Talking to Showtime’s Showman

6/23/2006 8:00 PM Eastern

Showtime Networks Inc. president of entertainment Robert Greenblatt knows what it means to be a producer and a network executive. With David Janollari, he formed The Greenblatt Janollari Studio, which produced such standout shows as Home Box Office’s Six Feet Under and CBS’ Elvis miniseries, whose star Jonathan Rhys-Meyers will headline Showtime’s upcoming historical drama The Tudors.

Before that, as executive vice president of primetime programming for Fox Broadcasting Co., he spearheaded the production of hits such as The X Files, Ally McBeal and Beverly Hills 90210, and developed the pilot for The Sopranos, which HBO picked up after Fox passed on it.

In 2004, Greenblatt’s first year at Showtime, the network premiered two shows that generated a lot of buzz and acclaim, The L Word and Huff. Last year, the lineup of originals included popular and critical success Weeds, the much-talked-about comedy Fat Actress and the daring Sleeper Cell. Among this year’s premieres are the ambitious drama Brotherhood and crime-thriller-with-a-twist Dexter.

Greenblatt sat down with Multichannel News’ George Vernadakis to talk about Showtime’s series, what makes them unique and the network’s programming strategy.

MCN: What was the first thing you worked on when you joined Showtime?

ROBERT GREENBLATT: The first thing was the Huff pilot. Ironically, that pilot was brought to me when I was a producer, and I loved it. But we had too much on our plate to take it on. Then a year later, it was at Showtime, and I thought, this is perfect.

MCN: How would you describe what makes for “a Showtime show”?

RG: We try not to be too narrowly focused in terms of doing one kind of show. We want to do lots of different kinds of shows. We’re provocative, we’re bold, we’re premium — all those buzz words, which are worthy of a service that people pay for.

MCN: Coming up this fall, you’ve got a very unique crime thriller called Dexter, whose central character happens to have a very, very dark and twisted side. How do you get audiences to develop an affinity with such a character and to keep tuning in?

RG: Clearly it’s a dark character. You have to see if there are ways to build in an affinity for him or some way to identify with him. And I think that’s there. In the same way that [The Sopranos’ James] Gandolfini became a heinous, dark character who you love … with the right actor, you can do that. And we were lucky that [Six Feet Under’s] Michael [C. Hall] wanted to jump back into a series.

I actually think Dexter could be one of our broader shows.

MCN: Showtime tackled as sensitive a topic as there is now, terrorism, with Sleeper Cell. Now it’s coming back for another season. Wasn’t it originally meant to be a self-contained miniseries?

RG: We always crafted it as one story, as the [terrorist] cell put together their operation. I think it’s a miniseries that has more chapters in it than the average miniseries. So we’ll have Sleeper Cell, the second wave.

MCN: What is the toughest challenge, in terms of determining which shows make the grade and which don’t?

RG: The hardest challenge is looking at seven or eight slots per year — which is all we can do — and each show has gotten higher production values. So the biggest frustration is trying to choose one or two or three new shows a year, at most.

We have to pick the two or three things that you hope will go the distance.

The secondary frustration is, if they work, you can’t get that many more shows on the air. Then you have to make the tough decisions: If I’m going to get The Tudors on, what’s it going to go in place of.

With the very valuable real estate that we have, for every slot that’s filled that means a Dexter won’t get on there or a Brotherhood or a Tudors. So we always have to look at these shows and say are all the things combined worth one of those valuable slots.

MCN: Have you been surprised by what shows have hit or missed the mark with audiences and critics?

RG: Sometimes you feel really good about something early on, all the elements come together. You think it’s going to land. And sometimes you don’t know until you put it on the air.

It’s really hard to predict. I thought Weeds would be more controversial because of the subject matter. But I also didn’t predict that it would be our highest-rated, biggest show right out of the box.