Blank’s road to subversion began with baby steps. Growing up in the middle-class New York borough of Queens, he headed to Penn in 1968 to pursue finance amid the era’s exploding counterculture movement.
“Wharton undergrad was sort of a weird choice in those days,” he says with a laugh. “I was a finance major, yet I didn’t categorize myself as different than anybody else.”
He joined Phi Epsilon Pi fraternity (which has since merged with ZBT), and watched a lot of Penn sports. “That was the heyday of Penn basketball,” he says. “They were ranked No. 1 in my junior year.”
Blank pauses for a moment before he starts laughing again. “I can’t remember if I was involved in anything. Isn’t that terrible? I must have been. I’m involved in everything now! Actually, I was involved in hanging out a lot outside Dietrich Hall on Locust Walk.”
Despite his relatively conventional college experience, the media business appealed to his creativity.
“I was always very interested in TV and film,” he says. “I watched a lot of television as a kid—The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Superman, and I Love Lucy—and took film courses at Penn. If I graduated today with those interests, I’d get on an airplane, move to LA, and try to get a job working on a show, in a writer’s room, or for a studio or network. It just wasn’t that common a thing back then.”
In 1972, when he did graduate, East Coast media gigs were hard to come by. “It was a recession year,” he says. “I looked for a bunch of jobs in media and never found anything I was terribly interested in.”
But another arena—marketing—did call. He worked first at Philip Morris, then American Express, where he served as brand manager for its Green Card. Blank thrived there, even earning an MBA at night from Baruch College in 1975. But he missed working in television.
“One day, a guy I’d worked with, who’d gone to HBO, called me and said, ‘You might want to come over here and meet some people.’”
“Some people” turned out to be then-CEO Gerald Levin L’63 and some other high-ranking HBO executives. Within three days, they had offered Blank a job as marketing manager. He took it. That was early 1976, when the fledging cable network had only 300,000 or so subscribers.
“It had about 40 to 50 employees, had been up on the satellite for, like, four months, and wasn’t making any real money,” he says. “I figured I’d work there for a year, then go over to a place like CBS.”
Life had other plans for him.
Friday night, and the Elks Lodge was hopping. Another HBO launch party was in full swing. Blank had flown to a small airport, driven three hours to a smaller town, and spent the day guiding the system manager through an HBO ad at the local radio station.
The mayor stepped up to a phony oversized switch and “flipped” it, while a hidden technician pushed the real button. A cheer erupted as HBO appeared on the screen. Sometimes there was more—in some places, where HBO’s presence represented a state’s first satellite dish, the governor might show up to break a bottle of champagne over the dish.
Given today’s ubiquitous channel universe, it’s hard to imagine a cable landscape that was more functional than entertaining, particularly in rural areas.
“The people had to have cable to get television, maybe three or four stations, but had never paid for programming before,” says Blank, who found those road trips a great adventure. “It really was a fabulous experience. I went to 39 states in two years, teaching cable operators how to launch and market HBO. It was real grass-roots marketing, and it really connected me with consumers.”
On a deeper level, those trips provided him with a front-row seat to an industry paradigm shift—and an intimate understanding of how to grow a network.
“I dealt with some of the founders of the business, who’d risked their family’s net worth to buy a franchise and build a cable system,” he says. “They were some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the history of our country. That, along with the federal regulatory environment, paved the way for other cable networks to come along. It was no longer just a utility to get you the signal. Once cable operators could charge more, they could afford to pay for programing that might get more people to subscribe. We were part of that.”
By the time Blank left HBO in 1988, he’d risen to senior vice president of marketing. Jumping ship to swim to the floundering Showtime thus represented a significant gamble.
“It was a weak brand—dramatically smaller, not profitable, with no substantive original programming,” says Blank. But the move came with a promotion—to executive VP of marketing, creative services, and public relations—and a promise of eventually running the company. He became COO in 1991 and CEO in 1995.
“I was the first senior executive at HBO to ever leave voluntarily,” says Blank. “But I’ve often seen opportunity in places where maybe others didn’t.”
