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.
But original content? It wasn't a primary concern. Both channels made the occasional attempt. HBO focused more on sports, docs and comedy specials in the earliest days. As the '80s rolled around, HBO made a few attempts with shows that I vividly recalled, but only after being reminded of them. During the decade of Reagan, Fraggle Rock and 1st & Ten (which couldn't be more different!) came to mind while I had (almost embarrassingly) forgotten about Not Necessarily the News and The Hitchhiker. I paid more attention to HBO series in the '90s, and with the exception of Tales from the Crypt, the channel really began to focus on comedy: The Kids in the Hall, Mr. Show, Dream On, Tracey Takes On … and Arli$$.
Of course, more than anything, it was The Larry Sanders Show that really got people's attention. Larry Sanders (which premiered in 1992) managed to do what seemed impossible: capture the pop culture zeitgeist at the precise moment it happened, rather than even a millisecond late. Late night talk shows dominated the pop culture conversation as Johnny Carson was about to retire, the battle for The Tonight Show had become a nearly mythic tale soon to be documented in both book and film form, and the writing was just so damn smart. Larry Sanders was the first scripted narrative show to not depend on its ability to utilize adult language and nudity as its prime argument for skipping something on the broadcast nets and switching to HBO.
In a way, HBO's development (and Showtime's) is not so different from that of a person's. During its first decade, it struggled to learn and grow and find an identity. By the '90s, it was like an adolescent boy, looking to laugh at everything, not always taking much seriously, enjoying as many naked breasts and as much swearing in public as necessary, but eventually starting to diversify, expressing more thoughtful ideas and becoming more serious. Larry Sanders was like graduating from high school and entering college where more serious subject matter would take hold.
The adult the "HBO" would eventually become was formed in those next years, and specifically, in the period ranging from the 1997 premiere of Oz through the first season of The Wire in 2002. Arguably, these five years saw the development of the solar system that is this "Third Golden Age of Television. As I discussed a two weeks ago, those years simultaneously marked the gentle decline of the '90s indie film explosion and the premieres of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under along with the miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, The Corner (without which, The Wire wouldn't have happened) and Band of Brothers.
Sex and the City arrived during this period too and became the channel's most popular comedy to date, but this shift towards hourlong adult dramas that could take more risks and push acceptable forms of storytelling is what led to the current TV landscape. These HBO series (as well as FX's The Shield, which premiered in 2002) likely never would have happened if not for some of the more daring series on broadcast networks, most notably ABC's NYPD Blue and NBC's Homicide: Life on the Streets. But it was the emergence of HBO and their having more than one series to tout in a year that began to cause a shift in all those people who previously proudly claimed to neither watch nor even own a TV. Now, they were finding friends with HBO in order to watch The Sopranos and The Wire. It was those big-studio hating, indie film loving, TV-is-junk spouting audiences who gave credence to HBO's slogan: "It's not TV. It's HBO," a marketing slogan continuously used from 1996 until just four years ago when suddenly TV had become cool and the channel no longer had any need to distance itself from the medium.
Meanwhile, what was Showtime doing? Showtime which had always seemed one step behind, but mostly due to having started a few years later. Showtime wasn't being held back in school; it just was still in sixth grade as HBO had moved on to high school.
Showtime spent the '80s periodically dipping its toe into the original programming waters. Showtime dabbled with original content throughout the ''80s, primarily focused on comedy arguably more-so than HBO. The only drama attempt that decade was its 1983 revival of the series version of The Paper Chase, which CBS had cancelled after its first season in 1979. Showtime made three more seasons of the show. But otherwise, the half-dozen or so non-stand-up comedy series from the '80s were mostly unmemorable, with the notable exception of It's Garry Shandling's Show, the titular comedian's pre-Larry Sanders meta-sitcom; and Super Dave, a sketch comedy series starring Super Dave Osborne, the alter-ego of comedian Bob Einstein (who, of course, is the brother of Albert Einstein, better known to most as the Albert Brooks – who is brilliant but in quite a different way than the Albert Einstein … but I digress).
