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A Cable Original

10/24/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

Matt Blank, Chairman and CEO, Showtime Networks

Ask Matt Blank why he got into the cable business, and he’ll tell you it wasn’t because of any special calling.

Indeed, when he joined HBO in 1976, he figured he’d stick around for a year or two and use the job as a springboard to a broadcast-network gig.

Lucky for the industry, he realized that cable was the better place to be. As chairman and CEO of Showtime Networks, Blank has built one of the industry’s leading original-programming entities.

“We’ve been heavily investing in original programming,” Blank said. “People are knocking on our door today with scripts and concepts. We are the first stop on the train now. It wasn’t like that a few years ago.”

It hasn’t been easy. Showtime had long been the No. 2 pay TV network, behind HBO, in customer count and in the kind of programming that critics and viewers clamored for.

“Changing Showtime was like turning an oil tanker,” Blank said. “It took a while, but it was worth the effort. We were always reasonably financially successful. But we weren’t part of the top tier.

“Today, we have great programming. We have great marketing. And media, consumers and our distributors really believe in Showtime, its programming and our brand.”

Blank joined Showtime in 1988 and became CEO in 1995. Over the past half-decade or so, he set out to build an executive team that could ferret out and acquire quality programming, then effectively market that content to consumers.

Blank said he has found the right mix and that he’s pleased with his charges’ accomplishments so far.

“We’ve become a finely oiled machine,” Blank said proudly.

“We had to convince our distributors that we weren’t the second-place pay network,” he added. “We rely on our distributors to sell our service 365 days a year. They needed to believe in us, and today they do.”

A lot of that has to do with Blank himself. Michael Willner, chairman of Insight Communications, credits Blank with a steely determination that is belied by his irreverent personality.

“Matt will joke around about just about everything, but he is taken very seriously in this industry,” Willner said. “He deserves the 'Funniest Man in Cable’ award, but there is no compromise of everyone’s view of the substance he has to offer in any discussion. People listen to what he has to say.

“It’s a rare trait: someone who can joke around but be taken very seriously when serious is called for,” Willner added. “That said, we all know that when we ask Matt to speak, we have to buckle our seat belts because it will be a wild ride.”

The Cable Center’s Hall of Fame award isn’t Blank’s first accolade: He’s won three National Cable & Telecommunications Association Vanguard Awards, the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing’s Grand Tam Award and Cable Positive’s Joel A. Berger Award.

Blank was also inducted into Broadcasting & Cable’s Hall of Fame.

In addition, he serves on several industry boards, including The Cable Center, NCTA and CTAM. As chairman of CTAM in 1992, he convinced Char Beales to leave her job at Comsat to serve as the marketing group’s president.

Blank is proud of what Showtime has accomplished over the last seven years.

“Every time we premiere a new show that does well it makes me proud,” Blank said. “And I am proud that Showtime is a top-tier brand in the entertainment industry today. As a marketing guy, that just makes me smile.”

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