Blank Draws Comfort From SVOD

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Matt Blank’s a subscriber to the belief that video on demand is bolstering premium television’s prospects.

Blank, who last month celebrated his 10th anniversary as chairman of Showtime Networks Inc., said subscription video on demand leads to reduced churn and greater viewer satisfaction.

Showtime on Demand finished 2004 with about 4 million subscribers, with The Movie Channel on Demand counting some 1.8 million. By the end of 2005, Blank foresees a jump to 5.5 million and 2.5 million, respectively.

All told, Showtime registered a 14% increase in its subscriber base, to over 13 million in 2004.

BIG CHURN CURB

Citing internal research, Blank said that in homes with Showtime on Demand, Showtime’s churn rate declined by as much as 20% in year-over-year comparison, while digital churn was reduced by up to 15%. In addition, research found that 91% of heavy users of Showtime On Demand were satisfied with the service, 74% are more likely to keep digital and 68% are more prone to retain Showtime.

All of these findings point toward more overall viewing for Showtime services.

“If you’re an SVOD user and watching The L Word, your length of tune-in is longer, your likelihood to sample new series is higher,” said Blank. “You’re also menuing. Now you saw an L Word ad in Entertainment Weekly. Then, you went to an on-demand service, clicked on series and there were six episodes of The L Word, so it reinforces not necessarily the usage, but the awareness and the availability of the product. It’s great for exposure, a home run.”

Speaking of exposure, Showtime has just completed a free preview weekend, including Usher’s only live TV concert of the year on March 5.

The network has also been basking in the buzz around Kirstie Alley’s new hybrid reality/comedy series Fat Actress, in which she plays the problems of being large for laughs. The seven-installment series premieres tonight at 10 p.m.

“This show, which is really, really funny, has elevated the attention for Showtime,” said Blank, who leaves the door open for more installments. “If Kirstie wants to do something going forward, we’d love to be a part of it.”

'L WORD’ BROADENED

Blank is pleased with the aforementioned lesbian show The L Word, whose second season bowed on Feb. 20.

“We think the show is broadening its appeal,” he said. “The second season lives up to the potential of the series,” which has already been renewed for a third chapter.

Its alternate sexual preference predecessor, Queer as Folk, will begin its fifth and final season in May 22. “Without Queer as Folk, there is no [Bravo’s] Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, there is no Logo,” Blank said, citing Viacom Inc.’s upcoming service aimed at the gay, lesbian and transgender communities.

The appeal of shows like Queer as Folk helped convince the corporate parent to seek wider distribution for Logo, which was initially conceived as a premium service, involving Showtime and sister service MTV, added Blank.

Blank also gives high grades to Huff, starring Hank Azaria as a psychiatrist engaged in mid-life, familial and professional crises.

“Some people say Huff didn’t do a great rating, but it did a big cumulative number,” he said. “We know over the course of all the times Huff played on the network and is brought back on on-demand that it’s a very important piece of programming and that enough people are seeing it to make worthwhile for us.”

Blank also says there is plenty in the development pipeline, including Barbershop, based on the pair of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. theatricals, which pull in “great numbers” every time they run on Showtime.

“It’s harder to do comedies, but that’s why I think if you have a half-hour built on existing character structure and story, that’s a tremendous advantage,” he said. Showtime has ordered 10 episodes of Barbershop, which will debut later this year.

On the dramatic front, Blank points to Weeds, a series about a suburban mom, who resorts to selling marijuana to support her family after her husband dies unexpectedly.

“What a cast: Mary Louise Parker, Kevin Nealon, Elizabeth Perkins. They’re terrific together,” said Blank. “It looks, feels different. It’s very much pay TV.”

'CELL’ IS RIVETING

Later this year, viewers can expect The Cell, which focuses on an African-American Muslim who joins an Islamic sleeper terrorist cell in the U.S., while working undercover for the FBI. “It’s tough content, it’s going to disturb some people. But it’s not meant to be pejorative to Arab-Americans and African-Americans. There are bad white guys, too,” he said. “It’s absolutely riveting.”

Another show that Blank says has “all the characteristics of great drama is Brotherhood. It’s about brothers, labor unions and a mob element to the labor unions. Crooked and not crooked politicians. It has a great script, fabulous talent, with Phil Noyce (The Hunt for Red October) writing and directing.” This show won’t hit the air until 2006, according to Showtime officials.

Taking series stock, Blank envisions a new era for Showtime in its battle against rival HBO and for greater recognition.

“I really believe that Showtime has the most compelling program on TV coming over the next year,” said Blank. “This brand’s at a real take-off point. If we’re talking again next February, we’ll be in a whole other place. And this isn’t such a bad place.”

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