The separation between channels really occurred in the '90s, however, as HBO started making more dramatic advances in programming and Showtime's strategy frequently seemed like a response or reaction to HBO rather than any attempt to create a strong, dynamic identity of its own.
By the mid-90s, series weren't making HBO a must-have for cable subscribers; feature-length original movies were HBO's bread-and-butter. And in 1994, Showtime began a big push in original feature programming as well. From 1994-1997, in fact, the channel aired nearly 80 movies under the Showtime Original Pictures banner. Showtime's aggressive entry was partly due to necessity: Upstart premium network Starz had come along and secured a deal for Disney's theatrical output beginning in 1994, a huge chunk of Showtime's programming inventory. Still, making there own movies was something Showtime had done infrequently to date and with middling success.
This endeavor certainly didn't help Showtime's growth, especially in comparison to its rival. Showtime received a few Emmy nominations and even won some ACE Awards during this period, but 1993 marked the beginning of HBO dominance as the channel won the Emmy Award for "Outstanding Movie Made for Television" each year for the rest of the decade, and all but three times since then. (The category was retired after the 2010 Emmys and merged to become "Outstanding Miniseries or Movie.")
Showtime stopped making movies altogether nearly 10 years ago, airing it's last Showtime Original Picture in 2005, and as I discovered during my conversation with Nevins, they aren't likely to return to that trough any time soon. He seemed mostly uninterested, stating that in the current landscape, "considering the amount of money required to make and market [original feature-length movies], I'd rather just keep adding series. "
A greater focus on series arrived in the mid-'90s along with the push into original movies, similarly due to the need to generate more content due to the potential lack of theatrical film inventory. Already having not gained too much traction with comedy and rather than compete with HBO's reasonable success in that area, especially post-Larry Sanders, they decided to focus on hour-long shows and genre entertainment, particularly sci-fi. Showtime revived the '60s series The Outer Limits in 1995, followed by a spin-off of the Poltergeist movies – Poltergeist: The Legacy – beginning in 1996. The achieved some success with Stargate SG-1, which premiered in 1997 and ran for five seasons before continuing its decade-long run on The SciFi Channel in 2002. But their next attempt – Total Recall 2070 – lasted just one season.
But none of these shows did much to challenge the television status-quo. They were niche entertainments that developed some devoted fanboy following, but certainly weren't enough to encourage large swaths of cable households to shell-out more money to become subscribers. Showtime obviously was not blind to this reality, and then in 2000, after HBO began its shift towards hourlong dramas, receiving notice for Oz and breaking out with The Sopranos, Showtime launched Queer as Folk.
Queer as Folk may have simple maintained the niche-audience reality of Showtime (albeit, a different niche). It never became a huge hit, but it certainly marked a turning-point in series programming for the channel. In a way, it became Showtime's Larry Sanders: a series that couldn't appear on broadcast network television and was daring to tell complicated and smart stories; a series that was going to tap into something in the modern zeitgeist – in this case, stories focusing on homosexual folk that were about them as people who are gay as opposed to people being gay. But it's proximity to the beginning of The Sopranos also elicited comparisons to between the two, once that weren't necessarily fair are certainly not applicable. The Sopranos was a game-changer in character and storytelling while Queer as Folk a) wasn't and b) was too easily labeled "the gay show," even though that second point certainly made it important and unique, and helped pave the way for the emergence of channels like Here TV and Logo TV.
Showtime continued trying to make a mark in original series. Arguably, they were primed to, just as Larry Sanders helped fertilize the environment for Oz, The Sopranos, Sex and the City and beyond. But shows like Resurrection Blvd. and Leap Years didn't catch-on. They returned to their sci-fi comfort zone with Odyssey 5 and Jeremiah, and the latter garnered an enthusiastic fanbase, but again not enough to really boost subscriber rates. The rest of their attempts in the early 2000s each had their supporters but felt completely incohesive in terms of further establishing a Showtime brand. (Personally, I was a big fan of the dark fantasy dramedy Dead Like Me, but I was less-than-surprised that it only lasted two seasons.)
