Showtime Chairman/CEO Matt Blank is busier than usual these days. Last week, his network's The Tudors was picked up for a third cycle, and other original series, including Dexter, Weeds and This American Life, are scoring ratings and critical acclaim. His network was foisted into the spotlight on April 20 when Sumner Redstone's Viacom said it will launch its own premium movie channel with films from its Paramount Pictures, as well as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Lionsgate. The channel would stand in direct opposition to Redstone's own Showtime Networks, owned by CBS Corp.
Blank, who will receive the Museum of the Moving Image Award on April 30 and the Vanguard Award for leadership at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association Cable Show in May, talked to B&C's Anne Becker about the Showtime of today and the future.
To put it very simply, how does this proposed channel affect Showtime's business?
First of all, if we did nothing and feature films were the most important part of our offering, you wouldn't notice a difference on Showtime until mid-2011, so what this has done is free up an awful lot of money to do other things in the film and original programming area. We would've liked to reach a deal with the studios and we wish them luck in their new venture—the premium business isn't the easiest business. But I've been saying this before this week—these films are important to our network, but they're not worth what we used to pay for them. We just reached a point where we could not be prisoners of the very, very high price for films.
So you determined that your resources paid off more in the long run if they were invested in originals?
The best way I can describe it is that original programming is a buy versus a rent. Dexter is ours. It's our brand and our ownership to the consumer. It's hard to get a consumer to believe a feature film is only on Showtime. Our research shows that the consumer doesn't know which network a movie is on, but they know where The Sopranos is and they know where Dexter is.
But you say you won't have any fewer films three years from now?
We think we can buy just as many or more feature films. I've had a dozen people contact me in the past three or four days trying to sell me their movies. There's a lot of financing, a lot of people making movies as independents or within the studio system in some way, shape or form. CBS Films is coming online in the next year or two. I hate to say it, but our film lineup has not been so strong. We were getting about 40 titles a year from our big studio output deals and we will have no trouble filling that in.
Just how much are you able to step up original production now?
Right now [Entertainment President] Bob [Greenblatt] has projects in the wings that we'd love to get on in the next year. One of the great benefits of having the success we've had with our original programming in the past couple of years is that we now have people knocking on our door who might not have come to us a few years back. Steven Spielberg is working with us on a show starring Toni Collette. We're doing a pilot with Edie Falco. We have a really neat hour-long drama in the works to shoot—this Tim Robbins pilot.
How do you feel about your rate of subscriber growth—about 1.3 million subscribers in the past year?
I like to think of Showtime now as firing on all cylinders. We had a really great year last year and it's continuing into this year. We're being rewarded for our programming for the first time in our history. We believe people are coming to Showtime at a time when [that's] not easy because we're in a category where there are a lot of barriers to subscriptions, but our programming is strong and we're overcoming a lot.