On a blustery March evening, cast members of Showtime‘s sumptuous ratings hit The Tudors held court in a midtown Manhattan hotel, surrounded by network execs, industry insiders and media critics nursing “Off With Her Head” martinis in a room gilded with portraits of the actors in costume and replicas of the exquisite garb.
After everyone had an opportunity to confirm that Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ pout really is that pillowy, Natalie Dormer’s waistline really is that wispy and the show’s legendary new pope Peter O’Toole’s presence really is that papal, the party moved to a nearby theater for a first look at the drama’s Season 2 premiere.
The lights went down. The curtains retreated. And snippets from the network’s jaw-dropping roster of must-see series began to play across the screen. But in place of their theme songs, bluegrass goddess Alison Krauss’ reverent hymn “Down in the River to Pray” filled the auditorium. And members of the audience, including the Tudors cast and Showtime’s newest stars Tracey Ullman (Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union) and Billie Piper (Secret Diary of a Call Girl), turned to one another for help in connecting the gentle sound with the flurry of heady images.
Then the network’s familiar round logo filled the screen. Below it, two simple words:
Sinners welcome, indeed. Because if you’ve spent five minutes in Sunday school or sitting at your grandma’s knee, you know that everyone’s a sinner, baby — sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers, too. And when it comes to entertaining the masses in recent years, Showtime’s the net with the keys to the kingdom.
MY, HOW [SHOW]TIMES HAVE CHANGED
Remember when analog cable was the only cable, and premium networks were mostly a place to catch the films you saw — or missed — in the theater? Then you know how much has changed in the pay-channel business.
As those movies found their way onto airliners and into VCRs and Blockbuster stores, pay channels scrambled for a new way to attract subscribers, beginning with live sports, music and comedy events and evolving into some of the most inventive series programming on TV. And as those nets also sought to differentiate themselves, a handful of top execs emerged, changed networks, formed partnerships good and bad, and ultimately hunkered down to turn TV on its cop-show and sitcom-laden ear.
For Showtime, the stars aligned in 2004 when its longtime chairman and CEO Matthew Blank — who came to the network from a high-ranking job at HBO some 16 years earlier — signed former FOX exec and Greenblatt Janollari Studio honcho Robert Greenblatt to steer its burgeoning venture into series programming.
Greenblatt, now Showtime’s president of entertainment, had developed a peerless eye for spotting hit series, with a diverse catalog of critical and ratings darlings including FOX’s The X-Files, Ally McBeal, King of the Hill, and Beverly Hills, 90210, HBO’s The Sopranos and SCI FI Channel’s Farscape. He was just the kind of “Box? What box?” thinker that Blank wanted for the job.
In the first year of Greenblatt’s tenure, Showtime rolled out two groundbreaking series, television’s first-ever lesbian-centric prime-time drama, The L Word, and the Emmy-winning Huff, whose cast was studded with big-screen stars.
And year after year, the hits — and the buzz, the awards and the subscribers — kept coming.
HOW TO FIND YOUR BRAND WITHOUT EVEN TRYING
It didn’t take months spent huddled ’round a conference room table for Blank and Greenblatt to figure out their game plan.
“It sounds like an easy answer,” Greenblatt says, “but you just have to have stuff that somehow leaps out of the pack of all the original programming that is everywhere, really. There are so many networks — broadcast and cable — that are doing original programming now, and trying to encroach on that kind of premium attitude. So you have to find concepts that are really attention-getting, and then you have to deliver. It can’t just be a good idea that is fairly well done. It has to be a good idea that is really well done. And I would say we’re doing that as good, or better, than anybody.”
What the duo aren’t doing is wasting precious time on tag lines and mission statements.
“I’ve spent 30 years in this business,” Blank muses, “and I started as a marketing guy. So it’s funny, but I don’t think about that as much as I used to. I feel the brand speaks for itself. When you have these shows, that’s the brand. When you look at The Tudors, when you look at Dexter, when you look at Weeds, when you look at Brotherhood, when you look at The L Word, the first thing that comes to your mind isn’t, ‘What is this brand?’ It’s, ‘Boy, this is good @#$%!'”
It’s an ideology that Greenblatt embraces — and an atmosphere in which he thrives.
“The good thing about Showtime is that we’re not a niche network,” he says. “We’re not just a young male network, not just an adult female network — we’re a general, adult network. So we don’t have to do the same kind of thing every time. We can do a female-oriented thing like The L Word or The Tudors. We can do a male-oriented thing like Dexter or Californication. And now those things are 50-50 male-female. We can be all over the demographics.”
No question about it, curious guys who tuned in to The L Word to see a girl kiss a girl suddenly found themselves supporting Team Bette or Team Tina. And suburban stay-at-homes who tried Weeds just to see what kind of self-respecting mom could deal cannabis from the kitchen suddenly found themselves eyeing their neighbors with fresh curiosity and thinking gently back on the days when they toked a bit themselves.
“In each show, the heart of the idea is something you’ve never heard before,” Greenblatt explains. “Something kind of shocking. Or surprising. Whether it’s the serial killer, or the lesbians, or the mother who sells drugs, everything has a twist to it. And the heart of the show is a really strong, central, very flawed main character. So Henry VIII and [Weeds‘] Nancy Botwin — what do they have in common — ?”
“They’d make a good couple!” Blank cheerily interjects. Errrrrnt!
