By any measure, Showtime is in the best fighting shape it's ever been in, with strong momentum on the creative front -- plenty of buzz, if not viewer tonnage -- and a lean corporate structure, both of which please the feevee channel's ultimate boss, CBS Corp.'s Leslie Moonves.
The kind of questions entertainment prexy Greenblatt and his boss, Showtime chairman Matt Blank fielded during the 45-minute exec Q&A session were softballs with hot fudge, sprinkles and a maraschino cherry on top. ("How have you made Showtime such a hot place to go, Bob?") The closest thing to grilling came from one TCA-er with a distaste for CBS' summer reality mainstay "Big Brother" who demanded to know why Blank and Greenblatt weren't shamed by the "Big Brother After Dark" wee-hours feed running on the Showtime 2 channel in the wee hours. (Hey, I'm with Mr. Irate Questioner on the worthlessness of "Big Brother" but it's hard to get worked up about anything airing at 3 a.m. on pay cable.)
The most interesting lines of questioning for Greenblatt were thinly veiled entrees for him to engage in a little crowing at HBO's expense. After 30 years of fighting a mostly uphill battle against its larger, wildly profitable rival, Showtime is standing tall all on its own thanks to "Dexter," "Weeds," "The Tudors," and a raft of projects in the development pipeline with George Clooney, Steven Spielberg, Tracey Ullman, etc. etc. Greenblatt didn't take the bait, for the most part, other than to (gently) join in what has become a running joke of this summer's TCA about the all the skin that's in HBO's new couples-drama "Tell Me You Love Me." And Greenblatt allowed that he wasn't much in favor of the blackout ending of "The Sopranos" but quickly followed that observation (which set the keyboards in the room clackety-clacking) by noting that HBO had little choice but to support the vision of the writer-producer who had brought them so much during the past few years.
"It's hard to say 'No' to David Chase," said Greenblatt, sounding like the producer he was a few years ago, of HBO's "Six Feet Under," among others, and the seasoned executive he is today. "I probably would've tried to talk (Chase) out of it...and I probably would've failed."
For once, however, Showtime execs sounded less than totally disingenuous in asserting that they view HBO as they do other strong competitors with edgy originals, a la FX. And for once, come the fall, Showtime will be able to take the temperature of its audience to see if there is any such thing as "the Showtime demo."
By dint of the calendar and an abundance of returning shows, Showtime will have four original series airing at the same time by October when its Sunday drama block of "Dexter" and "Brotherhood" returns to the sked in the fall. New David Duchovny half-hour "Californication" teams with the third season of "Weeds" on Mondays starting next month.
Because Showtime has traditionally parceled out its original series one at a time, it's never had the chance to see if it can build anything like audience flow, from night to night. Showtime's program picks have always been eclectic rather than aimed at a particularly narrowly drawn target aud. And Greenblatt makes no bones about the fact that he serves an older crowd, mostly 35-plus, sophisticated and affluent enough to afford the $15 a month or so on the cable bill. In some respects, Showtime's charter is to be broadcast-like in its something-for-almost-everyone program menu, albeit with a distinctive edge. The bow of "Weeds" two years ago made all the difference in the types of projects that walked into Showtime's doors and the caliber of creatives who wanted to take a meeting.
"I joke that I'd love to run Spike TV or something like that, where you know you're programming to a very specific audience," Greenblatt says. "It's easier. We're so eclectic. But we're not spending a lot of time trying to get younger."
To the unaswerable question of "gee, what'er you doing right these days, Bob?", Greenblatt is thoughtful and contrasts the Showtime development process to others. Just about every show goes directly through him and one other creative executive at the channel - that's it. Forget the approvals-in-triplicate that most writers have to deal with, particularly in the broadcast realm. When an outside studio is involved in production, which is rarely the case for Showtime, the process gets even more daunting, more lugubrious for writers who just want to spent their time perfecting the dialogue in act three and the set design in act four, and the like.
"It's really just me, one programming executive who sees the show through all the way and a physical production person. There are not a lot of hoops for writers to jump through here," Greenblatt notes.
It was all those notes, and approvals and such that drove him back to the exec ranks when he joined Showtime in July 2003 after a prosperous seven year run as a producer. Even with success under your belt, the development process was a gauntlet that Greenblatt grew tired of navigating. Now he sees his main job as helping to shape ideas and concepts and characters early on and then staying out of the way of his writers. It's an important lesson he learned during his run at Fox during the development of "The X-Files" in the early 1990s.
"I was never a sci-fi guy, I didn't watch it, I didn't really care for it. I tried to talk Chris Carter out of developing that show," Greenblatt recalls. "But when you see that he's so passionate about it, you don't let your own issues of taste get in the way; you get out of his way."
Or as Scott Winant, director and an exec producer of "Californication" put it about the Showtime M.O.: "They give you as much rope as you need...and you can hang yourself with it. But without that risk great things don't happen."
(Pictured above, Showtime's Matt Blank and Bob Greenblatt flank "Weeds" stars Mary-Louise Parker and Justin Kirk at TCA on Saturday.)