The Draw of the Docuseries: Showtime at Winter TCA 2014

Speaking to the brand appeal of Showtime’s programming during his executive session, David Nevins emphasized his channel’s appeal to adults…who can afford Showtime.

We are no longer at the point where we can claim that “no one” is watching Showtime: having grown considerably throughout the run of recently-ended hit Dexter, the channel can now boast series—specifically Homeland—reaching upwards of seven million viewers for each episode. Much of that has to do with the rise in non-linear platforms—DVR, OnDemand, etc.—that are more convenient for viewers than various repeats, but it also shows a channel growing its subscriber base. That said, Showtime is still in a small percentage of American homes overall, such that we need to distinguish the brand appeal based on who is spending the money necessary to access the channel on a monthly basis.

Those distinctions are fairly unimportant when it comes to series like Episodes (now airing its third season) or Penny Dreadful (premiering May 11th), the two original series for which Showtime presented panels during their Winter Press Tour half-day. The truth is that if people can’t afford access to watch Episodes or Penny Dreadful, it is unlikely that they will be missing out on anything particularly “important.” Episodes is entering its third season with a fourth already ordered based on the series’ co-production model with the U.K. and its cost-efficient production (which will film primarily in the U.K., and which takes advantage of scripts being written in advance to block out production in specific sets/locations). Penny Dreadful is the new psychosexual horror series from John Logan, starring a motley crew of public domain monsters and continuing what I’ve dubbed the “psychosexual horror arms race” that continues to find traction among audiences with a greater horror tolerance than I contain. Both shows will have their audiences, but both fit comfortably into the kinds of shows that are either available elsewhere or which fit comfortably into existing genres; in other words, they’re not the kind of shows that we would lament being stuck behind the premium cable paywall, in the same way we might think about shows that appeal to minority audiences or feature representations not present elsewhere on the television dial.

It’s different with Years of Living Dangerously (debuting April 13th). First announced to critics at the channel’s summer press tour event, this celebrity-correspondent-led docuseries is about educating audiences on the human toll of climate change. It seeks to take science surrounding climate change and give it a human face, both in the celebrity correspondents—who the panel emphasized will be more effective at communicating these messages than scientists themselves—and in the people whose lives are being impacted by climate change that the series will follow. Presenting the series for critics alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ian Somerhalder, producers were adamant that this was the kind of documentary that could lead to real global change, which landed at Showtime because producer Jerry Weintraub insisted that if you wanted eyeballs, television was the way to go.

This is true, but at Showtime you will get specific eyeballs, the aforementioned “adults who are able to afford Showtime.” Showtime doesn’t actually offer a plethora of eyeballs so much as it offers the prestige—the series will air on Sunday nights, where Showtime airs most of its original scripted programming—and status of premium cable. That will still likely equal more viewers than your average feature-length documentary, which had originally been the plan for the project, but it also limits the kind of person who is likely to be watching something that aims to have substantial social and political impact on the issue of climate change.

My question for the panel, which I didn’t end up having time to ask during the session, was how they intended to spread the message beyond those who have access to Showtime. In answering other questions, they alluded to plans for a quick transition to DVD and other streaming services, suggesting Showtime’s role in the project really is as an initial producer/distributor rather than as the exclusive home of the docuseries. The series’ Twitter account also reached out to let me know that they would be posting many videos to the series’ website, perhaps those featuring celebrities like Somerhalder with intense online followings that would be more likely to click on a link than pay the costs necessary to access Showtime. As the producers said in the session, they see this as a broad campaign, such that the initial television series is to be expanded exponentially within the realm of social media.

How much of the series will make it online is unclear, but one thing is clear: this doesn’t feel like something viewers need to subscribe to Showtime to access. Although it’s likely Showtime would love to have people subscribe to Showtime to access it, it more feels like an effort to stake a claim as an outlet for meaningful projects with a purpose, a contribution to the channel brand that will make it feel more diverse and dynamic for existing subscribers. What you air as a premium cable channel need not appeal to all of your viewers, or necessarily bring in new viewers, but must rather make a meaningful and positive contribution to the perception of the channel.

This makes Years of Living Dangerously the kind of series that Showtime accepts is unlikely to build their subscription base substantially, but rather works to build reputation—it’s not exactly the same as charitable contributions, but it has the same statement of commitment toward certain “projects” despite their minimal benefit to the channel’s bottom line. Although Penny Dreadful is likely to earn more viewers and buzz, Years of Living Dangerously is doing its own work for the brand in a setting like this one.

Cultural Observations

  • Both of Showtime’s newly announced series—drama The Affair and comedy Happyish—went over well in their debut trailers, with the Happyish pilot working particularly well with its Louis C.K. cameo and a rather hilarious appropriation of Keebler elves. To adopt industry parlance, expect lots of Emmy talk around Happyish’s Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2015 (as both series are likely Fall debuts for the channel).
  • I was interested to hear about Episodes’ strange production history, which shot entirely in the U.K. in season one (using green screens), did a bit of location work in Los Angeles in season two, then split roughly 50/50 in season three, before likely—for cost reasons—going back to mainly the U.K. in season four.
  • Episodes creators Crane and Klarik shared a great recent anecdote from a fellow writer working with a broadcast network, whose script about an Indian mother and daughter was transformed into a series about three black men raising a baby.
  • I was happy to only see a few Homeland questions—and just a few mostly context-free clips during the sizzle reels—given that I’ve yet to finish season three and fully intend to do so. At some point.
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