It’s a busy lunch service in the expansive garden dining room at Brentwood’s Tavern restaurant as the sun streams in from the glass ceiling. David Nevins, the former producer who is now the president of entertainment at Showtime, casually removes his coat, draping it on the chair next to him.
“I sold Time Life books on the telephone,” said Nevins of a teenage job, where he worked alongside members of punk band Rude Buddha. “It’s probably the only pure skill job I’ve ever had. When you’re on and you’re good, you get yes after yes. When you’re slightly off, you get rejection after rejection. It was one of the greatest jobs I ever had. It was brutal.”
Sounds like being a TV producer—but as a network executive, he’s now on the other side of giving yeses and nos. Nevins surprised many Hollywood insiders when he left the top job at Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine Television five months back to lead premium cable network Showtime. Robert Greenblatt, his predecessor, soon to take over at NBC, had successfully managed to transform Showtime into a major player in the original-programming game, challenging HBO’s hegemony and becoming a major success story in the process.
With shows like Dexter and Weeds, Showtime announced itself as an edgy alternative to HBO, reinventing itself from a pay cable also-ran to the award-winning home of provocative dark comedies, serial killers, and sensationalized period dramas like The Tudors.
While rival HBO faced subscriber declines this year, falling from a 2009 high of 29.1 million, Showtime has grown. The channel, which, according to its internal numbers, ended 2010 with 19 million subscribers, boasts subscriber growth every year for the last seven years, adding 2.5 million new subscribers since the start of 2009. (Five years ago, they had 13.8 million subscribers.)
Nevins, however, is not content to allow the network to rest on its laurels.
“I like a chicky relationship show probably more than anything,” Nevins said.
“I want to crack 20 million subscribers,” he said. “I see that in the not too distant future. I think HBO can be within our sights. We're still the No. 2 in terms of subscribers. That doesn't have to be now and forever.”
Back in his role as a producer, Nevins was instrumental at bringing some of television’s best and brightest to the airwaves: ER, Arrested Development, Friday Night Lights, The West Wing, Will & Grace, Homicide. The list goes on and on, particularly when you consider the positions Nevins held at both NBC and Fox before going to work in 2002 at Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine, where he oversaw production on 24.
One of Nevins’ major goals at Showtime is to bring in more male viewers. At the moment, the lineup is filled with female-centric shows, critical darlings like Weeds, Nurse Jackie, The Big C, and The United States of Tara, that each has strong female characters at their centers.
The irony being that Nevins, who will gush about his love for Friday Night Lights (on which he has an executive producer credit), likes programming traditionally targeted toward women.
“I actually have very girly taste in television,” he said. “I like a chicky relationship show probably more than anything. I really like Project Runway... What I watch on television, there’s plenty of chick shows in there.”
Showtime is about to launch two new series this Sunday with Shameless and Episodes. Shameless, based on Paul Abbott’s hit U.K. drama, follows the lives of the hard-drinking Gallagher family in Chicago; it hails from ER mastermind John Wells, while comedy Episodes was created by Friends creator David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik and stars Matt LeBlanc as an exaggerated version of himself.
“Both in their own way announce a slight broadening of the lens for us in that they clearly fit with our other shows and they’re sophisticated and adult in the best sense of the words,” said Nevins. “ Shameless is grungy and sexy at the same time. I like shows that have multiple tones to them; our shows have been largely very singularly focused. Episodes is a new tone of comedy for us as we have a lot more dramedy. This is a hardcore comedy from hardcore comedy writers.”
That the tonally dissimilar Shameless and Episodes can lead into one another makes Showtime so appealing for someone who worked in the broadcast network game for so long.
“It's not like programming a network where you're trying to find shows with compatible sensibility so that you can get The Simpsons into Family Guy,” he said.
Nevins isn’t trying to play it safe with his development slate. The first two pilots in development under Nevins’ aegis have recently been announced: the Damian Lewis/ Claire Danes-led psychological thriller Homeland and provocative comedy House of Lies, starring Don Cheadle.
