November 8, 2004
Curtain's up at Showtime
The cable network's top exec, Robert Greenblatt, has spent his first
year revamping its lineup. He's about to find out if his instincts earn
By Lynn Smith, Times Staff Writer
No one would have blamed Robert Greenblatt if he had fallen asleep. Exhausted
from travel, he was fighting a cold. And, unlike most of those in a dark
Westwood theater watching the screening of Showtime's "Huff"
the other day, the network's president of programming had already seen
„ many times over „ the images telling the story of a Los Angeles psychiatrist
in crisis: the bloody death of one patient, the narcolepsy of another,
the domestic bickering, the schizophrenic brother and the mysterious homeless
But then Greenblatt noticed Blythe Danner, playing the tart-tongued mother
of Hank Azaria's psychiatrist, as she tossed a zinger at a quiet, caged
canary: "Tweet, dammit!" And the Showtime exec suddenly laughed
That's the thing separating Greenblatt from many of his peers, say colleagues
of the man picked last year to make over the network's lackluster image.
He's a big-picture guy who gets caught up in the smallest details „ from
the punctuation in a title to the number of violins in a score. Unlike
most of the others, "he likes television," says screenwriter
Alan Ball, who created HBO's hit "Six Feet Under" and won an
Oscar for his screenplay for "American Beauty."
"A lot of people in power positions don't really like [television],"
Ball adds. "They look at it purely as programming and see things
from only a technical or marketing perspective. That's when stuff gets
safe and boring."
Now, subscribers are about to see whether Greenblatt, after his first
year of greenlighting new projects, can surprise them enough to pay for
the premium cable service. Besides "Huff," which debuts tonight
at 10, Showtime is developing a handful of pilots including dramas about
a mom who deals pot in the Valley ("Weeds"), two seemingly opposite
brothers in Providence, R.I. ("Brotherhood"), and a group of
ordinary-looking folks who actually constitute an L.A. terrorist cell
Also on the slate: a six-episode comedy about a fat actress ("Fat
Actress" with Kirstie Alley), a special with edgy comic Dave Chappelle,
a series based on the life of Richard Pryor, and a movie about outspoken
comic and social critic Lenny Bruce. Not to mention a big, brassy film
version of the musical satire "Reefer Madness" and a movie ("Our
Fathers") about pedophile priests.
Greenblatt says he doesn't want to push boundaries just because he can
on pay cable, which is unfettered by the FCC or advertisers. But it's
no accident that the shows are provocative and promoted aggressively.
"I'm just trying to get some attention. Not because we're screaming
louder but because we're screaming louder and, hopefully, the shows are
His mandate to build the Showtime brand and send new signals is complicated
by a television landscape that has become saturated with original programming,
he says. Showtime, lumped with Cinemax and Starz as far as paying subscribers
go, has creative aspirations, like Emmy titan HBO's, for innovative original
movies, specials and series. But before Greenblatt took over a year ago,
Showtime was perceived as a niche-oriented, movie-heavy network with a
few notable series ("The L-Word," "Queer as Folk"),
but at the end of the day driven more by budgets than artistic concerns.
The question is, can Greenblatt turn Showtime into a power player with
quality shows made with less than half the budget of HBO?
The new roster is already sending a strong message to the television
community that Showtime is looking up, some say. Andy Fickman, director
of "Reefer Madness" (he describes it as "Rocky Horror Show"
meets "Grease"), says he's happy to say "Yes" when
writers, producers and directors call to ask if there's truth behind the
buzz that Showtime has become a good place to bring new material. "Bob
is making a home where talent can grow," he says.
In the past, the 44-year-old executive broke ground as a producer at Fox
("Beverly Hills, 90210" and "The Simpsons") and as
an independent producer with David Janollari ("Six Feet Under"),
often launching new young voices like "The X-Files' " Chris
Carter. Their company is winding down now, but he and Janollari (now entertainment
president for the WB Network) remain involved in their products, including
HBO's "Six Feet Under" and UPN's "Eve."
"The common thread for me, and I learned it from Peter Chernin at
Fox, is 'Do the kind of shows that nobody else will do,' " he says.
Greenblatt is a perfect match for Showtime, Chernin says, because he knows
how to generate buzz. "Pay cable, unlike networks, is all about profile,
not ratings," he says. "The point of programming is ultimately
to drive word of mouth. You want people to call the cable operator,"
"Huff," the latest Greenblatt effort to arrive, may not be the
most audacious series on cable. Some early criticism has labeled it both
odd and not strange enough. But where else will you find a show with parents
confronting their sweet teenage son about a sex party? Or full frontal
male nudity? Showtime has already ordered a second season.
