Exclusive Interview: Showtime Networks’ David Nevins


PREMIUM: David Nevins, the president of Showtime Networks, talks to World Screen about cultivating shows that have an element of danger, surprise and, most importantly, cultural relevance.

WS: You’ve worked for both broadcast and pay-cable networks. What must a show have for you to believe that it can become a hit?
NEVINS: When I was [working] in network television, I was making shows that were challenging the limits for the medium. At Showtime, I’m at a place that really rewards coming up with the next new thing, while in broadcast television you sometimes get punished for being a couple of years ahead of the curve. I’m looking for depth and for themes that can last over time and will make me believe that I will want to watch not just one episode but also [all the way through to] the fourth season of this show. I’m also looking for a writer that has the ability to explore the themes in the pilot script in ways that are going to keep it interesting over a long period of time. I want people to feel like the most creative, progressive, daring stuff is happening on Showtime.

WS: What are the different considerations that go into greenlighting a broadcast show and one for pay cable?
NEVINS: There are more constituencies in a broadcast environment. You’ve got to worry about affiliates and advertisers as well as the audience. In pay cable, the big issue for me is what’s going to get attention. What is going to be somebody’s favorite show? What’s going to create the most attention for Showtime, what’s going to create the most buzz? Certainly in pay cable, the buzz that comes from having a show that appeals to influential adults—there’s a premium on that.

WS: How did Homeland come to Showtime? I understand you had to move rather quickly when you heard about the show.
NEVINS: Homeland was originally developed partly with a mind towards broadcast television, so it was both about moving quickly and also about reimagining what the show could be in a pay-cable environment. That entailed making the characters a lot more ambiguous: making the good guys in the script less good and the bad guys less evil. And then moving very quickly in convincing Twentieth Century Fox [which would produce the show] why it was worth their while to come to Showtime. And convincing the producers why it was worth their while to come to Showtime and also showing that we had a good broadcast plan for their show. I knew exactly where I was going to put it and from the very beginning I told them that the show would air in the fall of 2011 playing with Dexter on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. That was influential for them when they had choices of where to take it.

WS: Did you have a sense Homeland would take off the way it did? Why do you think it struck such a chord with viewers?
NEVINS: You want to be the show that people are talking about. That’s important to us because we need to keep Showtime top of mind so people feel it’s a service they have to subscribe to. You never know [if a show is] going to be a big hit. I knew it was going to hit some hot buttons and it was going to be controversial. I also knew there were lots of things that were going to make journalists want to write about it, it was very topical. And then, in the way that only television can, deep engagement with characters over a long period of time really cemented it and great execution by the producers and director and actors made it even better. But I always knew that some of the ideas in the script were going to make people want to write about our country’s relationship with the world, the effects of terrorism on us ten years after 9/11, some of the mental health issues that are in the show and the national security issues. All of those were great press pegs.

WS: So much is written nowadays about television shows. Do you pay attention to what’s being written and does it impact your programming decisions?
NEVINS: I read it all. I follow the critics. I think the state of television criticism is really good right now. It’s incredibly robust. There are smart people writing a lot of words about television shows and it’s being taken seriously. Television criticism today is what literary criticism was in the ’60s and movie criticism was in the ’70s, so I pay attention to it all. I try not to be overly reactive to it and I particularly try to make sure that our writers are not overly reactive to it. When smart people write nuanced analyses, I try hard to pay attention.

WS: The writers of Homeland were in the middle of season two when you announced the renewal for season three. Does that have a big impact on the development of the rest of the current season?
NEVINS: Maybe as you start to get to the end of a show, you’ll write a show differently [because] you are writing toward a definite end. Television is generally written open ended until you get to the very end of a run. [A big part if it] is faith: I greenlight a season on faith because I believe that the writers will be able to do something interesting for next year. Actors sign up on faith; an actor may commit to a five-year deal based just on a pilot script. And the audience starts watching without any guarantee and that is one of the things that is very exciting about television: it’s fundamentally open-ended nature.

WS: How do you balance giving showrunners as much freedom as possible against giving them notes about the shows they are producing?
NEVINS: I believe in deep engagement with the shows. I was a producer. I still try to operate like a supportive producer. So my job, like any good producer, is to try to challenge people to do their best work and the top creative people generally like to be challenged and like to be doing their best work. I don’t want anybody to ever play it safe. I try to encourage a creative environment where people feel like they can take creative risks and try to maintain execution at a high level—that makes it an exciting place to work. I feel like there are no limits on what we can do and so it’s very important to me to make Showtime the most creatively exciting place in the television business.

And you do that not by doing nothing, but by giving a lot of encouragement and deep creative engagement.

WS: A lot of people are saying that cable shows are taking the place independent films used to have in exploring certain topics and providing intelligent programming for adults.
NEVINS: The great benefit of television is sustained engagement over time for one character and that can be a very exciting thing for a writer or an actor. We’re still in the business of appealing to adults, which is not fundamentally what drives the movie business anymore, and that leads to satisfying and creative work for these actors, writers and directors. All of them are playing in both worlds, our writers are also writing movies, our actors are also starring in movies. Don Cheadle made three movies between season one and season two of House of Lies, but I think he was very happy to come back and play Marty Kahn because he finds it a rich and varied experience on a daily basis! And more and more people are knocking on our door.

WS: What upcoming shows would you like to highlight?
NEVINS: There is significant buzz starting to build around the crime drama Ray Donovan with Liev Schreiber, which is going to premiere in June right after Dexter and I think it’s going to be an incredibly watchable television show. And starting in September airing after Homeland will be Masters of Sex, a drama series based on William Masters and Virginia Johnson and their groundbreaking partnership and the study of human sexuality. That stars Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan. They are both going to be exciting and unexpected television.