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So What Do You Do, Matt Blank, Chairman and CEO of Showtime Networks?

Showtime's top dog on the departure of the Sopranos and his incredible longevity in the business

By Diane Clehane - June 11, 2008
While broadcast television continues to be swallowed up whole by insipid reality shows and mind-numbingly boring games shows which have spawned a generation of Z-listers who refuse to go away, premium cable is more of a haven than ever before for viewers -- and talent -- looking for something worthwhile. Showtime's Matt Blank has been a tireless champion of cable since its earliest days and today helms a network whose slate of series and projects in development rivals anything Hollywood is putting out. Having spent more than three decades at HBO and Showtime collectively, Blank has gained a unique perspective on his segment of the television business where creativity trumps ratings.

On the eve of the premiere of the fourth season of Weeds and his network's stateside debut of British import Secret Diary of A Call Girl, Blank reflects on Showtime's success and its ability to tap into the cultural zeitgeist. Of Call Girl, he quips: "Since Eliot Spitzer got caught with his pants down we look incredibly smart -- and lucky." He also deconstructs his network's penchant for dysfunctional families regardless of the century they lived in. "The Tudors are probably the most screwed up family in history. As out there as Weeds or Brotherhood has been, they weren't beheading people."

With stars like Tim Robbins, Edie Falco, Toni Collette and none other than Steven Spielberg signing on to work with Showtime, you could hardly fault Blank for going a bit more Hollywood than the average cable honcho. But to hear him tell it, the native New Yorker who cops to having a television in virtually every room in the house is simply thrilled to do a job he loves every day. "I worked hard and got very lucky," says Blank. "I think passion for the work is very important."

Name: Matthew C. Blank
Position: Chairman and CEO, Showtime Networks
Resume: Spent the past two decades at Showtime rising up through the ranks; assumed his current position in 1995. Prior to joining Showtime, toiled at HBO for 12 years and departed as senior vice president of consumer marketing.
Birthdate: July 10, 1950
Hometown: Jamaica, New York
Education: University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business; MBA Baruch College
Marital status: Married to Susan McGuirk; two children
First section of the Sunday Times: "Business. I just want to make sure my name is not there."
Favorite television show not on Showtime: "CSI. I got into it early on. It premiered when I got my first hi-def television. I loved the look of the show and I just like those procedurals, which is a good thing because now I work for CBS."
Guilty pleasure: Pizza and crime novels
Last book read: "I just started the new John Sanford book."

How would you say you've gotten to where you are?
It's a mixture of things. I was very fortunate that I wanted to work in television back in 1976. I came across a job at HBO -- they had just gone up with satellite and it seemed like it was going to be interesting and I'd learn a lot. I made the plunge from a very traditional marketing job. I was brand manager on the American Express card. I was doing very well, but I really wanted to work in entertainment or media. I just got fortunate. It was one of those situations where HBO exploded -- I was one of the people who went around launching it. It was sort of ground zero of the business -- going around to the cable operators. I made a good choice.

It's very unusual especially when it comes to entertainment companies for someone to stay for so long. This year you celebrated your 20th anniversary with Showtime. What's the secret to your longevity?
It's actually my 32nd year in premium TV. I just love this business and the people in this company. In the past couple of years in particular when I might have said, "How long can I keep doing this?" We just had such success. So I think it's the fact that we're making the type of programming that we really believe in as it's being embraced by all of our various publics. I've felt really fortunate to be part of that.

Is it still possible for someone just starting out to rise up through the ranks the way you did?
I think so. One thing about our business is that despite all its challenges and changes, it's a business with tremendous opportunities, and it tends not to be as hierarchical as other businesses with the exception of the interactive and digital worlds. Since we rely on our success creatively, the creative areas are always the ones that recognize and reward talent.

Most network presidents reside in Los Angeles. Does being based in New York affect your sensibilities as it relates to your job? How does it affect the way you do it?
I do go back and forth every couple of weeks. Our entertainment group is headed out there -- [president of entertainment] Bob Greenblatt is in LA so he's really in the heart of the creative community. Our bigger customers are here in and around this part of the world. Time Warner is here in the city. Cablevision is out on Long Island. Cox is in Atlanta. Direct TV happens to be in LA. Dish is in Denver. For me it's important to be very close to the customers. It works having a bicoastal company. I do think it brings a different perspective.

How so?
I just think it's good not to be submerged on a daily basis in that rather closed community in Los Angeles -- and I don't mean that in a disparaging way. When you have customers located all over the country, meaning our distributors -- we sell a product that in many ways is very different than most television products in that it's a subscription business -- I think it's good to have a varied perspective.

