Q&A: Showtime Rides Wave of Success

May 18, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Showtime’s Matt Blank likes to say he caught the wave when he got in on the ground floor at HBO in 1976. After 12 years there, however, he followed the late Tony Cox to rival Showtime, sensing, he says, that there might be some opportunity at what was then a struggling company.
He was right: Two decades later, he is Showtime’s chairman and chief executive, and the network is enjoying a period of great critical acclaim. He spoke to TelevisionWeek correspondent Elizabeth Jensen about the challenges and rewards of his tenure at the pay cable network.
TelevisionWeek: The network’s been highly profitable, but it seems that only in the past couple of years has it really come into its own creatively. Did programming catch up to you or did you catch up to the programming?
Matt Blank: I think it’s just a hard thing to do, creating original programming. Look at the broadcast networks. It’s making a real quality product that catches a consumer’s interest at a certain period of time. We’ve been fortunate since Bob Greenblatt joined us to have a lot of things on the air that are working and working extremely well.
TVWeek: You started out with some modest hits—“Huff,” “Dead Like Me,” “Queer as Folk”—and those have really given way to much bigger hits.
Mr. Blank: We like to think we’re a little more comfortable in our shoes than we used to be, in terms of knowing what works for us and learning what works for us.
We’ve learned a bunch of things. One, creating these vehicles that are easy to market because of a central theme: “Miami forensics cop is really a serial killer but he only kills people who deserve to die.” So concepts that are easy to sell, that are uniquely star-driven in these key roles, with people who I think are all just a little bit off-center and their characters are off-center. The combination of that really works well for us. We’ve got a bunch of things going on that really try to bank on some of these central themes that are one part dysfunctional family—was there ever a more dysfunctional family than the Tudors?—and one part people living right on the edge of respectability. A serial killer would be over the edge but [for] the fact that he only kills people who deserve to die. A frustrated writer with an active sex life except that he’s a great father and cares deeply about the mother of his child and his child. We really try to bring people who exist right on the edge of this sensibility into the tent.
TVWeek: Just as you’re hitting your creative stride, HBO has stumbled. You’ve acknowledged that you’ve heard the phrase “HB-Over” inside your network.
Mr. Blank: Yes. Not from me, though.
TVWeek: Do you think that’s true?
Mr. Blank: HBO has a great brand, a great creative heritage. They spend a lot of money. They’ll find their way. I’ve always said this to people who work for this company. … You can’t control what HBO’s going to do. What you can control is making sure we have the best programming; the best marketed and promoted programming, the best relationships with our important distributor customers. I always discourage the comparison to HBO because it’s not actionable. They’re going to do what they do. They weren’t successful with “The Sopranos” because of anything we did. They weren’t unsuccessful with “John From Cincinnati” because of anything we did.
TVWeek: Are hits hit-or-miss? Or is it possible to replicate them over and over?
Mr. Blank: I think we can replicate our success until we can’t. I think that’s as positive a statement as you can make in the business. I feel very good about replicating it going forward—don’t put that other quote without putting this—because I think we do have a formula that is working right now for us. And we’ve gotten a good feeling about the success of these shows and what kind of show we can market. But that does not mean that everything will work. It’s the nature of our business in film and television that, in fact, most things don’t work.
One thing success breeds in this industry is we have a lot of people coming to us that you wouldn’t have expected to be knocking on Showtime’s door a couple of years ago. Edie Falco had tremendous opportunities to do things and she chose to work with us. The [Steven] Spielberg project is a project with all sorts of potential that might not have slipped through our door two, three years ago. So we’re definitely seeing significantly more recognition from the creative community that views Showtime as a place where different, unique, interesting projects can get made.
TVWeek: Just as you have hit a high comes word of the Paramount-MGM-Lionsgate rival movie channel. What was your first reaction and how is this going to affect your business?
Mr. Blank: We weren’t terribly surprised. We wish them luck; it’s a tough business. We feel very, very strongly about our ability to continue to grow our business and be successful in the future. We have [since] some time ago believed that the value of feature films is diminishing on Showtime in the premium window. Not because there’s anything wrong with those feature films, it’s just that there’s so much exposure prior to Showtime. On a cost-benefit basis, one midrange movie from the studios could cost the same as a whole season of “Californication.” So it becomes rather obvious to us as we look to the future and how we’re going to grow our business that we need to be able to invest more money in original programming. We feel very confident about our affiliate arrangements going forward; we feel very confident that there will be more movies on Showtime in three years than there are today, and a lot more money to invest in original programming and events. You won’t really miss these films from these studios on Showtime until 2011, and the question you have to ask is, if we’re correct that these movies are less valuable to us than they used to be, what do you think they’ll be in 2011, ’12, ’13, ’14? Do you think that trend will continue or go the other way with all the Internet, electronic download and other forms of experience? The studios have to protect their interests and they think there’s a place for them to generate a revenue stream from this distribution universe, and that’s fine. We’ve known for the better part of a year that they weren’t happy with what we were talking about and we’ve known for the better part of a year that there are lots of people out there that would like to sell us their movies. So hopefully we’ll both be successful going our separate ways.
TVWeek: What would you most like to be remembered for?
Mr. Blank: I’d like to be remembered for having put together an exceptional organization here. We think we have the best people in the business and those people have produced a real creative imperative for Showtime these past few years. It ultimately has turned Showtime into one of the most desired brands in entertainment, and we believe it’s all about the brand. This is a brand that will prevail for a good long time because of all these things we’ve done.

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