ViacomCBS’s David Nevins

Throughout his career, David Nevins has gained firsthand knowledge of numerous aspects of the television business: development, production, marketing, monetization of content and distribution.

He has been involved with some of the most critically acclaimed shows on broadcast and premium networks, including ER, The West Wing, Will & Grace, Friday Night Lights, 24, Homeland, Ray Donovan, The Affair, The Chi and Billions.

After holding leadership roles at NBC, the FOX Broadcasting Company and Imagine Television, he joined Showtime Networks—then owned by CBS Corporation—in 2010. He shepherded a culture that encourages critically acclaimed, conversation-starting shows. In the process, Showtime opened its doors to new and diverse voices.

In 2019, CBS Corporation merged with Viacom, the two companies recombining after initially separating in 2006. The new entity, ViacomCBS, caters to various age groups and demographics through its many brands, including CBS—its studio, news and sports divisions—The CW, MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, BET, Pluto TV and Paramount Television Studios. Like other major media companies, ViacomCBS is harnessing all of its production and programming prowess to bolster its Paramount+ streaming offering.

Given his extensive programming background, Nevins was named chief content officer of scripted originals for Paramount+ earlier this year while remaining chairman and CEO of Showtime Networks. The storied Star Trek franchise and The Good Fight, each with loyal fan bases, are already part of the Paramount+ lineup. Joining them in the coming months will be a new season of Star Trek: Discovery; Halo, a live-action science-fiction series based on the video game; and Mayor of Kingstown, from Taylor Sheridan.

As Nevins tells World Screen, the Paramount+ originals aim to be of broad appeal, while Showtime continues its tradition of offering more specialized series. Dexter: New Blood; Three Women, based on Lisa Taddeo’s book; Yellowjackets, a blend of survival, horror and coming-of-age; and The Man Who Fell to Earth, based on the novel by Walter Tevis that inspired the cult film starring David Bowie, will all premiere in the coming months.

Nevins also talks about maintaining brand clarity, working with talent, marketing shows and collaborating with fellow ViacomCBS executives.

WS: Paramount+ offers such a wide variety of programming. What role do scripted originals play in the mix?
NEVINS: The original scripted shows tend to be how streaming services are defined, particularly scripted dramas. They tend to be a key driver of consumer interest and the subject of a lot of focus. Part of what differentiates Paramount+ is that it’s got a lot of other programming; it has sports, news, kids’ shows, movies, unscripted. But still, at the core of everything are the scripted dramas, which generally drive a ton of usage and are definitional to how consumers look at a streaming service.

WS: How do you find the right home for a scripted show? Is there a difference between the scripted shows on Paramount+ and Showtime?
NEVINS: Yes. Part of my job is to have clarity on the brands [and differentiate] what you are going to get on Paramount+ and what you’re going to get on Showtime. Showtime has been in business for a long time, so there is relative clarity about what makes a Showtime show. We’re still building and developing Paramount+. We have a real toehold in the science-fiction/fantasy genre, beginning with Star Trek: Discovery and then Halo coming relatively early in 2022. That is an important part of it, but we’re also the home of Robert and Michelle King, who do Evil and The Good Fight. We’re the home of Taylor Sheridan’s new shows. Paramount+ will be the home of broad-based, four-quadrant programming, and Showtime will always be a little more specialized.

WS: A show like Billions is very much about the current state of power in New York. Homeland in its day was about the state of national security. Many Showtime series drive daily conversation about what’s going on now. Is that still part of its remit?
NEVINS: Absolutely. Showtime is very much at the forefront of culture and looking at what’s next, and Paramount+ is looking for what’s broadly entertaining, what’s going to have wide appeal and feel like great popcorn entertainment.

WS: How different is it to program a streaming service compared to a linear service?
NEVINS: You’re asking people to subscribe, keep their subscription going and pay a check on a monthly basis. You better have something that feels special, that a) is going to get people’s attention, and b) is going to deliver something that feels it’s worth paying for. The least-common-denominator series or the satellite show that is time period-driven don’t always work. There are no time periods to drive [viewership]. On the other hand, you don’t need to appeal to an enormous number of people. Each show can have a specialized audience. So that is why something like Star Trek or niche shows can work in streaming if they are somebody’s favorite show. And people want to binge, so there has to be a premium on deeper, richer characters and serialization. People want to fall into a world. A streaming service functions very differently from broadcast television, which can feel like a less demanding commitment.

