In June, I was at the Peabody Awards luncheon at the Waldorf Astoria when I spotted Showtime Networks Chairman Matt Blank. I had wanted to congratulate him on Edge of America, a fine film about an African-American coach and teacher who takes a job on an Indian reservation, which earned the network its second consecutive Peabody for an original movie. However, the anger on his face suggested he was in no mood to receive any kudos from me.
The previous week, B&C had reported CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves’ critique of Showtime at a Morgan Stanley conference. Among other things, he said, the network’s programming was "too much of an off-Broadway play." Blank was apoplectic over the piece, claiming we had taken Moonves’ remarks out of context.
I could understand Blank’s ire, even if B&C was only the messenger. Moonves has been his boss a matter of months—Showtime was made part of the CBS empire when Viacom was split in two—and speculation about Blank’s future had been rampant. When there’s a new chief, especially someone like Moonves who likes to put people who’ve been with him for years in charge of his various divisions, such speculation is inevitable.
Indeed, in his invective, Blank said our item spurred calls from a number of people, including Com­cast Chairman Brian Roberts, who had asked, "Are you okay?"
I’m sure it hasn’t been easy for Blank. Showtime makes money, but there’s little revenue growth in sight. Since he named Bob Greenblatt to head up programming three years ago, the quality of its series has continued to improve. But in Blank’s 11-year tenure as chairman, the premium network has groped for a formula to become something more than a pale imitation of the creatively and financially rich HBO, which is in twice as many homes.
Showtime, which has around 14 million subscribers, also has had several smart, edgy series—Huff, Weeds and Sleeper Cell come to mind—that, if they were on HBO, would probably transcend the critics’ Top 10 lists to critical mass. But the perennial problem is that not enough people are Showtime subscribers for that to happen. Sadly, from this fan’s perspective, even a best supporting actress Emmy award for Blythe Danner couldn’t save Huff from cancellation. And Brotherhood, the best urban drama this side of The Wire, has drawn disappointing ratings in its first two weeks out.
A couple of weeks ago, Blank was in Pasadena, Calif., at the Television Critic Association summer powwow, and was asked about B&C’s article on Moonves. As he had insisted to me, Blank called the report on his boss’ remarks "an unfortunate representation of something he really wasn’t saying." He then proceeded to offer what he thought Moonves really meant.
People in the room say that onlooking CBS executives appeared none too pleased at Blank’s response. I’d borrow money to bet his handlers had advised him to simply agree with the boss man’s critique and move on.
What Blank didn’t say was that Moonves had publicly reiterated his critique a few weeks after the Morgan Stanley conference, this time at a Deutsche Bank investor meeting. He repeated his "off-Broadway" critique and said he believes the way to increase the network’s distribution is to find shows that are "edgy and commercial," like HBO’s The Sopranos.
What changes might this mean for Showtime? Moonves needs an executive with experience traversing the strange waters of the cable-system universe and can persuade top operators to be more-effective partners in driving Show­time into more homes.
Blank certainly knows that world, but he should start listening more closely to the man at the top if he wants to remain that executive.