over-the-top services and thereby going direct to the consumer via streaming over the Internet and such. How do you feel about that?

Blank: There are loads of things that the technology allows. There are loads of players out there who would love to distribute us via broadband. We love new distributors. We’d be nowhere near as successful, for example, if the then-new distributors such as the phone companies and the satellite companies hadn’t come along. But a lot remains to be seen about the viability of those [broadband] markets for us, one. Two, we are growing very successfully within our current distributor universe. The business model for a subscription service traveling to new distribution channels is a good model, and perhaps a less complicated model than others are. Having said that, we believe our current set of distributors will play more aggressively in that space. We would encourage that and hope to take advantage of that going forward.

We have to grow our business. New distribution is important to us. But right now we are very happy with the model.

TVWeek: And you already license your product at certain points to services such as Amazon’s streaming service.

Blank: That’s right. It’s our version of syndication.

TVWeek: And certainly, as you say, your current distributors will be looking at new ways to get your product to their consumers.

Blank: Exactly. And we would encourage them to find new ways to develop revenue streams, both for them and for us.

TVWeek: What types of other programming opportunities might we see from Showtime?

Blank: I think the opportunities are already there. If we have eight successful original series, the number one opportunity I see is for us to have ten or twelve. The number two opportunity I see is for us to own most of them, because that generates terrific ancillary revenues for us, both in current space, in terms of foreign distribution, and in the future, in terms of what happens to that property after it has had its run on Showtime.

This year alone we have gotten back in the documentary business with a major initiative focusing on culture-changing individuals, which we think is a nice niche for us -- whether it’s a Dick Cheney, a Lawrence Taylor, a Richard Pryor, a Suge Knight. A lot of important filmmakers are attracted to this. And we’ve done really well with these docs. Ratings have been great. So that’s an opportunity for us to continue to grow what we are doing.

We have couple of half-hour pilots in production, because we see that as an opportunity. As long as we add original programming that adds viewership, and continues to build what the brand is known for, that’s the tangible piece of our investment.

There are some intangibles as well. What’s the impact on the brand and the demand for the brand going forward. Second is the voice of Showtime. How does what we do continue to build the voice of Showtime?

It’s a strategy that’s working and we feel no need to vary from it right now.

TVWeek: Showtime is fairly unique as a premium service that has a sibling, CBS, that’s a major broadcaster. You’ve mentioned "60 Minutes Sports," and then at one point some "Dexter" episodes aired on CBS. Are there other synergies with CBS down the road?

Blank: I actually think there are a lot of synergies. I don’t think we could have been as successful bringing Golden Boy to Showtime without CBS’s help in promoting or getting Mayweather. ... And I’m talking about all the assets of CBS, not just the network. Radio, TV stations, outdoor, the digital group. I don’t think "60 Minutes Sports" would be a show on Showtime if we weren’t closely affiliated and part of CBS Corp. and working very closely with CBS Sports and CBS News. The Lawrence Taylor documentary for us was produced by CBS Sports. CBS’s NFL relationship helped us to acquire "Inside the NFL" and to continue to produce it.

Synergy is an overused and somewhat valueless term, because I’m not sure what it means anymore, other than everybody talks about it. What I can say is that we work closely with CBS every day. And you can be certain that my boss, Leslie Moonves, is deeply involved in the success of Showtime and making sure that we are part of the CBS way of thinking about its businesses. That has happened, it continues to happen and I suspect it will happen more.

TVWeek: If there is one thing, business-wise, that keeps you up at night, what is it?

Blank: Probably the same thing that keeps up a lot of executives, particularly in our space. And that is making sure that the technology and the landscape of the business doesn’t change faster than we do. Anybody running a company in this space today has to think about adaptability. Does your organization have the tools necessary -- and the skills necessary -- to keep playing in a different game? And so far I’d say yes, we’ve been able to adapt to technology very well.

I try to focus on a couple of things in this company. One is that the brand is key. It took a long, long time to turn around a very challenged brand. But with the changes in technology and the changes in the marketplace, you can screw that up pretty quickly. We are not going to screw that up. We have the right people in place. We think about the future very aggressively. We plan to take advantage of all the opportunities that the technology offers, as well as the changing marketplace for our services. You have to be on top of that every day.

TVWeek: From where you sit, define that brand for us.

Blank: That’s an interesting question -- and I’m going to take somewhat of a contrarian view of the question. For years I would talk to you and the press and cable operators and satellite providers and telephone companies, and they’d say. "Tell me what Showtime is." And I’d always come up with an answer: "Well, we’ve got these great movies from the studios. And we’re making all these great movies, and we’ve got boxing."

But that’s a question, and an answer, for a less successful company. I think when you’re successful that consumers and the press answer that question for you. So when we do something, we really focus on, "What’s the voice of this brand?" And the best answer is that we know it when we see it. It’s much easier to make a decision today about whether we are going to do a show than it was 10 years ago. Because I think David Nevins [Showtime’s president of entertainment] and his group in L.A., and me too, we know it when we see it. I don’t think that used to be the case. We don’t throw a lot of things against the wall hoping something will stick.

We don’t make 20 pilots and then two shows. Generally speaking, in recent years we’ve made three pilots and then two shows. Because we have a very, very strong sense of what a Showtime show feels like, sounds like, and what it is going to mean to consumers. We’ve launched six or seven shows in a row now that we view as big successes.

We are fortunate that success for us is not that when we launch a show on Sunday night at 10 p.m. we need to keep advertisers happy. We have a very different analytical frame, and we get to say, "This show is good for the brand."

TVWeek: And that is ...

Blank: If you look at our shows, there is a Showtime character. If you were to look at the lead characters in all of our series in recent years, most of them are deeply subversive characters. One of the amazing things about "Homeland" is that the CIA agent is a more subversive character than the terrorist. What’s important with all these characters is having some way to reclaim them in these shows and having people embrace them. You can’t have the bad without the good. You got to the end of every season of "Weeds" and Nancy was trying to keep the family together.

TVWeek: Of course this subversive nature of lead characters can be found on any number of other shows, such as "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men" ...

Blank: We’ve been there for a long time. And we exercise these shows in a unique premium way. I didn’t say this has to be exclusive. I’m just saying that we know what we can be successful at. There is very little exclusivity in television today.

TVWeek: And I assume you would have put on a "Breaking Bad."

Blank: I think so.

TVWeek: But is that way of looking at a Showtime show -- that the lead is generally very subversive, is that too limiting?

Blank: Maybe. Coke came up with Diet Coke at some point. I’m just saying how we’ve been successful and how we’ve defined this brand. One thing we know is that we are not going to produce, for example, animated shows for children. So I can speak a little more focused than some networks can. I don’t have to worry, for example, about different dayparts and what they do.

If we see the needs and tastes of our viewers changing, we’ll adapt to those needs and tastes. But right now we’re feeding them a steady diet of what they seem to like and continues to work. And I think our shows ARE different. "Penny Dreadful." We’ve never done a genre show before. "Masters of Sex." That’s a very new show for us -- a modern period piece really about women, more than it’s about sex. There’s a lot of room under this tent.

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