TV IN TRANSITION: Showtime faces tough choices

Nov 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

To repurpose or not to repurpose.
That is the question facing Showtime’s Jerry Offsay as he considers his choices for new series in light of the quickly changing economics of the business.
By broadcast network standards, “Hit Squad” and “Gimme Shelter,” the two music business-related shows in development, cost a pittance. They aren’t likely to be the next “Friends” or “Survivor,” either. But for a cable network like Showtime, they’re potentially must-see programming.
And so Mr. Offsay, Showtime’s president of programming, must agonize over what to do.
If the two projects do get the green light, it will be because Mr. Offsay agrees-reluctantly-to repurposing deals at sister cable networks BET and VH1, respectively.
“We’re looking at shows we can do together,” Mr. Offsay said of BET, Showtime’s sister Viacom cable network, which is targeted at African American viewers. But “if we can do a show without a second network,” he added, “we don’t want to do one with one.”
Mr. Offsay’s predicament is another sign that TV production is in an era of transition on all fronts, with even premium cable networks exploring new ways to share costs and new sources of back-end revenue, at the risk of diminishing their shows’ present values.
“Hit Squad,” with ex-basket-
ball star Magic Johnson attached as an executive producer, is set in the world of rap music and includes a Puffy Combs/Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds-like record producer among its ensemble of characters.
“Gimme Shelter,” with actor-director Vondie Curtis-Hall attached as an executive producer, is a fictionalized look at the life and excesses of a Mick Jagger/Ozzy Osbourne/ Neil Young type of rock ‘n’ roller. Of “Shelter,” Mr. Offsay said, “VHI would love to do this one.”
Both projects are good candidates to deliver on Showtime’s “No Limits” brand promise, Mr. Offsay said. And whether it’s the story of rappers with gang affiliations or of rockers with extramarital affairs and drug habits, both projects are intended to be gritty looks at the music world that will generate both press attention and subscriber buzz.
Unlike the broadcast network repurposing deals of late, which generally allow a show to be repurposed on a cable network the same week it’s shown on broadcast, if the Showtime projects go forward, they’ll be repurposed on VH1 or BET “some months” after the premium-channel premieres, Mr. Offsay said.
First step with `Isaak’
Mr. Offsay recently, begrudgingly, agreed to let VH1 air the first season of Showtime’s “The Chris Isaak Show,” which begins its second Showtime season in January. The concern is that repurposing, while making a series more financially viable in the current depresesed economic environment, will dilute its value to Showtime, which, like its larger competitor HBO, is at least partly in the business of selling exclusivity, edginess and buzz.
It’s not just Showtime that’s in the exclusivity business, and it’s not just Mr. Offsay who wonders at the true cost of repurposing series.
“At the end of the day, I want [a show] on my network that’s exclusive to my network,” said Doug Herzog, president of USA Networks. “I may not have that privilege always, going forward. … Repurposing is here to stay, and it obviously creates a new revenue stream when you’re trying to finance a television program. … Now the question is, where are the advantages, where are the disadvantages? I don’t think everybody’s figured it all out yet.”
Currently, Showtime, which budgets between $1.2 million and $1.3 million for an hour of series television, saves money by shooting all of its series except “Resurrection Boulevard” in Canada. The savings by shooting in Canada instead of Los Angeles are estimated by one network source to be as much as $400,000 per series hour. “We’re very cost-efficient, and we save a lot of money,” Mr. Offsay said.
Still, for shows like “Hit Squad,” which is presumed to be too specifically American to have more than limited international back-end appeal, without a second network window in place, that may not be enough.
Decision time
Mr. Offsay also will decide the fates of four on-air series this week: “Soul Food,” “Resurrection Boulevard,” “Going to California” and “Leap Years.”
“Soul Food,” which also is a candidate for repurposing on BET, is a solid bet for renewal, but the other three are, as an informed Showtime source put it, “on the bubble.”
That means that when new-season original series orders are set at the end of this week, Mr. Offsay and his colleagues may order perhaps four new projects to fill empty slots-as many as three of the four “bubble” series slots above, plus the spot that will be vacated by “Stargate,” which ends its five-year run after 10 more episodes.
Another strong candidate for pickup this week is “Street Time,” a show set in the world of parole officers and parolees, starring Rob Morrow (“Northern Exposure”), with Richard Stratton attached as writer and Steve Kronish (“The Commish”) attached as an executive producer.
“That’s good premium television ground, because we can get in and show it the way it really is, not sanitized by a network to make it advertiser friendly,” Mr. Offsay said.
Showtime series currently in development also include comedies and relationship dramas; several more science-fiction projects, including “Odyssey 5,” about a group of astronauts who go back in time five years to try to save the Earth before it is destroyed, to which actor Peter Weller is attached; a fantasy series about the Grim Reaper; a series set in the world of Las Vegas gambling; another set in the world of televangelists; one set in a brothel; one in the X-rated movie business; and another in the world of call girls, to which producer Jerry Bruckheimer is attached.