Come on, confess -- were you happy to see The Sopranos take their final bow?
The Sopranos was really the bomb for the television business, not just for Showtime, so obviously we're happy not to compete with it. The reality is the category did very well when The Sopranos was on the air. It brought a lot of attention to the original programming in cable. We like the positive comparisons to our shows today. It's good to see it go in some ways, but I'm happier about the fact that we're doing so well with so much of our programming.

It would seem to me in a very simplistic way that one of the essential ingredients needed for a program to succeed on cable is controversial material. What are your thoughts on that?
I'm not sure it's purely controversy. It may turn out to be controversial, but Bob Greenblatt and I have a very clear view of the things we put on the air. They all seem to have a central character that lives on the edge of respectable behavior but probably not so far over the top that there's not some level of identity. Even Weeds -- she's totally out there, yet she's a suburban mom dealing with kids' issues. With the exception of The Tudors, which is a period piece, I think there's something there that our audience can identify with in the level of dysfunction in these family situations or societal situations. We tend to be successful with these families that aren't quite straight down the middle.

With shows like Weeds, The Tudors and The L Word, you've given viewers very layered and interesting female characters. It wasn't so long ago that the most interesting characters on cable were mostly men. Was it a conscious decision to woo the female audience or was it simply a matter of finding good material and you thinking, 'This is terrific stuff'?
It wasn't a conscious decision in any way, shape or form. I just think a lot of good material came our way that had some very strong central characters who happened to be women. Californication has a central character that is male. Brotherhood has two central characters who are male but with very critical women characters around them. Dexter's central character is male. The two pilots that we just shot happen to have central characters that are female -- The United States of Tara and Edie Falco's show.

What can you tell me about them?
Edie plays a nurse in a big urban hospital. We actually shot in New York City for the first time in quite a while. She's someone who is living a bit on the edge in terms of her behavior. Like all these characters, I think she'll be highly sympathetic. The United States of Tara is the project that Diablo Cody wrote before Juno was released. It's with Toni Collette and John Corbett. The United States of Tara refers to her mental state. She's a suburban mom -- much in the spirit of Mary Louise Parker in Weeds although she has a husband and a family -- and she's a multiple personality.

When are those shows set to debut?
We haven't made those decisions yet. We're just looking at the pilots and deciding if we're going to make them.

What about Tim Robbins' Possible Side Effects show? He's writing and directing. Will he also star?
I don't believe so. We have a script from Tim and we'll probably shoot that pilot in the late summer-early fall in New York.

There's been a huge increase in the number of film actors that have come to cable -- and Showtime specifically -- to work. What was the tipping point?
I don't know if it was any one tipping point. In the case of Showtime, it's the material and the attention. When you see Mary Louise Parker winning a Golden Globe and getting nominated for an Emmy for her role and you see David Duchovny come back to television with such great success in Californication and the attention Jonathan Rhys Meyers got for doing our Henry VIII, it builds a reservoir of interest in the creative community so that you get Spielberg coming to us with a project like United States of Tara with Diablo Cody attached. I'm not sure you get a Toni Collette to do a show like this unless she's impressed by Spielberg and Diablo Cody -- not to mention the Mary Louise Parkers and all those people who have been so successful, from a career standpoint, working on Showtime. You kind of reach a critical mass of interest and then you add to that the critical response and the commercial success of our shows -- and what happens is Showtime is the place where people want to work. That's exactly the space we're in right now.

How significant was the move to air the first season of Dexter on network television on CBS? What does that mean for the future of Showtime programming?
It was an interesting situation. The strike had hit CBS. Leslie was a big fan of the show. There's no ongoing plan there. It was a unique combination of that show and the timing. Since we had just finished season two and the DVD had been out there, we thought it was a great promotional opportunity for us and the show. We also thought it was a great opportunity for CBS to take advantage of commercially successful programming that still had limited exposure and very much fed into the world of procedural hours. For us it was a home run. I remember sitting home on a cold afternoon in January and the NFL AFC championship was on and there were two or three spots for Dexter coming on CBS, and I had the same experience watching the Grammys. Then, several nights a week prior to Letterman they would promote it, so I think the awareness of Dexter is through the roof. We think it bodes well for Showtime and for the show going forward. It was a great example of the companies working together.

So there's no plans to continue that kind of thing?
I won't say never, but I don't think it's a part of an overall strategy.

Anything you've seen recently on broadcast that has made you think, "Oh, we could do this so much better"?
Almost everything. I look at a lot of shows out there and think -- imagine what we could do. Without mentioning anything in particular, we are very spoiled by the creative opportunities that the premium world provides and that we're not prisoners of ratings. For instance, Brotherhood was not as successful as Dexter or Californication, but we renewed it for a third season. It's a Peabody Award-winning show and we think it's a great show -- very premium TV. If that show was on broadcast and performed relatively the same it would probably have not been renewed, but we think it's an important part of our schedule, so it will be back at some point.

