Showtime Boss David Nevins on HBO and Netflix, the Lifespans of Homeland and The Affair, and Twin Peaks

Photo: Birdie Thompson/AdMedia

During a year when so many returning series suffered serious audience erosion, Showtime’s Homeland and The Affair wrapped their respective seasons Sunday in decidedly strong shape. Final numbers incorporating encore showings and delayed viewing won’t be in for a few weeks, but early data suggests Homeland will at worst match its year-ago ratings, while The Affair may be that rare 2015 sophomore series that actually grew its audience. That means that while HBO’s The Leftovers deservedly drew raves for its stellar second season, its Showtime rivals reached more viewers this fall (despite HBO being available in more homes). Vulture caught up with Showtime president (and soon-to-be CEO) David Nevins last week to talk about his Sunday successes, what’s ahead in 2016, and how Showtime is evolving to meet the challenge from new streaming rivals such as Netflix. And yes, we also asked him how things were going on the Twin Peaks revival. (Spoiler: It’s looking good.)

Let’s talk about Homeland, which will have aired its finale when this interview posts. It was definitely a positive season for the show, both in terms of ratings and buzz. The series seems more focused than it’s been, maybe a bit less of a soap opera and more of a tense thriller. How did you and the producers manage the transformation, if that’s the word?
After Brody, the last two years have really been about Alex and the writing staff committing to the idea of this show as a very real-world spy thriller, and trying to tell the story of America’s place in a very complicated world in the 21st century. The show has become much more researched-based. They take a two or three-week trip to Washington, D.C., in January and sit down with a ton of national-security people, CIA people — some current, some former — and hear what they’re concerned about, what they see happening over the course of the next 12 months.

One of the things that’s given energy to the show is how closely it has mirrored what’s actually come to pass. The Paris attacks happened after all but the very last episode was produced. But a lot of the things that led to the attack were addressed in this season. It’s been an amazing feat of synthesis of a lot of themes: strict privacy laws, Edward Snowden compromising some of the tricks of American intelligence, [Russian president Vladimir] Putin trying to assert himself in the Middle East. It all came together in a way that weirdly mimicked what’s gone on in the real world. They took what they heard from people in the real world and turned it into a really smashing spy thriller.

Homeland is about to go into its sixth season. That’s pretty old for premium cable shows. Two of your other tentpoles, Shameless and Episodes, are going into their sixth and fifth seasons. Are you beginning to think about the endgames for these shows?
I’m not going to talk about specifics, but yeah, you do start to think of endgames. But the thing about Homeland is, it’s a slightly different show because it really is able to tell a new story every year. I would like to be able to keep Homeland going because it’s able to renew itself every season by just telling a story about a different part of the world. It’s not doing the same thing. I don’t know what Alex is thinking in terms of an endgame. I do know he thinks there are a couple more years left in the show, two or three. I’ve gotten that from him. But how he plans to end it, I don’t know.

I could imagine Homeland having a life even after Carrie and Saul — rebooting itself every cycle the way Fargo and American Horror Story do. Is this something you could see?
It could definitely do that. There’s no question. Do we think a version of Homeland won’t be relevant 15 years from now? Of course it will. Who knows what that version will be, but its franchise is both big enough and specific enough that you could imagine it outlasting any individual character.

Give me the brief state of the union for Showtime right now. Where do you stand as a network, particularly at a time when there is so much change going on in the TV business?
A lot of the industry trends are really favorable for us. At our core, our business is a subscription business, and that’s the gold standard right now. The decline in advertising revenue and of the big-cable bundle are the big challenges facing everyone in the television industry right now, and our model offers pretty good immunity to those. Everybody understands that you have to pay to get Showtime. We have what everybody in the media wants: a growing subscription base.

We also have strength of programming across the year. In at least two of the four quarters, we have the dominant pay-cable show [with Homeland and Shameless]. Arguably, it’s three of the four, because at the end of this season, Ray Donovan was asserting itself in a way nothing else was in the summer. And there’s new stuff coming. I have a lot of hope for Billions. I have a lot of hope and excitement for Cameron Crowe’s new show, Roadies.

And there’s Twin Peaks!  You’ve now formally announced it won’t return until 2017. How are things going?
David is deep in production right now. He’s probably at roughly the halfway point of his shooting schedule. Then he’s going to start editing, and when he’s ready, he’s going to give it to me. It has the potential to be really stupendous. He’s an artist working at a very high level, and from what I’ve heard from the actors who have been on it, it’s going to be an incredible work. It’s something he’s been living with and thinking about for many years. So I have really high hopes.

What was the drama between you and David Lynch and the deal for the show ultimately about? Was there any point where you worried, Okay, this might not happen?
He wanted the freedom to do the episodes, and do them the way he wanted to do them. There was a moment of confusion, and that’s when it looked like it was not going to happen, but as soon as I actually got David on the phone, it became very clear to me that we were going to be back on track. We didn’t want to announce anything until we were done, so it seemed like a two-month hiccup. But in my mind, it was really only a 48-hour hiccup.

