Each time I interview another cable network programming head, the conversation gets my brain abuzzin' on larger stories among the film and television landscape. As I planned for and spoke to David Nevins for the third interview in this series at Indiewire, I kept thinking about Showtime in relation to HBO, much more so than I did the reverse. Showtime regularly appears to be playing catch-up with its bigger, more powerful rival. But over the last few years, especially as the competition for (as Nevins calls it) "premium television" has expanded well beyond the premium cable networks, the perception of that gap has begun to feel smaller.
Homeland's first season won the Best Drama Series Emmy last year, and if not for the rabid excitement over Breaking Bad dominating the television firmament, I would bet on it repeating. Ray Donovan, meanwhile, has been another huge hit for Showtime, generating viewership upwards of 5 million (across all showings and platforms) each week, which approaches Game of Thrones and True Blood territory.
I started thinking about the evolution of these rival networks, both among the oldest channels in the cable universe. In fact, Home Box Office – launched in 1972 – became the first cable network with national distribution in 1975. But Showtime? ESPN, CNN and MTV: All three were established and appeared on cable boxes after Showtime, in 1979, 1980 and 1981 respectively. Cable systems around the country began carrying Showtime in 1978, less than two years after its 1976 launch. That national reach was only bested by Ted Turner who created his "superstation" WTBS (at the time a local Atlanta station called WTCG) in Dec. 1976 by beaming it via satellite to still evolving local cable providers.
At the time, the cable universe was small. I remember our first cable box around 1980 had a lever that slid horizontally with numbers going up to 13 (mimicking the VHF stations) and then switching to letters A through Z. We didn't have 39 channels to start, but I remember all the over-the-air stations moving to that 1-13 spectrum and cable-only networks being in the letters. Channel 44? You're now channel 12. (As my Brady Bunch station, that was pretty important.) Channel 36 from San Jose? Hello San Francisco; we could now see it on channel 6. (For what it's worth, I wouldn't put money on these lineup memories … other than KBHK-44 definitely became channel 12!)
Cable provided better reception and a guarantee of never having to worry about your antenna. Plus, some public access stations developed along with regional broadcasters. And then there was HBO and Showtime.