Showtime CEO Matt Blank has used boundary-pushing programming, cutting-edge marketing, and smart management to build his cable network into a national powerhouse.
BY SUSAN KARLIN | Photography by Candace diCarlo | PDF download
He seems too … normal.
This slim, understated, affable man speaking in tight, corporate phrases—monetizing the brand, high-impact environments—this can’t be the guy whose whimsical vision has turned Weeds’pot-dealing suburban mom, Dexter’s vigilante serial killer, and Homeland’s bipolar CIA agent into TV heroes. Can it?
Yet Matt Blank W’72, the CEO of Showtime, has more in common with his network than his conventional appearance suggests.
“I have a term that describes our brand, shows, and lead characters, and that’s subversive,” says Blank. “But they’re subversive in a way that makes people want to root for them. Who would think that you’d be rooting for a serial killer—for seven years now? Most of our lead characters are living right on the edge of respectability, or way over the line. But the shows tend to be fairly high-concept, which makes it easier for people to embrace.”
Blank’s personal subversion takes a slightly different form. It has more to do with taking risks and following instinct over expectation: pursuing a finance major during the countercultural ’60s, choosing a media career while his classmates opted for banking, twice leaving established companies for fledgling startups, and developing an open management style that sparks creativity—and profits.
Since joining in 1988 and becoming CEO in 1995, Blank has grown Showtime Networks Inc. from three premium networks—Showtime, The Movie Channel, and Flix—into a company that now provides 45 digital multiplex feeds. Along with Smithsonian Networks (a joint venture with the Smithsonian Institution) and the CBS Sports Network (which Blank does not oversee), the company contributed $1.8 billion in cable revenues to owner CBS last year. Creatively, Showtime cemented its formidability when Homeland, whose lineup included Meredith Stiehm C’90 as writer and executive producer, swept last year’s Emmy Awards. (For more on her see page 75.)
To survive and triumph in such a competitive and volatile industry requires a number of highly refined talents. One is an ability to gauge long-term potential in emerging technology. Another is identifying and hiring talented executives—then staying out of their way.
“Matt runs the company in a very collegial way—he sets a tone among top managers of cooperation, congeniality, and loose boundaries that really works in a creative business,” says David Nevins, Showtime’s president of entertainment. “It helps create a sense of, ‘That’s a club that I want to belong to.’ He stays focused on the big picture, maintaining the integrity of the brand and growing its exposure. Matt is very savvy at this combination of programming and marketing that keeps Showtime in the top of people’s minds.”
A cold November rain slams against the windows of Blank’s Manhattan office. Sixteen floors below, pedestrians huddle against the elements as they make their way along Broadway and 50th Street.
Inside tells a very different story. Blank is unfazed by the weather, his workspace buzzing with efficiency and purpose. It’s spacious and sleek; no show tchotchkes clutter the shelves. There’s a large computer monitor on a tidy desk at one end, a coffee table with a couch and chairs for casual meetings at the other. It’s about as far from Hollywood flash and celebrity as you could imagine.
Blank settles into one of the chairs. Quietly energetic, he looks considerably younger than his 63 years, and manages his time with an enviable discipline. He’s been awake since 6 a.m., with a workout, show-footage screenings, and a handful of impromptu staff meetings already in the rearview mirror. The office hums like a well-oiled machine, thanks to a handpicked team of senior managers, many of whom have worked for Blank for two decades.
“We operate very informally,” he says. “I hate to come in in the morning and see my day booked every hour or half-hour. I’d rather someone who worked for me just called and I’d say, ‘Come down now and we’ll meet for 15 minutes.’ It’s quicker, more efficient, and I have more control in what my day is like.
“The one consistent thread is finance,” he adds. “I’m very financially oriented, and CBS [which owns Showtime] is a very financially oriented company. We like to make our numbers; we like to exceed our parent company’s expectations.”
Working meals are the norm: lunches with staff or industry folks; evenings at screenings or business dinners. Beyond Showtime, Blank is involved with numerous media and non-profit organizations, serving on the directing boards of the National Cable Television Association and The Cable Center, an industry educational arm. Then there are the frequent trips to Los Angeles.
“I’m an active person,” he adds. “I like a long day with a lot of different things going on. I think if I sat in a room and did one thing all day, I’d get frustrated.”
Before Blank began redefining the Showtime brand with a revised programming slate in the middle of the last decade, he used to hear some annoying misattributions. Things like,“I was watching Weeds on HBO.”
Oddly, the explosion of digital channels helped cure that problem.
“We don’t see that anymore,” says Blank. “The On Demand platform is one of the great things to happen to the brand, because if you want to [catch up on our shows] you have to go to Showtime On Demand. That contributed to an environment where we get much more credit for what we’re doing.”
Blank has a natural affinity for harnessing emerging digital technologies as growth and branding opportunities, especially compared with colleagues whose mindsets were shaped by an analog world. In broad terms, his job involves cultivating the Showtime brand through edgy programs; expanding it through social media and marketing; and monetizing it through international licensing, joint ventures, new subscribers, and distribution outlets like direct broadcast satellite (Dish Network, DirecTV), phone-company fiber-optic networks (Verizon’s FiOS, AT&T U-verse), and mobile platforms.
Of the 114 million television households in the United States, Showtime is in slightly over 22 million. Though HBO is in 28 million homes, Showtime has become less concerned with direct competition than with standing out in the exploding landscape of original programming outlets. Hulu, YouTube, Amazon, RedBox, Blockbuster, and Netflix—all are now in the original production and distribution business.
“We measure ourselves by our ability to keep growing, adding revenue, and owning successful programming regardless of how the distribution universe and competition changes,” says Blank. “You can have as many new players out there buying original programming as you want—as long as what we’re doing is very good.”
The subversive brand plays well into increased viewer involvement, which has prompted Blank to ramp up Showtime’s social-media and digital-marketing department over the last six years. “Matt always instinctively understood that we need to be part of the national conversation to make people subscribe,” says Nevins.
During their most recent seasons last fall, Dexter and Homeland ranked among the top 10 cable programs in show-specific tweets, Facebook likes, and check-ins on social TV apps like GetGlue, according to Trendrr, which tracks social media impact. Among all the network’s shows, Dexter has the mostexpansive digital-marketing effort, which includes a podcast, original digital-motion comic webisodes, comic-book series, and online games, not to mention its 13 million Facebook fans and 425,000 Twitter followers.
“It’s a subscription service and you monetize the brand, as opposed to drawing ratings,” says Blank. While advertising-supported TV “fights for eyeballs, we fight for subscribers who embrace our product and our brand. These types of characters lend themselves to an engagement factor that other shows don’t necessarily have.”