It’s Showtime for Pay TV Net

Feb 9, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Last month Showtime accomplished something it hasn’t managed in years, a feat that recently thwarted even its much larger competitor HBO: the launching of a new hit series.
The premiere of “The L Word,” Showtime’s lesbian-themed ensemble drama, garnered 936,000 viewers. While hardly “Sopranos”-size numbers, the viewership translated to about one in 12 Showtime households and was four times the network’s usual prime-time audience. Showtime ordered another season immediately after the show’s second episode aired-the fastest renewal in the network’s history.
The “L Word” splash bodes well for network President Robert Greenblatt, who joined the company eight months ago. Though his predecessor, Jerry Offsay, greenlighted the project, series executive producer Ilene Chaiken credits Mr. Greenblatt for helping usher the show’s development.
“My show has benefited a lot from his input and his energy,” said Ms. Chaiken, who wrote several Showtime original movies before creating “The L Word.” “There’s a direction at the network that’s really dynamic at the moment. I feel that a lot of the new material that’s going to be coming out of Showtime will be reflected by that.”
HBO, on the other hand, recently has seen its stellar original series track record stumble a bit.
The network introduced the Depression-era melodrama “Carnivale” and the Washington semi-reality show “K-Street” with considerable fanfare last spring. “Carnivale” was renewed, but audience and critical response has been lukewarm. “K-Street” was canceled. And with the final season of “Sex and the City” under way and only one remaining season of “The Sopranos” left to shoot, there’s an urgency to find a new franchise.
One way HBO has continued to consistently outshine Showtime is by earning awards, which help build the network’s reputation for quality programming. HBO racked up a record 109 Emmy nominations last year compared with Showtime’s 12. And HBO’s limited series “Angels In America” dominated the recent Golden Globe Awards.
HBO declined to comment for an article that focuses on Showtime. With more than double Showtime’s subscribers (27 million to Showtime’s 12 million) and about three times its marketing budget ($63 million for the first 10 months of 2003 compared with Showtime’s $19 million), the network has considerable financial advantage over its premium-channel rival.
“People give new HBO series a chance because of their biggest hits,” said Deana Myers, a senior analyst with Kagan World Media. “[Showtime] has [to do] quite a bit of catch-up to get to where HBO is with its original programming, but the network has been successful at drawing some niche viewers, including gays and lesbians.”
Mr. Greenblatt, who was executive producer of HBO’s acclaimed “Six Feet Under” before joining Showtime, admits HBO’s advantage in paid subscribers is a factor in every area.
“They have more money than God to promote their shows,” he said. “They have more money than any other network. They also happen to do their marketing in a substantially advanced way-everything is sophisticated and smart.”
For the launch of “The L Word,” the Showtime marketing department took a sophisticated approach of its own. It developed a guerrilla campaign that began eight months before the series premiered to win over the lesbian community. The network cultivated “L Word Advocates” in various markets to distribute materials in gay and lesbian bookstores, coffee shops and clubs. Parties and cruises were sponsored and trailers were shown at film festivals. Lesbian-targeted ads in gay publications offered readers a discount subscription to Showtime.
Still, the “less than $10 million” effort was less than what Mr. Greenblatt hoped for.
“This may not be the right thing to say publicly, but we didn’t spend as much money as we would have liked-I wanted to spend more,” he said.
In the future Mr. Greenblatt wants to execute larger marketing campaigns, while launching fewer series. With his experience as a development executive at Fox and his work as an independent producer, Mr. Greenblatt seeks to reassure the creative community that projects brought to Showtime will receive lots of advertising support.
Already he’s taken a purported lemon and made publicity lemonade by airing the controversial CBS castoff “The Reagans” while the publicity furor was still high-and earning the network two Golden Globe nominations in the process.
“We’re doing a lot of discussion and research to rebrand the network. We’re trying to raise every show, at every level, to some kind of event,” he said. “It’s really a transitional year.”
That is true in more ways than one. The network has dropped its “No Limits” slogan and is researching the possibility of a rebranding campaign.
Also, Showtime has seen a flurry of executive changes. Mr. Greenblatt hired onetime HBO publicist Richard Licata from Rogers & Cowan to head programming public relations. Executive VP of Programming Peter Keramidas, a 10-year Showtime veteran, left the network. Matthew Duda was promoted to executive VP of acquisitions.
And Mr. Greenblatt said more executive shuffling is in the works.
“It’s really just a matter of realigning a bit,” he said. “This used to be a very volume-oriented movie company, and we’re transitioning down to significantly fewer movies, while ramping up the series side of things.”
Indeed, just a few years ago Showtime was producing 30 to 40 original movies a year. Now the goal is to produce eight or nine series and about 10 movies. Each series will be shorter than the traditional 13 episodes.
It’s a programming technique that has been dubbed “the HBO model,” though Mr. Greenblatt said “It’s just good business practice.”
Soon, both networks will have another bout when their new series premiere.
Showtime has the drama “Huff,” starring Hank Azaria, the first series Mr. Greenblatt has overseen from start to finish since joining the network.
HBO has “Deadwood,” a Western that was all the buzz among journalists at the Television Critics Association’s recent press tour.
It should be good fight.