When he was a kid, David Nevins wanted to be a paleontologist. But eight days after graduating from Amherst College, he drove to California to get into the entertainment business.
Nevins had never been there before and didn’t know anyone. Nor did he know in 1989 that there was a writers’ strike, making finding work even more of a challenge.
Emerging as the top creative when Viacom combines with CBS, he’s conquered Hollywood. “Other than vacations and business trips, I’ve never left,” Nevins said.
His first big break was working for Lewis Chesler, a producer of The Hitchhiker. Later, he was hired by Warren Littlefield at NBC, which was beginning its Must-See TV era, He helped develop and launch big hits including ER and Will & Grace.
Nevins championed those shows, even in the face of opposition from more senior network executives, Littlefield said, recalling a meeting with Don Ohlmeyer, who ran NBC’s West Coast operations at the time. Most executives felt they had a better chance of surviving if they didn’t challenge Ohlmeyer during those meetings, but Nevins chose to speak up.
Tenacious and Courageous
“David has never been the loudest voice in the room. But he’s a tenacious fighter for ideas that he believes in and auspices he believes in,” Littlefield said.
“For better or worse, I’ll always stick my neck out for something that I think is excellent and groundbreaking,” Nevins said.
FX Networks and FX Productions chairman John Landgraf was also a young NBC development executive and worked with Nevins to develop The West Wing. “He always had a combination of great taste and shrewd practical sensibilities,” Landgraf recalled.
His background in production helped give Nevins a good bedside manner when talking with producers, writers and directors. “He’s a guy who knows how to laugh at the absurdities of our business and laugh at ourselves, which is a great quality in someone who’s a very tough-minded, politically savvy person,” Landgraf said.
“He’s honest,” said Max Mutchnick, who, with David Kohan, created Will & Grace. “The guy is just straightforward. I don’t think I’ve gotten a note from David Nevins that was motivated by what he thought the network would want. He gives you notes as an audience member. That sets him apart.”
Nevins had a first draft of the sitcom’s pilot on his desk when then-NBC chairman and CEO Bob Wright asked for the best thing he’d read lately. Shows with gay characters weren’t popular at the networks because ratings for Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom plunged after she came out of the closet. Nevins nevertheless handed Will & Grace to Wright.
“I feel like I owe my career to David,” Mutchnick said. “David has been David since he was a young executive at NBC and I was a baby writer. Now he’s the king of CBS and he’s the same person.”
Nevins moved on to Fox, where he was executive VP of programming and oversaw series including Malcolm in the Middle and 24. From 2002 to 2010, he was president of Imagine Television, which made the acclaimed shows Arrested Development, Parenthood and Friday Night Lights.
He joined Showtime in 2010 as entertainment president and became CEO of Showtime Networks in 2016. By greenlighting shows including Homeland, Billions, Ray Donovan and The Affair, Nevins made Showtime competitive with its premium channel rival HBO.
“He has developed what I call brand-defining programming,” Joe Ianniello, acting CEO of CBS, said. That made putting Nevins in charge of all programming at CBS — following the ouster of CBS’s disgraced honcho Les Moonves — an obvious call.
“He’s an executive who has really succeeded at every facet of the business. He had broadcasting experience, premium cable, he was a producer,” Ianniello said. “So yeah, it was an easy decision for me.”
Since getting the chief creative officer post, Nevins has overseen the new CBS primetime schedule and is responsible for CBS’s interest in The CW, a joint venture with AT&T’s Warner Bros.
Nevins was also involved in Showtime’s early move into the streaming sweepstakes with its direct-to-consumer subscription product.
“He’s certainly been a business innovator when it comes to Showtime,” Ianniello said. “He understands that every creative decision has a financial consequence and every financial decision has a creative consequence.”
As CBS and Viacom combine to compete with bigger TV industry rivals, Ianniello is confident in the company’s creative leadership, with Nevins reporting to him on CBS brands and ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish on the rest of the company’s assets.
“David is an expert in his field and so we’re going to give him the room to continue to grow and build the creative assets of this company,” Ianniello said.
To Nevins, ViacomCBS possesses a lot of creative firepower. “I feel like there’s good momentum at CBS and really interesting crop of new fall shows, and I really I love television in all its forms,” he said.
Striving for the Unexpected
On the creative side, Nevins thinks it’s critical to push for the next new thing. “Avoid being boring and expected,” he said. “Be unexpected. Be provocative.”
But at the same time, the changes roiling the industry motivate him. “The business challenges of being in a business in such a state of flux and transition makes it really exciting time to do what I do,” he said.
Given what he does, Nevins said he hasn’t picked up hobbies. But since joining Showtime, he’s become a fan of boxing, which he calls “a totally fascinating sport with really amazing athletes.” Mutchnick said Nevins has also become a mixologist. “Who doesn’t love a well-made drink and a well-prepared meal?” Nevins asked.
And of course his family is something of a focus group. “My kids are sophisticated, demanding viewers, and pleasing them with the shows that we make isn’t easy, but it’s always a goal, he said. “My wife [Andrea Blaugrund Nevins] is a little more generous. She’s a documentary filmmaker. She knows how hard it is to be excellent.”