Since the show will be in the can by the time it airs, you’ll be able to release all the episodes at once if you want. Is that under consideration at all?
I haven’t considered the various possibilities. I believe in a weekly release schedule, and I think David does, too. But as we get further down the road, we’ll discuss it.

As you noted, you’ve got some big ratings draws and your share of programs, which get on critics’ year-end lists and compete for awards, like Homeland. But it seems like you’re less interested in being the network that has that show everyone calls the Best Show on TV. It seems like you aim a bit more toward the middle.
We tend to have the more populist programming. I definitely care about entertainment value — I’m looking for shows that I feel are pushing the medium forward, that are very cutting-edge, that feel premium. But I want shows that are entertaining and watchable and get people talking, that reflect the world we live in. Our shows tend to dominate dinner-party chatter more than anything. I would strongly argue that Ray Donovan is as well-written and well-acted as any show on television. It may not have gotten the acclaim some of the other shows have gotten. But a very desirable and influential demographic watches that show and talks about it. And I think The Affair has bloomed this year into very much of a conversation-starter kind of show. It just is. As far as cocktail-party chatter in New York and L.A., The Affair is a much-dissected show.

We’re seeing some of your rivals, including HBO, expand their offerings to compete with the likes of Netflix and Amazon. Do you feel a similar need to step up with more content?
We’re going to be putting more shows on the air than we have in the past next year, and I think you’re going to start seeing us staggering our schedule. Rather than launching shows two by two, we’d like to have new programming during as many months of the year as possible. Billions is going to premiere just one week after Shameless, and as we move through the year, you’re going to see our launch dates more staggered.

That seems like a direct response to Netflix. They’re debuting something big every few weeks now.
It’s a direct response to the way people want to consume streaming TV. They’re waiting for the next new thing. It’s a direct response to an increasingly nonlinear world. So little of the viewing of, say, The Affair comes as a result of the fact that it’s parked behind Homeland. Maybe 20 percent of the Sunday night viewership for The Affair also watched Homeland — and then only 20 percent of The Affair’s total viewing comes on Sunday night. Eighty percent of The Affair’s viewing comes on other nights. The idea that you need Homeland to help The Affair, or Shameless to help Billions, is not really true anymore. So much of the consumption now is nonlinear, and that’s why I’m starting to spread it out — so we have something new, rather than blowing two premieres at once. We want to have new stuff pretty much every month of the year.

What will the overall increase in hours of programming be?
It’s not going to be radical. I have no aspirations to put on 30 new series a year. We’re at ten shows now. I could see us getting up to one a month, maybe a little bit more. And we’re doing other things. We’re more competitive in documentaries than we’ve ever been. We have been making more, and we’ve been making better ones. We have one that’s a serious contender for the Oscar with Listen to Me Marlon. Our sports programming has gotten stronger and stronger. The Notre Dame football show we did, for many weeks, was right behind Homeland and The Affair for our most-watched show in streaming consumption.

Documentaries do seem to be taking on a higher profile for you. 
It’s a big push. I’ve hired an executive, a pretty senior executive who was at CNN, Vinnie Malhotra. He’ll be starting in the new year. I haven’t really had a completely dedicated nonfiction executive before. And that’s a statement. Our new show The Circus — nobody’s ever covered an election like this. You’ve always had to wait a year. But given what you can do now with the speed of postproduction and very light cameras, we’re able to do a real-time documentary. It’s a major commitment: We’re going to be doing it 40 weeks next year, and it’s definitely going to be very different. A lot of people will be covering the election, but nobody will be covering it like this. Mark Halperin and John Heilemann are going to be breaking news on a regular basis because they have incredible access. Documentaries, if you choose the right subject, can make a lot of noise off the TV pages. The Spymasters broke a lot of news and made several front pages when it came out.

Does the fact that people can now get Showtime without having cable change the kinds of shows you do? HBO has done deals with Jon Stewart and others, which seem targeted to younger viewers who watch only via HBO Now or their parents’ HBO Go passwords. As you potentially reach new audiences, will you change your programming strategy at all?
I don’t plan on doing any radical changes to our brand. I think we have more shows that matter than anybody else. Some people come to us for Episodes, some people come to us for Homeland. But our ten defining shows are more addictive, and have more stickiness, than anyone else’s in this space. We lack something giant like Game of Thrones, which is an amazing show and is as big a worldwide hit as it gets. But after that, we’ve got the biggest depth and breadth. We have series, sports, documentaries, movies. We’re incredibly competitive on all those levels. I don’t think we need to radically differentiate the network for subscribers who come to us over the internet. Our brand will evolve, but people are going to come for our shows, however they get to us.