Showtime plays the long game
US premium pay TV channel Showtime is one of the most loyal commissioning networks in the world, revealing a willingness over the past few years to let its scripted series run and run.
Looking back at Showtime’s classic titles, for example, serial killer drama Dexter ran for eight seasons before it finished in 2014. And even then it might have continued had lead actor Michael C Hall not wanted to pursue other acting opportunities.
Nurse Jackie and Californication also lasted seven seasons on Showtime – an impressive performance in our short-attention-span society.
Looking at current shows, top performer Shameless was granted a seventh season earlier this year. And this week Showtime announced that it had greenlit seventh and eighth seasons of Homeland, the espionage series derived from Israel’s Prisoners of War (Hatufim). That news comes despite the fact that the sixth season of Homeland doesn’t premiere until January 2017.
Homeland, starring Claire Danes, looked as though it might be running out of steam at the end of season four and heading into season five. But a strong recovery in the back half of season five reaffirmed its versatility and its importance to Showtime’s schedule. The show will now run until at least 2019.
In parallel with the Homeland announcement, Showtime also announced that there will be a fifth season of Ray Donovan, which stars Liev Schreiber as a fixer for LA’s rich and famous. The show, which runs in batches of 12 episodes, is currently in the middle of season four and rating pretty consistently. With an average audience of around 1.2 million (same-day figure), it is currently the third best-performing drama in Showtime’s line-up.
Showtime’s other dramas aren’t as far advanced as these titles, but they all seem to be benefiting from similar support from the channel.
Billions, The Affair and Masters of Sex have all been renewed, while Penny Dreadful probably would have been if creator John Logan hadn’t decided to call it a day. Even House of Lies managed five seasons before cancellation, despite the fact its ratings were looking pretty limp by the end of season four.
Showtime’s willingness to back its dramas for extended runs will probably become an industry norm over the next few years. While it’s important to refresh schedules with new productions, the TV drama market is now so cluttered that established series with consistent audiences are worth their weight in gold.
The extent of the competitive challenge has been well documented by FX Networks president John Landgraf, who has used the last couple of Television Critics Association Summer Tours to unveil research into key trends in scripted TV. Last year, for example, he said the US industry was poised to have more than 400 original shows a year on air. This year, he revised that figure up to 500 originals a year.
In Landgraf’s view, this is too many to make economic sense, so he is expecting a crunch to come at some point. He backed up this view by saying that while the top 20% of scripted series average 10.5 million viewers, the bottom tier attracts a mere 380,000.
This brings us back around to Showtime and longevity. If you have a show that rates moderately well then it makes sense to keep it going as long as possible. Why cancel it and replace it with a new show that might end up in the uneconomic end of the spectrum? That would be like a supermarket deciding to eject Heinz and Persil from its shelves in favour of completely new brands.
The attraction of sustaining shows over several seasons is reinforced by the amount of money that SVoD players are now pumping into new content. With Netflix spending around US$6bn a year on content and Amazon aiming to triple the number of new shows it has on its platform, long-running scripted franchises become even more important –which is why we’re seeing more of a trend towards multi-season commissioning.
Of course, this doesn’t mean networks should stick with every series regardless of ratings. Some series simply aren’t very good and need to be killed off so others can bloom. But as far as possible, networks need to be launching series that can last. This is why we are seeing such a strong trend towards IP that is already known (film and TV reboots, books, comics) and the use of talent packages that audiences are likely to respond well to. Anthologies and series spin-offs reinforce this overall trend.
Showtime’s key rivals are not quite as advanced in the longevity stakes but they are moving a similar way. FX, for example, reached seven seasons with Sons of Anarchy and looks like it will hit a similar mark with American Horror Story. There is now also talk of a Sons of Anarchy prequel.
Starz, meanwhile, is putting its shoulder behind Power and Outlander. At AMC, The Walking Dead has hit the magic seven and Fear The Walking Dead may eventually go the same way. Mad Men reached seven seasons and so did Breaking Bad if you count in its spin-off Better Call Saul.
Netflix has commissioned as far as seven seasons of Orange is the New Black and USA Networks has taken its hit show Suits to seven seasons. HBO’s Game of Thrones will go at least as far as eight seasons and it would be a major surprise if the network gives up there (some kind of spin-off must surely be in the works).
Elsewhere in a quiet week for scripted series, BBC2 in the UK has acquired the second season of French period drama Versailles, which will air on the channel next year. The first series rated well on BBC2 and has sold extensively around the world. In the US, it is soon to air on Ovation while distributor Zodiak Rights has also licensed it into around 130 countries. In addition, SVoD platform Netflix picked up second-window streaming rights in the US.
Also in the news this month, Portuguese public broadcaster RTP is working with producer BeActive on a drama set in the world of electronic sports. Called The Players, the series follows a group of friends as they journey to the European championship finals of League of Legends, a popular online video game. BeActive claims it is the first scripted series to focus on the world of e-sports. That’s interesting given our column last week on the role of sport in scripted TV.