Homeland is adapted from the Israeli series Prisoners of War and will revolve around an American soldier (Lewis) who returns home after years of captivity but his loyalties are questioned by an unstable CIA officer (Danes) who believes that his return is connected to an al Qaeda terrorist plot. “It’s really a play on loyalty and patriotism and has a lot of sexual intrigue, too,” Nevins said. “You’re going to watch [the two lead characters] on this collision course… but it’s a script that takes place in these quiet moments.”
Single-camera comedy House of Lies, meanwhile, will star Cheadle as a cutthroat management consultant (“the ultimate bullshit artist,” according to Nevins) willing to do whatever it takes to keep his clients satisfied. “This is a very insider view as to the absurdity [of the business world],” said Nevins. “People are wary of finance, banking, Wall Street… This show is about all of that but not from any sanctimonious point of view.”
In the world of premium cable, where development can often drag on, the speed with which Nevins and his team have pushed through these two shows and scored A-list talent for them is remarkable.
“I’m impatient,” said Nevins with a smile. “It works well for this job.”
Nevins also wants to move deeper into sports, reality, and late-night documentaries. “I think we can be doing a better job at adult-content documentaries and premium stuff that Showtime has run away from,” he said, “but I think we can do it in a way that’s sophisticated and fits with our brand.”
Showtime currently has a late-night reality show in development about a group of five Las Vegas men who all work as male prostitutes (it’s expected to air as early as second quarter 2011) and another about “sexual perversity in marriage.”
Yes, Nevins does mean “adult content” for late night, much in the way that Showtime used to offer shows like Red Shoe Diaries and Beverly Hills Bordello, but Nevins maintains that the network would tackle mature content “with quality and provocative insight, without insulting your intelligence.”
He maintains that all of Showtime’s programming has “audaciousness” as a common thread, but that to keep that quality, you have to continue to switch things up and continue to surprise the audience.
“I have very simple ambitions,” Nevins said. “If I can just not be boring, I'm ahead of the game. It's hard in television. I think you get enormous reward from the audience. Just give them something they didn't see coming and you get enormous points.”
Even with the ramp-up in development under Nevins’ leadership, Showtime will have to eventually find replacements for some of its aging series, including Weeds and Dexter, both of which came off their most successful seasons to date, luring 4.2 million and 5 million cumulative viewers, respectively. (By contrast, their pay-cable rival HBO claims cumulative numbers of 13 million for True Blood and 10.7 million for Boardwalk Empire.)
“I think a healthy network is in a constant state of renewal,” he said. “My first goal is to get extra seasons out of both of those shows but also remain aggressive in terms of growing.”
Nevins’ goal is to offer originals every week of the year, without the “fallow periods” that most cablers tend to have between original programming cycles. The rest of the calendar year will see the launch of period drama The Borgias, starring Jeremy Irons, about the Renaissance’s most infamous clan, and Lisa Kudrow’s Web-to-TV series Web Therapy, as well as the return of Nurse Jackie and United States of Tara in April. June will see the returns of Weeds, Laura Linney's cancer comedy The Big C, and The Real L Word. Nevins hopes to get two new shows on the air for summer and fall.
“I want to do a thriller,” said Nevins. “The thing that excites me about Homeland is that it is a very intense psychological thriller in a way that is very hard to pull off on television and is rarely ever attempted.”
And then there are always those Vegas gigolos to consider.
“Your brain tends to be limited by precedent,” said Nevins. “My brain tends to go to the forbidden. ‘Do not enter,’ of course, makes you want to walk through the door. I will occasionally run a traffic light, just because. It’s fun to be naughty.”
Jace Lacob is The Daily Beast's TV Columnist. As a freelance writer, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, TV Week, and others. Jace is the founder of television criticism and analysis website Televisionary and can be found on Twitter. He is a member of the Television Critics Association.