Tall, trim and tailored, Greenblatt has an unusually unassuming and self-contained
air, one that lacks what one colleague calls the "lurking subtext"
of many in the Hollywood milieu.
Openly gay, he lives alone with a mixed-breed Doberman named Newman in
a showcase Craftsman home in West Hollywood. Obsessed with work, he says
he operates at a full but not frantic pace, sleeping six hours a night.
Weekends, he works and goes out to movies with friends.
The Rockford files
His devotion to theater and television harks back to his hometown,
Rockford, Ill., whose small Catholic high school had an unusually dedicated
drama department. When he wasn't playing piano in the orchestra pit or
working backstage, he says he just watched the plays, enthralled.
The close-knit group of students grew up into a close-knit group of
writers, directors, actors and producers who still work together and support
one another's shows. Greenblatt hired schoolmate Kevin Stites to conduct
the orchestra for "Reefer Madness." Showtime is also producing
the Broadway one-man show "Laugh Whore," directed by Rockford
buddy Joe Mantello, and has a film version planned for next year.
Greenblatt earned graduate and postgraduate degrees in theater management
and business, but looking for a way to stay engaged creatively, he moved
to Los Angeles to enroll in a USC television producers' program. (He helped
pay his way by playing piano in a Hamburger Hamlet in Westwood.) An internship
landed him at Fox. "He was extremely smart, original and daring,"
Chernin says. "A younger version of what he is now."
Grabbing lunch in his low-key, high-rise office overlooking the site of
the Hamburger Hamlet of his piano-playing days, Greenblatt says: "Our
job is to find creators who have strong passions for something and put
them on the air in as undiluted a fashion as possible."
In addition to some untested writers, his projects tend to feature much
admired but underused actors such as Mary-Louise Parker (the mom in "Weeds"),
Marcia Gay Harden (the captain of an NYPD bias unit in the series pilot
"Hate") and Jason Isaacs (in "Brotherhood"). The actors
as well as some feature film directors not only appreciate the work but
prefer an environment relatively free of restraints. "Brotherhood"
attracted film director Phillip Noyce ("The Quiet American.")
Fickman says Greenblatt threw himself into every step of "Reefer
Madness," from enhancing the Busby Berkeley-style dance numbers to
the Art Deco visual style, to the recording sessions. "He'd say,
'Can we bring up the violins here, pull back the guitars there?' "
In the end, Fickman says he felt more inspired than micromanaged.
Likewise, "Huff" creator Bob Lowry, producing his first project
based on his own script, says he was especially grateful that Greenblatt
never sent him a note asking, "Can we make 'Huff' fly?"
Lowry, who claims Greenblatt is right 90% of the time, lost one creative
difference of opinion, however, over an exclamation point in "!Huff."
"I put it there for many reasons. It suggested noise and chaos and
excitement," Lowry says. Now, "It's gone. [Greenblatt] said
he felt it was confusing and would perhaps confuse the launch. I said
After years working with some of TV's shrewdest executives, Greenblatt
is sharply attuned to the value of marketing and publicizing his products.
"Build it and they will come," is an adage that no longer works
in a television world where a multitude of branded networks spend millions
to successfully hawk new programming, he says.
Greenblatt admits to HBO envy, especially marketing budgets. According
to Kagan Media Research, HBO reported $2.5 billion in revenue in 2003,
compared with Showtime's $950 million. Cash flow at HBO was $708 million,
and $242 million at Showtime.
Even so, Showtime is spending a record amount to advertise "Huff"
in a variety of venues, from ads on both network and cable to the pages
of USA Today and Vogue magazine. A DVD of the pilot is included with this
week's Entertainment Weekly magazine.
But by their nature, many of the new shows will deliver media attention
without paid marketing.
Take "Fat Actress," the reality show starring the 200-pound
Alley. "It's a concept in two words," Greenblatt says. "Everyone
went, 'Omigod, I can't believe she's doing that.' We've had more awareness
of this show than anything we've had in a long time, and it's still six
Although Showtime has a long road ahead in terms of catching HBO financially,
the good news is that many viewers have turned from broadcast to pay and
cable networks for original programming in the past several years, says
Kagan senior analyst Deana Myers.
Greenblatt doesn't expect to accomplish his mission quickly or without
failures. Much success in television is simply the result of luck, he
"The important thing I learned from Barry Diller at Fox is that failure
isn't the worst thing in the world. The worst thing is you get so affected
by it, you get stopped in your tracks."
In the end, he says, "there's nothing more thrilling than looking
at what you've put together when six months ago there was nothing but