It’s a trait he credits Penn for helping to hone. “Beyond just an academic experience, college was a life experience that helped me gain some self-awareness and belief in my capabilities, and be open to risks,” he says. “I left a really successful job at American Express to go to HBO, then left HBO as it was growing like crazy for a deeply challenged competitor, because I thought there was opportunity.”
At Showtime, Blank built a team to overhaul the network’s brand identity by beefing up its original series. He credits two inspired hires who helmed its entertainment division for the seismic programming shift. The first, in 2003, was Bob Greenblatt, who greenlit Weeds, Dexter,and Nurse Jackie (about a drug-addicted nurse), among others—not to mention alternative comedy talk show The Green Room with Paul Provenza C’79. His programs went on to garner Golden Globe, Emmy, and Peabody awards before he left in 2010 to become president of NBC Entertainment. Then came David Nevins, who cultivated Homeland as his first show, followed by Shameless (about a white-trash family on the South Side of Chicago) and House of Lies (unscrupulous management consultants). Dexter and Homeland remain Showtime’s top-rated series—each drawing an average of 6.2 million weekly viewers across platforms for their most recent seasons.
TV critic Alan Sepinwall C’96—a senior editor at HitFix and author of The Revolution Was Televised, about the changing style of TV dramas—credits the shows’ success to their singular points of view.
“They were—and, in some cases, still are—series with distinctive voices that didn’t feel like anything else on television,” he explains, “and they permanently pushed Showtime out from under HBO’s shadow.”
There was also the respect factor. Both Greenblatt and Nevins arrived at Showtime as highly regarded producers in their own right, and helped attract a commensurate level of talent. Greenblatt was best known for executive-producing HBO’s Six Feet Under, which had garnered four Best Drama Emmys. His successor, Nevins, had overseen development of Fox’s Arrested Development and NBC’s Friday Night Lights.
“It’s wonderful to work with someone who’s been in the trenches and made shows you admire,” says Mark Gordon, executive producer of the upcoming drama Ray Donovan, which stars Liev Schreiber as a professional fixerfor the rich and famous and will debut June 30 in the time slot following the Season 8 premiere of Dexter. “It’s helpful when an executive is also a producer, as David is, because he thinks like a producer and understands what we have to go through.”
This year, Showtime also expanded its edgy programming brand into sports with the investigative newsmagazine show 60 Minutes Sports (complementing its established boxing coverage) and a personality-driven documentary series, Sho Closeup, profiling controversial figures like Dick Cheney, Richard Pryor, and former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Another dramatic series, Masters of Sex, about the Masters and Johnson sex-research team, will follow Homeland’s Season 3 premiere on September 29.
“I try to get to know our showrunners and spend time with them, and I’m close with a lot of our actors, because I’ve known them over the years,” says Blank. “My job is to help make Showtime a place where these people want to work and feel their work is appreciated.”
Blank and Homeland’s Claire Danes.
When he entered the celebrity-packed audience at the 7,100-seat Nokia Theatre in downtown Los Angeles for last fall’s Emmy Awards, Blank didn’t expect the evening to end in a career milestone.
The buzz on Homeland star Claire Danes was such that no one batted an eye when her name was called for Outstanding Lead Actress. But when co-star Damian Lewis won for Outstanding Lead Actor, Blank began to wonder if something was up. By the end of the ceremony, show creators Howard Gordon, Alex Gansa, and Gideon Raff had taken home trophies for Best Writing—and Homeland itself had been crowned Best Drama.
Homeland’s Emmy Awards sweep was not only a first for an original Showtime scripted series. It signaled an arrival for Showtime itself. The labyrinthine political thriller had drawn high praise and rabid followers, but the cascade of statuettes marked a TV industry-wide stamp of approval. For Blank, the awards were vindication that his daring, instinct-driven career choices had paid off.
“It was a wonderful moment,” says Blank, smiling un-subversively at the recollection. “I couldn’t have been happier for the people on that show. I’ve sat in that room for 20-plus years, in those auditoriums, and seen our shows be recognized with nominations and actors winning things here and there. But I put an awful lot of my life into this company, and an awful lot of my life into believing that the people we had here could turn this company into an absolute first-class brand. And that was an endorsement of it for me. I just sat there and said, ‘Wow. This is nice.’”