WS: Looking back over your career, you oversaw ER, The West Wing and Will & Grace, among many other shows. You were an executive producer on Arrested Development and several critically acclaimed series. Is the high volume of shows developed and produced today impacting the development process?
NEVINS: No, I think the fundamentals still apply. I tend to get very involved in some things but also have great people who are very good subjective developers: Nicole Clemens on the Paramount+ side; Gary Levine, Amy Israel, Vinnie Malhotra on the Showtime side. Sometimes they are doing [the development], but it’s still hard to have a good project without a good script. Sometimes it takes multiple drafts to get to a good script. Good scripts can always be ruined by bad casting or bad directing. And you need to build a series for the long haul. All those basics that have [guided] me in my career, both as a network executive and a producer going back 25 years, are still the same.

WS: We can’t talk about production and shows without mentioning Covid-19. How much of the lineup in your pipeline has been delayed? I know protocols have allowed many shows to get back into production. Is it still slow going and touch-and-go?
NEVINS: We’ve hit a little bit of a lull. For the most part, complicated new shows didn’t go into production until January of this year. We tried to hide it, and I think we’ve done a good job hiding it. On both Showtime and Paramount+, we have continued on a very good growth trajectory throughout this year. Spring and summer were a little thin in our offering. The good news is that series that went into production in January will be hitting the air. Dexter: New Blood went into production in January and premieres at the beginning of November on Showtime. Billions came back to Showtime at the beginning of September. Star Trek: Discovery comes in the fall to Paramount+, so does the first of the Taylor Sheridan shows, Mayor of Kingstown. If it feels like the output has been a little thin in the summer, it’s going to be jam-packed in an exciting way for audiences this fall. So yes, Covid has had an impact—2020 was kind of a lost year in terms of production. The cupboard was a little bare, but now it’s getting restocked. We started in September, and through October, November and December, we will have great shows on the air.

WS: How have you and your teams brought Dexter back to life with Dexter: New Blood? I imagine you have to satisfy the fans of the original show but also draw in new viewers.
NEVINS: It wasn’t that complicated. The show takes place today, so the Dexter character is still Michael C. Hall. It will be very familiar. A lot of people have seen Dexter over the years. It has a very devoted audience, but there will be some people coming to it for the first time, and it will be accessible for them as well. Obviously, it’s a richer experience if you’ve watched previous seasons of Dexter. Clyde Phillips crafted a show that will speak to different audiences. There are Dexter loyalists who stayed with the original series for its entire run. There are people who watched some of Dexter, and there’s a cohort of people who have never seen Dexter but only heard about it over the years. We are going to be marketing to all of them.

WS: High-quality scripted shows are expensive to produce. What kind of financing models do you and your teams use? Are you also acquiring finished shows or co-financing with partners?
NEVINS: We do all the above. Fortunately, we have a thriving business. Paramount+ is growing rapidly. Showtime is growing rapidly. ViacomCBS has been very clear about wanting to get bigger and bigger, so we are plowing more and more money into our shows. That said, we are always looking at different models. We don’t need other people’s money to make shows, but I’m always looking to be opportunistic. We have acquired shows. For Showtime, we have Back to Life, a very successful show that is a co-production between us and the BBC. We Hunt Together is an acquisition from BBC Studios. We acquired an Australian show called The End. We make acquisitions all the time. We do co-productions. Penny Dreadful and Penny Dreadful: City of Angels were co-productions with Sky.

We have a fair amount of production right now in Europe. Writer and director Steven Zaillian is doing a big, gorgeous Italian production, Ripley, starring Andrew Scott, Dakota Fanning and Johnny Flynn. We are in production in the U.K. on The Man Who Fell to Earth, created by Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet and starring Rob Delaney, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Naomie Harris. We are in production in Budapest on Halo; again, a lot of European talent. These are three big productions in Europe right now. They are not co-productions but will have significant appeal in Europe with our European partners and when Paramount+ starts to expand into Europe.

WS: With so much in development and production, are there enough creators, writers and showrunners to go around?
NEVINS: There is a lot of opportunity, and it’s a great time to be a writer, director, actor or cinematographer. You’ll never hear me say there’s not enough talent because I feel like that’s where good developers and good curators come in. You develop a good script; good actors will find it. There may not be an endless pool of great actors, but for great scripts, you are always going to find great actors. It starts on the page. Our creative teams at Paramount+ and Showtime are the best people working in Hollywood, and Hollywood still has some of the best writing. It’s our job to attract the best people. When you develop good scripts, things seem to miraculously come together. Good actors have an incredible nose for good scripts, so the trick is just to make sure your material is good, and then you are going to get the cream of the crop.

