LOS ANGELES -- Showtime "continues to thrive" despite daunting economic conditions, growing by 1 million subs, to 16.5 million customers, through the end of 2008.
Many of those new customers were obtained online: Chairman and CEO Matt Blank told pundits at the Television Critics Association winter press tour here that the network experienced a 500% growth in traffic to the sho.com order portal.
The growth also translated into more online viewing. Blank said there's also been a 50% increase in video streaming at sho.com
The executives were at ease in front of the critics, dropping a few hints about upcoming programming choices. For instance, the channel has ordered a pilot for a spin off of The L Word. Executives decided this season, its sixth, would be the last for the lesbian-themed series so writers could create a satisfying conclusion to that skein.
But a new series could be greenlit, which could be described as a "female Oz," the gritty prison drama late of HBO. The pilot has been shot, but Robert Greenblatt, president of entertainment for the channel, said he hasn't seen it yet.
Greenblatt assured critics that the fact the channel has ordered two more years of both Dexter and Weeds does not signal those series will end at the end of their pick-ups, though he added that Dexter is "tricky to sustain" from a plotting point of view. He said the two shows are the most popular originals on Showtime.
However, the series Brotherhood remains on the bubble. Greenblatt said executives love the show but "we're trying to figure out its future."
The executives even seemed to relish the inevitable "HBO v. Showtime" questions.
For years, Showtime had to answer that question from the other side of the fence, Blank said.
"Now we feel strong against anyone in the field ... We can't control what HBO does, we can only control what we do, and that's paid off for us," Blank said, adding later, "When [projects] come to us today, the people are coming to us first."
Greenblatt said that HBO is a great network, adding that every network goes through phases and HBO is rebuilding.
"I'm glad that many of you feel we're even now," he said to critics.
Asked whether premium networks will ever look like broadcasters, with all originals in primetime, Blank said he wasn't sure they would ever get to 21 hours of originals weekly. Theatrical films will always be an important part of the mix, with Greenblatt noting that even broadcasters are moving away from 21 hours of original scripted programming. He went so far as to predict that one of the five major broadcasters would soon return primetime hours to local station affiliates. Pressed to name a network, he narrowed his prediction down to NBC or ABC.