In January of 2004 when The L Word premiered, garnering a mixed reception from critics but a dedicated following of fans, especially those who wanted more than just Queer as Folk. And still, it was unclear what Showtime wanted to be. They didn't want to be The SciFi Channel. Nor did they want to be solely a network featuring gay-themed programming? The combination of the two didn't really make much sense either.
Then came Robert Greenblatt, who became President of Entertainment in 2003. Greenblatt had developed many of Fox's most successful shows like Beverly Hills, 90210, The X-Files and Party of Five, as well as executive produced HBO's Six Feet Under. If Queer as Folk and The L Word helped bookend the channel's college years – exploring itself and trying to determine how to communicate with the world – Greenblatt brought the channel into its grad school and let it towards its professional phase.
Greenblatt's first series buy was Huff, which starred Hank Azaria as a mid-life therapist dealing with his own personal and familial issues and crises. Huff was Showtime's Oz. It wasn't the breakthrough hit Showtime wanted out of the box, but it still marked a noticeable change for the channel, in character-driven, adult-themed stories that were not only unlike what one might see on the broadcast networks but also unlike HBO.
As HBO hourlong dramas continued to push boundaries, Showtime under Greenblatt probably made its biggest mark complementing its rival with strong half-hour comedies. Weeds, Nurse Jackie and The Big C all proved extremely valuable for the channel, especially as they each focused on a strong female central character audiences had a difficult time finding elsewhere in TV land.
And then there was Dexter, a hit for sure, and at times one of the strongest shows on television. (Other times, far from it. I'm looking at you season three; and apparently this final season too, which I haven't seen.) Dexter helped create a space for hour-long dramas again, one that felt more competitive with the rest of the TV universe, even if it still wasn't going to challenge the ratings numbers of HBO's biggest boys. But more importantly, it was based around a unique character living in and reacting to an odd world. The DNA of Dexter – even with its extreme violence and subject matter – maintains a sense of play, and fits in quite nicely with its sisters Weeds, Nurse Jackie and The Big C, not to mention Californication, and even the other successful dramas that followed such as The Tudors and The Borgias.
Now we've seen Showtime take another turn, with another growth spurt. In 2010, Greenblatt left to take over NBC, and he was replaced by Nevins. Once again, the new series possess a slightly different tone and sensibility. Nevins said as much, claiming to have a "slightly different sensibility." He described looking for things with a "multiple points of view," something that I think is quite evident when comparing the series from the Greenblatt era with what we've seen so far in these early Nevins years.
That DNA connecting Weeds, Nurse Jackie and Dexter has mutated just a bit when looking at Homeland or Ray Donovan. The former – and most of the other Greenblatt shows – rely heavily on a singular strong character. They all succeed because there are other dynamic, interesting characters influencing our "hero" (or anti-hero), but that main character remains the central and primary focus and we see the world through him and her. That's less the case in these newer series. Certainly in Homeland, the series is very much split between the points-of-view of Carrie (Claire Danes) and Brody (Damian Lewis). Ray Donovan may be named after our central character, and he certainly does a great deal of the heavy lifting, but the series – especially as it continues – seems constructed much more like The Sopranos; Tony Soprano was a towering figure in it, but the totality of the show always was more about the world he inhabited and his impact on that world rather than the other way around.
Nevins seems to have helped Showtime move from those grad school/first job years into the established pro realm. Showtime has truly grown-up and established itself. As Nevins told me when discussing Homeland's breakout first season and Emmy win, " We're really playing in the big leagues." HBO may still lead the overall pack, but now, Showtime can steal the spotlight on Emmy night and even reach similar popularity levels with their shows.
The rivalry between HBO and Showtime seems like it's real once more. HBO still has far more successes in its trophy case, but Showtime feels as if it has reached caught-up to where HBO was just a few years ago in terms of combining audience and critical acceptance to a point where both groups expect a certain standard. And with the gap shrinking between the quality of programming on other networks and longtime HBO-dominance, I am certainly curious to see where how the long history of these two channels continues to progress. The amount that could change over even the next five years seems staggering.