WS: I imagine if you have a good experience with writers or actors, you develop a relationship that then leads to other projects down the road.
NEVINS: If you treat people well, create a good creative atmosphere, word tends to [get out]. If you get a reputation within the acting community and writing community that they will have a positive, creative experience, that helps. The other thing that helps on our shows is, we don’t tend to look at them as commodities. We make each show count. People know they get worldwide visibility with our programming because of the way it’s marketed and rolled out on a one-by-one basis. You don’t get lost on the shelf at Showtime or Paramount+, so that also makes it attractive to creative people.

WS: Besides working with established talent because it attracts subscribers and viewers, are your teams also looking for new talent?
NEVINS: Yes. At Showtime, we’re casting a new show based on Three Women by Lisa Taddeo. Lisa is an accomplished journalist, and with her partner, Laura Eason, has written gorgeous scripts. There are four fundamental parts, even though it’s called Three Women. It’s going to be an interesting combination of established actors and new actors. We have another show in the works and are about to shoot the pilot for it, and the series rests on a 24-year-old woman who will be new to everybody, but she’s an amazing talent.

I’ll give you another example, she’s not unknown, but she was when the show went on the air. The Chi is a show we developed with Lena Waithe, and she created it. The show just finished its fourth season and is coming back for season five. It’s a big hit for Showtime and a mainstay show. Lena is known as an actor, writer and producer, and in the five years since the show has been on the air has become a real power player in Hollywood. But when the show was developed and ordered, she was a new voice. It’s been amazing to watch her grow, the show grow and become a real business driver for Showtime. It’s sometimes really good to be someone’s first hit!

The show that has been a breakout voice for us this year is called Ziwe, a sketch and talk show from comedian Ziwe. She had been a writer on Desus & Mero and is a very provocative online persona. She gets a lot of attention. The press love to write about her. That’s another new voice that popped up at Showtime this year.

WS: Are you working with executives from other divisions of ViacomCBS to find the right home for a show? Maybe something comes across your desk, and it’s not right for you but could work for someone else?
NEVINS: Without a doubt. I would say the creative executives of the company are probably more connected now than they ever were in the past. Something is coming out of CBS Studios—is it right for Showtime? Is it right for Paramount+? Or a Showtime production, Halo, goes on Paramount+. Even before I was officially in charge of Paramount+, Nicole Clemens had shown me the script of the Grease prequel, Rise of the Pink Ladies. It’s a brilliant reimagining of Grease, set in high school in the ’50s but in a way that smartly reflects high school today because it’s dealing with outsiders and a multicultural, non-mainstream group. I was a very early advocate of that. There is a lot of back and forth within the company. It’s a very collaborative culture. There is a content council, and since all quarters of the company are invested in the success of streaming, it’s become necessary to collaborate. You can’t just look at what’s good for your channel anymore. It’s about the combination of your linear channel, your studio and the ultimate streaming home for shows. It drives collaboration.

WS: With so many shows out there, it’s often difficult to find where they are. How do you market and create awareness for shows today compared to how it was done back when there were only linear channels?
NEVINS: First of all, ViacomCBS controls more ad space than any other company in the United States. We have a pretty potent platform. If we decide we want to make a big deal about Top Gun: Maverick or SpongeBob or Halo, we have the platforms to do it. We have an enormous digital inventory. We have the CBS broadcast network. We have MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central. We have the power to use our platforms to make noise.

A lot of it has to do with what bets you’re making. Are you making tame bets, or are you being bold and taking risks to get attention? You have to be very smart about positioning, cross-promotion, how you lead an audience from an existing show that is already popular to a next show that they don’t know about yet. At Showtime, we’re going to use Dexter: New Blood to launch a show called Yellowjackets. We know that Dexter will drive a ton of awareness, and people are already paying very close attention to it. Our job at Showtime is to get the people who are signing up for and paying attention to Dexter because they’ve had 15 years in the culture to pay attention to another show that is also a genre show. Yellowjackets is a combination of dark and scary stuff but also with some comedy with well-observed characters. People haven’t heard about it yet, but Yellowjackets is going to be a phenomenon, and I’m very confident about making noise for a show like that. You just have to be a smart promoter, use your data, use your platforms and create excitement and demand.

WS: There’s just not enough time to watch everything!
NEVINS: No one person can watch everything, but no one ever said I want to read all the books in the library. Some people are interested in historical fiction. Some people want romance. Some people want biographies. If you’re running a streaming service, you’ve got to try to have different things for different people.