Showtime’s Greenblatt: ‘I’m Not as Good at Maintaining Something’

The outgoing entertainment president on why he’s leaving, how he turned the network into a major player — and what he thinks about his replacement

Before his departure was announced on Monday, Robert Greenblatt served as Showtime's entertainment president for seven years. On his watch — and thanks to a long list of successful original series including "Weeds," "Dexter," "Nurse Jackie," "Californication," "The Tudors" and "The L Word" — the wannabe grew into a major competitor for frontrunner HBO.

Greenblatt, who will be replaced this summer by Imagine TV president David Nevins, spoke to TheWrap about the strategy that grew Showtime, what he expects for the future of the network and what's coming up next in his own life. 

So, why are you leaving?
Well, I tend to be the kind of exec who likes to rebuild or build something and, you know, I'm not as good at maintaining something. I think we did the heavy lifting of turning this network around, and I just figured that now is maybe a good time to step aside and look for a new challenge where they need that kind of rebuilding or rebranding.

What was the state of Showtime when you arrived in July 2003?
It was a network that was still primarily an original movie network — original made-for-TV movies. What we decided to do first off was focus on original series almost exclusively. We felt that was the best way to build real audience loyalty. And the other thing we needed to do was just up the value of what we were doing in terms of overall quality.

What was your strategy behind crafting the line-up?
For this audience in this premium cable space, I think you really get credit for doing stuff that's really out there and really unlike anything you could find anywhere else. So we set out doing as many of those shows as we could come up with. It's a really eclectic group of shows. They're not all the same; our shows have a real variety one to the other. The unified factor is they have this flawed character in a really unique world.

You helped Showtime close the gap with HBO. What do you think is the current state of the competition?
HBO sort of got there first and got noticed before Showtime did. It was a daunting shadow to sort of be in. Unfortunately, the competition will never cease, but we've really come miles from where it was seven years ago. Aside from the sheer numbers of subscribers and revenue, those kind of comparisons, I think just in terms of the meaning of the brand, the classiness of the brand that we're every bit the equal of HBO.

Showtime has several new series debuting in the coming months. Will they be able to match your previous successes?
You know, I'm pretty confident. I think we really figured out the right kind of shows for this audience and we know how to build them. They usually have an iconic actor in the center. We have "The Big C," which is a really spectacular show with a spectacular star in Laura Linney. She plays a woman who has cancer, which is something that is extraordinary and it's actually going to sort of effect her personality. It makes her act in ways which are kind of eye-opening and really honest, really frank and refreshing. It's a dramedy — it's not a "haha" sitcom, but it's not dark. No other show has looked this disease it the way this show is.

Then we have "Shameless" launching in January, with William H. Macy. He basically is an absentee father to the extreme. It's a little bit different for us in a good way. I think it's more of an ensemble of characters, so I think it's gently pushing in a new direction in terms of the ensemble nature of it.

And then, we're doing "The Borgias," with Jeremy Irons. This is following in the footsteps of "The Tudors" — it's a very dysfunctional Italian renaissance family.

Do you worry that some of the older series are nearing their ends?
They're going to go on for as long as the creators really feel inspired. None of our shows are just franchise shows; every year we sort of look at where the shows are. These shows are going on for a while and the new shows keep freshening things up. I think right now the cupboards are robustly filled.

How involved were you in the search for your successor?
Not really. I mean that was something that [Showtime chairman/CEO] Matt Blank was spearheading. He and I talked about some ideas here and there, but that was really his deal.

What do you think about his choice — David Nevins?
I think Nevins is terrific. I've known him for 15 or 20 years, and he and I have done similar things in our careers. He's got the right sensibility to fit right in and he's looking at this place as things are in pretty good shape, so it doesn't need to be overhauled or completely rethought.

And what's next for you?
Everything is up for grabs. Until it was public that I was leaving Showtime, there wasn't really a way to suss out what else is out there. Now that it's been made public, we'll see.

I tend to think that it won't be producing per se, because I think that there's nothing more difficult to do right now than being a producer. So I'll probably stick to the exec side of things. Unless the right situation presents itself, I would most likely remain an exec.

Do you have any regrets?
I guess the only regret is that I couldn't put even more shows on. Over the years there's always a limitation of how many shows we're going to do — and that's true for any programmer.