“They’re really interesting, flawed characters,” Greenblatt smiles. “And you build a universe around them. I have no problem saying that we didn’t sit down and say, ‘Here’s our brand — it’s X, Y and Z!’ and then we went out and executed the brand. You figure it out as you go, knowing what you’re starting with.”
“These shows, and everything that Bob just said in describing these characters, they define what we are,” Blank concludes. “We’re a little bit off-center. We’re a little bit dysfunctional. You may not be able to describe what exactly that is [in a tag line], but people respond to it. People respond to Dexter — people respond to a serial killer who’s a really good guy. I mean, women love him. He’s a serial @#$%in’ killer, guys!”
HOW TO ATTRACT TOP TALENT: USE DUCHOVNY AS BAIT
Asked about the network’s ever-expanding stable of top-tier talent, both in front of and behind the cameras, Blank — who is every ounce as entertaining as his onscreen characters — lunges forward, eyes wide, and hollers, “We PAY! We pay A LOT!” causing the small assemblage in his New York office to collapse in laughter.
Au contraire, Greenblatt responds — despite what the industry may think, theirs is more financially conservative than plenty of other nets. Instead, he says, in the four years since The L Word bowed, the network has thrived on the strength of its scripts.
“The first thing that really turned the tide for us — two things, really — were Huff and Weeds,” he explains. “Huff was a talent magnet and won a bunch of Emmys for us. And suddenly Oliver Platt was doing a series. Hank Azaria was doing a series. And then Weeds — Mary-Louise Parker and Justin Kirk and Elizabeth Perkins. The list goes on. Suddenly, the whole television community started to go, ‘What is going on over there? What is that material?!'”
“It’s an old cliche, but once these actors — and their agents almost more importantly, since they’re often the first step in the screening process — have seen the material, they’re blown away by it. And suddenly the people who were reticent to do television, or outright wouldn’t do television, are sort of ‘awoken.’ Edie Falco spent six months with every network and every production company looking for her next show and we had the material she wanted to do. That’s the Holy Grail, right there.”
Both men also agree that partnering with a premium network means that multitasking talent enjoy the benefit of shorter seasons, often just 10 or 12 episodes per season instead of broadcast’s standard 22 outings. So stars like Parker and David Duchovny keep half their year for film work.
And if they’re happy, Blank says, their colleagues realize they’ll be happy, too.
“You don’t get a Toni Collette or an Edie Falco without a David Duchovny, a Mary-Louise Parker, a Jonny Rhys Meyers,” he smiles.
Welcome, sinners — and former Sopranos, too.
THE SHO MUST GO ON
In addition to Falco’s as-yet-unnamed project, which features the former Mrs. S as “a very complicated nurse at a New York hospital” and begins shooting in May, Showtime will soon roll out its first British import, Secret Diary of A Call Girl (with former governor Eliot Spitzer providing a whopping, unintended dose of free PR). And this summer, the net will debut the work of what is perhaps the most demographic-hugging collaboration in entertainment today — Steven Spielberg and Juno‘s Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody.
“Dreamworks came to us and only us for this Diablo Cody project when she wasn’t attached yet,” says Greenblatt. “They said, ‘Steven has come up with this thing, we want to just tell you the idea and if you guys like it, we’d love to work with you.’ We were their first stop. And we were their last stop.”
As if their fortunes weren’t already in full bloom, Greenblatt and his team got their hands on Cody’s Juno screenplay and entered into development with her before the film even hit theaters.
“I’ll tell you, they told us from the get-go, ‘Diablo’s going to win the Oscar for this. We just feel it in our bones,'” Greenblatt grins. “And we got lucky with that. Then we made our short list of actors and we said Toni Collette. We called her agents and we said, “We’ve got this script by Diablo Cody” — and they kind of knew who she was by then, but she hadn’t become who she is now. Sent the script to Toni — and I thought we’d have to bring her to LA, have her sit down with Diablo, hear Diablo’s vision, talk to Steven Spielberg — and she committed! She said to her agents, I want to do this, but with one condition: That Diablo’s voice doesn’t go away — that she stays on the show.’ We didn’t have to do any jumping through hoops.”
“The Toni Collette/Diablo Cody project we start shooting in about 3 weeks to a month,” Greenblatt continues. “The Edie Falco show we shoot that in May. We [also] have this Tim Robbins project, which is a one-hour dramedy/drama about a very dysfunctional family that run a family business — a pharmaceutical company. A very successful and rising pharmaceutical company, so we can get into all that great stuff with drugs and the medical industry and the insurance industry and all that stuff.”
Even as he ticks off what is surely a fresh batch of surefire hits, Showtime’s self-deprecating King Midas confesses that the cynic in him realizes the time will come when a project falters.
“We’ve figured out how to get shows right,” Greenblatt says, “and we know how to launch them. So there’s a little bit of confidence there. But at the same time, every new show is a high-wire act. We like to present to the world that it’s easy to put a Tudors together. It’s easy to put a Californication together. But truth is, the writing, production, casting, directors — with all the things that have to work, every single episode is a challenge.”
And a fine one, if you ask his boss.
“I feel like we’re only partway through this momentum,” Blank beams. “With the types of people that are coming to us for this next group of shows Bob’s working on, we’ve got a lot of good space ahead of us. And we have shows on the air that are young shows. The Tudors is only starting its second season and [so is] Californication. There are a lot of good times ahead.”
And you, dear sinner, are hereby invited to join in.