Getting Smart

Once a perennial also-ran, Showtime has climbed to the top of the cable heap with a daring new strategy: making good TV.Hunter S. Thompson once described the television business, not entirely inaccurately, as “a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.” Even at its most ambitious, it’s a business in which the phrase “quality programming” is sometimes used in reference to 7th Heaven.

“Everyone likes to say they’re putting good stuff on,” says Showtime Networks CEO and chairman Matt Blank. “It’s easier for some of us than for others.”

It may be easiest – as well as most lucrative – for Showtime. Since taking the company’s reins four years ago, Blank, 49, has presided over one of the most dramatic turnarounds in cable television history. After two decades’ worth of ownership changes and death-watch speculation, Showtime Networks (which includes Showtime as well as the Movie Channel and Flix) now has 22.3 million subscribers – nearly twice as many as when Blank took over. The network won’t release subscription numbers for individual channels, but the ratings of Showtime proper are up a genuinely eye-popping 44 percent from last year.

More remarkably, Blank engineered the about-face by taking the high road, turning the channel from a grab bag of second-run multiplex movies, B-grade comedies, and late-night soft-core into cable’s preeminent home of intelligent – more specifically, issue-oriented – television. Showtime has distinguished itself from larger rivals HBO and Cinemax – which count a combined 35 million subscribers – by delivering original programming that’s just as good and almost always weightier than mobster family crises and the adventures of snarky sex columnists. At last year’s Screen Actors’ Guild awards, out of eleven nominees for outstanding performances in made-for-TV movies, five had aired on Showtime.

Beginning in 1995 with Hiroshima, a three-hour drama that examined the United States’ decision to use the atomic bomb, the network has tackled some of the thorniest topics out there. Its resolutely non-feel-good subjects have included child sexual abuse (the adaptation of Dorothy Allison’s merciless Bastard Out of Carolina), Gulf War syndrome (Thanks of a Grateful Nation), and surrogate motherhood (the Jodie Foster-produced The Baby Dance). It also produced award-winning remakes of 12 Angry Men and Inherit the Wind (the former directed by Academy Award winner William Friedkin, the latter starring fellow Oscar winners George C. Scott and Jack Lemmon), gave Adrian Lyne’s controversial Lolita its first American showing, and co-produced three theatrically released films (Ian McKellen’s Richard III; poet Maya Angelou’s directorial debut, Down in the Delta; and last year’s thrice-Oscar-nominated Gods and Monsters).

So far this year, Showtime has already tackled the Holocaust with the Dustin Hoffman-produced The Devil’s Arithmetic and the Clarence Thomas- Anita Hill scandal with Strange Justice. This week, the network premiered Execution of Justice, the story of Dan White, who murdered San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, America’s first openly gay elected official. In early 2000, it will film the Broadway production of Death of a Salesman.

It’s been said that no one ever went broke underestimating the tastes of the American public, but Blank has done better than most by raising the bar – a notion so foreign to conventional television business wisdom that even some of his colleagues doubted him. “I’ve had people tell me we’re crazy for taking on certain projects, but they have to realize that we are in a unique position,” Blank says. “We don’t have advertisers, and we don’t need big individual ratings. We need to keep – and add – subscribers. In that way, we’re lucky: We can just focus on building the brand.”

After working at Showtime in executive positions for nearly six years, Blank – who had previously worked in marketing at HBO – began building the brand in earnest in 1995 when he was named CEO. “I looked at what was out there and asked, ‘What’s not being done? And what can we do better in relation to what is being done?’ ” The answer, he says, was twofold: family-oriented programming (another Showtime staple) and what Blank calls “classy stuff.” But his first, and many say best, move was hiring Jerry Offsay, then working in production for ABC, as Showtime’s chief programmer.

“Basically, Matt gave me a mandate to make Showtime worth watching,” says Offsay. “We realized that while theatrical movies would always be one main source of programming, they were no longer enough, because they were becoming more and more exposed: on pay-per-view, airplanes, hotels, and hundreds of other cable channels.”

“HBO was getting more and more attention from their original programming,” adds Blank. “So we said, if 12 original movies a year were good for them, let’s do 40. Let’s try to work up to doing an original movie almost every week.”

To meet that goal, Blank and Offsay needed star power that didn’t necessarily fit into their budget. “We realized that in order to get big stars for our movies, our movies had to be the types of projects stars were desperate to do,” Blank says. “Passion projects they were willing to do for much less than their usual fees.”

They were right – and Hollywood names like Jodie Foster and Kevin Bacon (the Golden Globe-nominated Losing Chase) have been lured by important subject matter, a commitment to creative noninterference, and, occasionally, the chance to direct. At least partly because they’re shot in Canada where production costs are lower, most of Showtime’s movies are budgeted at about $5 million, around half of what HBO usually spends on original films.

“It’s not like they run all high-quality stuff – they run a mix of things,” says Jodie Foster, whose The Baby Dance was nominated for a Golden Globe. “But what makes them different from HBO is they have less money, so they’re more creative and less inclined to micro-manage. They don’t tell you how to direct or how to edit. Especially if you’ve got a bit of a name, with less money comes more freedom. It’s a trade a lot of people are willing to make.”

Poet Maya Angelou, for one. “I wanted to see what I could do without the nattering nabobs putting their fingers in,” she says. “They let me. I’d work with them again in a second.”

Critics have taken notice, of course, and Blank and Offsay say the channel actively seeks publicity – though not merely for the sake of self-congratulation. “In 1994 we analyzed how much free press we’d gotten in the marketplace off our original programming – Sunday supplement covers and newspaper and magazine articles,” says Offsay, “and it was somewhere between $15 and $20 million. By 1998, the figure was $125 million. That’s free advertising for us and our cable operators.”

Though Showtime isn’t aiming to pick off HBO subscribers, the media attention has helped the once also-ran come into its own. “Especially considering they’re always chasing a competitor that’s twice as large, what Showtime has been doing is really quite remarkable,” says Larry Gerbrandt, a senior analyst who covers the pay-TV industry for Paul Kagan Associates, Inc. “They’ve been able to come up with high quality and critically reviewed movies and also attract top Hollywood talent, who often don’t do television.”

Their reputation for quality programming has also changed Showtime’s relationship with Hollywood. “There was a time when I couldn’t get people to even have a meeting with me,” recalls Offsay. “Directors, actors, and agents would all say, ‘If we’re going to do cable, we’re going to do HBO.’ ” Now Offsay is seen as a rising star and Blank has become a favorite son at CBS-Viacom. He’s “Michael Fuchs without the enemies,” according to one industry source.

“HBO is great, but I want to make people think, ‘Hey, maybe I’m missing something if I don’t have Showtime – maybe I need Showtime as well,’ ” Blank says. “So far, we feel the strategy has worked. In a way, it’s even more simple than we originally thought. I mean, basically, it all comes down to just putting on stuff that’s good.””They run a mix of things,” says Jodie Foster. “But what makes them different from HBO is they have less money, so they’re more creative and less inclined to micromanage. They don’t tell you how to direct or how to edit.”

Getting Smart