With Streaming Subscribers Surging, Showtime Prepares for a Fresh Boost From Billions

Network is marketing it like a first-season show

Billions averaged 6 million viewers in its first season, making it Showtime's No. 2 drama, behind Homeland.
Jeff Neumann/Showtime

With a reported 1.5 million subscribers to its stand-alone subscription service and a little show called Twin Peaks on the horizon, 2017 is “shaping up to be a defining year for Showtime,” Showtime Networks president and CEO David Nevins told reporters last month.

The premium cable networks’s direct-to-consumer streaming service, which launched in July 2015, hit 1 million subscribers a year later and has now reached 1.5 million subscribers, according to a recent Variety report. On Wednesday’s earnings call, CBS Corp. COO Joseph Ianniello would not confirm that figure but said “we’re feeling very good” about its subscriber growth. That’s in addition to Showtime’s approximately 24 million cable and satellite subscribers, Nevins told Adweek.

Thanks to Homeland’s Season 6 premiere, “I think January will prove to be our best month ever, or at least since the very first month. There’s enormous demand for our product,” said Nevins of Showtime’s over-the-top, or OTT, sign-ups.

And February could break the record again, as Showtime launches Billions’ second season on Sunday, and hopes to build upon the 6 million multiplatform viewers that the Paul Giamatti-Damian Lewis drama averaged in Season 1. That makes it Showtime’s No. 2 drama series, behind Homeland.

Showtime is hoping to build that audience in Season 2 by releasing Sunday’s premiere nine days early, and making it available both for subscribers and nonsubscribers on YouTube and other platforms. The network is also offering a free preview weekend for cable and satellite providers, opening the service to more than 73 million households.

“The show is taking off. We saw all the catch-up viewing that happened between seasons. Creatively, Season 2 is fantastic, so I think it’s happening naturally, but we’re giving it a big promotional push,” said Nevins of the Season 2 campaign. “It’s one of the promotional priorities of the whole year for us. We’re treating it like we would treat a first-year show in terms of the size of the launch, because it feels like it’s got so much energy behind it. I think it’s poised to be the next flagship show.”

Showtime gets (slightly) younger

After launching Billions, Nevins will shift his attention to the network’s biggest new shows for 2017: its revival of Twin Peaks, which will debut on May 21, and I’m Dying Up Here, which is executive produced by Jim Carrey and looks at the stand-up comedy scene in 1970s L.A. It premieres on June 4.

While Twin Peaks has the built-in fan base, “we’re going to work just as hard to break I’m Dying Up Here,” said Nevins.

On Wednesday’s earnings call, CBS Corp. chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves said there was “no doubt” Twin Peaks would boost Showtime’s subscribers. Said Nevins, “There’s enormous fascination with what that show is, and it has such a long life. It’s a show that was kept alive by streaming. There’s a lot of people 28 and under, who were not sentient when the original came out, who have seen it.”

I’m Dying Up Here’s group of 20-something comics hoping for their big break in Hollywood is an example of how its streaming service has prompted the network to broaden its reach beyond its traditional MVPD (multichannel video programming distributor) audience. Showtime estimates the median age of its OTT subscribers is 45, eight years younger than the median age of its MVPD subscribers.

That slightly younger streaming audience already helped make Season 7 of Shameless the show’s highest-rated season ever, and Nevins said The Affair saw a younger audience in its most recent season.

“We’re not making any radical changes in how we program, but we’re definitely bringing in a younger audience. And some of it is about exposing our existing shows to a younger audience,” Nevins said. “Shameless has gotten dramatically younger and has had a huge surge in OTT. I think the younger audience is going to matter for I’m Dying Up Here. So, the classic Showtime 40-something male antihero, we can get a little bit younger than that over time.”

But he stressed, “Our programming is for adults, and it’s still about adults. We’re still not the first stop for teenagers.

Showtime is premiering its first limited series, Guerilla, on April 16, and Nevins plans to do more in that genre in the future. “Limited series are another form that works well in streaming,” he said. “Because you don’t have to see it the first time. If you hear something good about a show, even if you’re late to the party, you can still come to the party.”

The network’s OTT subscribers are giving the network’s older content a look too, particularly its documentaries.

“We noticed it with the Kobe Bryant documentary [Kobe Bryant’s Muse], the Richard Pryor documentary [Omit the Logic], the Eagles documentary [History of the Eagles]. That stuff gets consumed heavily. And if you premiere it on a Friday or Saturday night and air it a few times over the course of a month, it’s not necessarily the giant ratings-getter, but when it’s about, ‘What’s sitting on the shelf that I might be interested in?’, documentaries have a lot of value. The [Stephen] Colbert election special, the idea of doing things that are timely and topical, matter. And that gets noticed,” Nevins said.