'Fat’ Is a Fit

Showtime chief talks about the promise of Kirstie Alley’s new comedy for the network

At Showtime’s Los Angeles high-rise headquarters last week, staffers scurried to ready the premium pay cable channel for its invitation-only, red-carpet Hollywood premiere of the new Kirstie Alley comedy, Fat Actress. The series’ seven episodes begin airing March 7 at 10 p.m. ET, and the buzz is expected to equal or surpass that for such recent high-profile Showtime series as The L Word and Huff. B&C’s Deborah Starr Seibel sat down with Showtime Chairman and CEO Matthew C. Blank to find out how the avalanche of publicity has affected a network always in the shadow of HBO and how the show fits into Showtime’s programming-redesign strategy.

How would you characterize the buzz for

Fat Actress

, and how does it compare with the response to your programming in the past?

It is lightning in a bottle. You can do the best job in the world on something creatively in this business, and nobody pays attention. And then there are things that take on a life of their own. We showed the television critics a three- to four-minute tape of Kirstie in July, and within an hour, People magazine was calling to photograph her that weekend. There’s an interesting thing that goes on in the media and in reality television today, and it’s that we’re obsessed with the demonization of people. People don’t get on the covers of magazines because they’ve done good things. Reality shows would be nothing without the losers. The print media are obsessed with people with problems or catching people in unfortunate situations. So Kirstie just decided to turn the tables. She is so smart. She just said, instead of hiding behind her front door—which she did for a while—and just taking it, she was going to use [the weight gain] to her advantage.

Have you seen a spike in your 12 million-subscriber base because of

Fat Actress


I don’t think HBO or Showtime has ever been able to demonstrate a spike on a monthly basis because of a piece of programming. What we do see over time is a greater awareness of our programming, a greater inclination to purchase it, or stay on the service. This used to be a business based on feature films. People will always watch feature films on premium TV. The trouble is, they’re not going to give you credit for it and they’re not going to buy Showtime because of it.

You’re scaling way back on original movies (from 30-40 to about six) and refocusing on drama and comedy series. But the knock on Showtime is that it never seems able to effectively get the word out about its programming.

The biggest challenge we face in the marketplace isn’t the product itself. It’s the price of basic cable or satellite service, plus the price of your monthly modem service. There aren’t many things that people feel they can do without. So it’s our job to make sure that people don’t feel they can do without Showtime. We have some of the best proprietary programming on the air, and the service is state-of-the-art: All our series are shot on high-definition, and we’ll have 5 million to 6 million on-demand subscribers by the middle of the year. We have to be there first and early because people are paying for it.

Don’t you want to shower Kirstie Alley with chocolates for all the free advertising and publicity?

Only if they’re Jenny Craig [the weight-loss organization for which Alley is a spokeswoman]. She made Bob (Greenblatt, president of entertainment) and me have Jenny Craig chocolate cake with her on her birthday.

How was it?

(Choosing his words carefully) It was cake-like.