Until Election Day, Showtime president David Nevins said, politics was one of his favorite topics.
The Circus delivered a concentrated dose of politics, delving into the presidential campaign to produce weekly half-hour documentary episodes that stood out from the punditry and breaking-news graphics elsewhere on the dial. The series sent journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann along with political advisor Mark McKinnon out on the trail. It was always going to be a circus, but Donald Trump’s starring role turned it into the most unusual and polarizing presidential race in American history.
The show’s Nov. 12 finale, upsized to an hour, posted ratings 275% better than its January premiere and the highest of any unscripted show in Showtime’s history. The retelling of the Trump surge and Hillary Clinton crumble brought back all of the ups, downs, twists and turns of Election Night, whose outcome wasn’t known until after 2 a.m. Eastern time.
One telling moment showed the hosts backstage in the green room at Stephen Colbert’s live Election Night broadcast on Showtime (Colbert was bumped from CBS in favor of news coverage) as the votes came in. Florida had not yet been called for Trump, Colbert noted. Even so, “it looks like the lead he has is going to be too much for her to surmount,” Heilemann said. Noting Clinton’s deficits in Wisconsin and Michigan, Halperin added, “He’s ahead in both. If he wins them both, he’s president.” The audience let out an anguished howl and then fell silent.
Though the epic campaign has ended, The Circus might not have entirely folded its tent.
With the footage assembled over 11 months on the road, Showtime is considering putting together a documentary-length show on the 2016 election. “As a historical document, I think it’s a pretty incredible accomplishment,” Nevins said of the series.
Beyond that, Nevins said, “I definitely remain interested in continuing to be in business with those guys and we’re beginning to talk about what that might look like.” (That might be easier to arrange now that Bloomberg has canceled Halperin and Heilemann’s With All Due Respect.) But Nevins is not quite ready to greenlight an encore for 2020. “No one plans four years in advance,” he said.
While Showtime has not been known for the kind of news coverage or political commentary that Bill Maher and John Oliver deliver on HBO, some of the network’s biggest hits deal with topical issues. Homeland dramatizes the fight against terrorism and Billions features Wall Street and the financial markets.
“The Circus has made us matter in those sort of political-current events circles,” Nevins said, calling it a “zeitgeist show.” Viewership was particularly strong on Showtime’s streaming platforms—not surprising considering the political operatives and the press covering the campaign lived their lives on the road.
And speaking of timely, Showtime aired the documentary Weiner the weekend that FBI director James Comey announced he was taking a look at additional Hillary Clinton emails found on disgraced former Rep. Andrew Weiner’s phone—a turning point in the race.
Showtime has beefed up its documentary unit, hiring former CNN original programming head Vinnie Malhotra, who oversaw production of The Circus. “I just loved the process of getting a rough cut around Friday at midnight, getting a fine cut Saturday afternoon and getting a final cut Saturday night. The rhythm of it was intense and taxing for the people who were making it, but fascinating for me,” Nevins said.
The Circus was designed to offer a view of the campaign different from the network newscasts. Nevins said he thinks the show was successful because “week after week, it delivered those fly-on-the-wall moments of what it’s like to run a U.S. presidential campaign. Mark, Mark and John, they have this Zelig-like quality of always being in the right place at the right time, so they got a ton of access.”
Fred Davis, a top advertising consultant to candidates including Sen. John McCain, appeared on the show and was a fan.
“To me the biggest difference is that network and cable news is so incredibly slanted. The voter isn’t getting news, they are getting some talking head’s interpretation of the news,” Davis said. “John and the two Marks wisely let the viewer get into the game themselves. [They] showed all sides, let the voters hear from the actual candidates and their teams behind the scenes, unscripted. They let the voters decide for themselves.”
One of Nevins’ favorite moments came after the New Hampshire primary. Halperin got a ride on Trump’s plane and used an iPhone to film the billionaire as he won an election for the first time in his life.
“And I also thought this show did better than almost any of the news networks at kind of giving you a sense of the mood of the voting public. You could see the enthusiasm gap in this show in a way that the studio-based media missed,” Nevins added.