How much time do you personally spend watching television? How much broadcast television do you watch?
I watch a lot of all types of television. I'm rarely in a room where the television isn't on. It's on right now with the volume down. I watch a lot of Showtime because I like to see how our promotion looks on air. I also watch a lot of broadcast and a lot of cable.

So at home do you have televisions in every room?
[Laughs] At least one. In my New York apartment, we've got eight.

Where do you get your best ideas?
I consume a great deal of media. At 11 o'clock at night I'll see a commercial or something and make a note. The next day, I'll shoot off a note to Bob Greenblatt or our chief marketing and creative officer. I was away for the weekend and I tore out a bunch of pages out of magazines while I was on the plane that I'm interested in sending along to our guys. It's sort of a combination of things, but I do think being a huge consumer of entertainment and the media in this business is where you end up seeing a lot of your thoughts kind of formulate -- especially promotionally.

There's certainly a wealth of material that could be gleaned from the political scene these days, don't you think?
I think there is, but it's hard to compete with the pundits, the Jon Stewarts and the Lenos and Lettermans of this world who are dealing with it every evening. I think the biggest danger this year is burnout on this stuff. I think people are sick of it and that they wish the election was over and we knew who our president was.

What's the secret of a successful pitch when someone comes to see you with an idea?
Bob Greenblatt would be better one to talk to about that. For me I tend focus more on what's an unsuccessful pitch -- it's amazing how many people come in to see me and haven't watched Showtime and have no sense of what Showtime is and what seems to be working for us.

Does that happen a lot?
It happens a lot. I frequently will have someone come in and I'll say, "What are they doing here with this? Haven't they been watching us?" We get pitched a lot of things that aren't terribly relevant to our current strategy. I say to myself, "If I were going to pitch to a network I wouldn't walk in the door until I knew everything about that network."

How do your personal interests and beliefs shape what gets the green light?
Bob and I have a very close relationship on this stuff, and we have a lot of the same fundamental beliefs about what is going to work and what isn't. But I will tell you hands down there are things I just don't like, and I will mention that to Bob. I'll say, 'Act as you see fit' and frequently he does, and frequently I'm very wrong. There's a show on the past year that when Bob came in with it I said, 'Look, I don't like this.'

Care you say which one?
I can't. I would offend the talent. But I said, 'By the way, I think this has a good shot at being successful, so it's your call. It's something I'm not gonna to like.' He said, 'I think we should do it.' So I said, 'Do it.' And he's right. Sometimes you really have to be able to subjugate your feelings about this stuff.

Is that an acquired skill?
You just have to be open-minded. But I do think most really good creative executives are highly biased towards certain things. Bob probably has tremendous personal biases towards types of material and types of characters -- and that's what works. Thank God he does.

Those of us who pitch in comments from the outside have to have faith. If this was math everybody who could add would be successful. It's not math.

What qualities do you look for in executives when you're hiring regardless of the position?
I'm a big believer in people that are consumed by a passion for the business. I look for people that are going to fit in with their colleagues. We've had a great longevity here in our senior group. They work very closely and are very fond of each other. I think that's very important. I think at the end of the day in this particular business environment you need people who are flexible in their thinking, who respond quickly and who are very competitive and want to win. With any job you have to fill there are probably dozens and dozens of people who are skilled to do the job, the question is: Are they right personally?

What did you learn in business school that still resonates today?
What resonates is kind of a return to the decision-making process. Sometimes when you get in the heat of battle or stress and ideas come flying from all corners, you've just got to step back and say,' Why are we making these decisions? Are we making them for the right reasons?' I think that whole decision-making matrix that you go through when you're in business school is really helpful. I'm a believer in the fundamentals -- I spend a lot of time talking to our customers, and I think a lot about the competitive environment and how it can change overnight, and all of that is part of the mix.

What do you consider your greatest success at this juncture?
I don't think I could have a better group of people running Showtime than we do today. They are people I respect and like personally. That's why I believe our current success will continue and our best years are ahead of us. It all comes down to having the most competitive group of people running your company who have strong beliefs about the business. I don't think there's better individuals anywhere in this business than the people I have in my key jobs. That is the toughest thing for a manager to do.

What about your biggest disappointment to date?
Disappointments are always in the past; opportunities are in the future. I tend not to focus on disappointments. My greatest disappointment has been all the missed opportunities for the Yankees in the past few seasons.

Where do you see yourself five years from now?
I'd love to be doing what I'm doing somewhere in this business. I think there's a lot of open road ahead of us. I think if we can just keep tweaking the business and keep doing the kind of things we've been doing, I think there is plenty of opportunity ahead for us here and I'd like to be around to see that happen.

Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY and TVNewser. She writes the 'Lunch' column.

[The interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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