Interview Date: November 30, 2017
Interviewer: Seth Arenstein
Interview location: New York, NY
Collection: Cable Center Hauser Oral History Project
Seth Arenstein: Hi, I’m Seth Arenstein. I’m here for the Cable Center’s Hauser Oral History Project. It’s November 30, 2017, we’re in New York City, and we’re here with the chairman of Showtime Networks, Matt Blank. Matt, thanks for coming in.
Matt Blank: Thank you. It’s nice to be here.
Arenstein: It’s great to have you.
Blank: Again, actually.
Arenstein: Right, right, this is part two. Right, that’s very good. The last time Matt did an oral history with the Cable Center was in 1999.
Blank: Well, fortunately, not much has happened since then, so this is great.
Arenstein: (laughs) All right. So, let’s start right around 1999, 2000. You’re getting a Vanguard Award for programming from NCTA and there’s a show in 2000 that debuts on Showtime called Queer as Folk. Tell us about how that pitch came in and why that show?
Blank: You know, it was a -- look, it was a very dramatic show. It was a dramatic thing for Showtime to be doing. Very controversial, very controversial. I remember, when we premiered it, we were actually worried about local obscenity prosecutions around the country. We had an 800 number that our affiliates could call if they had a legal issue in their market or their system, and we actually had first amendment lawyers around the country that we had contacted that could, in fact, provide the service if there was an issue. And surprisingly, there wasn’t. Maybe not surprisingly; maybe the country was moving along faster than we thought. I think the show would seem rather tame --
Arenstein: Today, absolutely.
Blank: -- by today’s standards. In fact, in the show, in the very first episode, a young man had his first gay sexual experience in the first five minutes of the show, and, you know, I certainly think of myself as fairly enlightened, but I said, “Wow, this is going to be an issue.” And it was embraced. It was embraced, and I think it was embraced by a lot of the cable operators and distributors that we thought might not embrace it, or might raise their voices in concern. And I’m not saying there wasn’t any concern, but I think people did the right thing, and I think that was important. It was important for Showtime, it was important for our business, and I think it was important socially, at a time where you didn’t see many things like this. So, we’re very proud of having done that. And followed not too long -- a couple years later, by The L Word, which we have just announced that we’re potentially bringing back, shortly. So, we’ll see how that goes.
Arenstein: How far back -- I mean, how many years later was The L Word? Do you recall?
Blank: I think it was about two years later, three years later. And, again, I think Queer as Folk paved the way for that; it had a lot of fans, and we’re sort of excited about the potential of bringing it back.
Arenstein: OK. Why bring back an old show? What’s the reasoning there?
Blank: You know, I think we just think that some of that cast would be interesting to revisit and to kind of see where they are, and see how we might do that show in 2018 versus how we did it, you know, 15 years back or whenever.
Arenstein: Yes, because I agree with you. I mean, Queer as Folk, if we just think about it today, yes, it is so tame.
Arenstein: I mean, you’d say, “What controversy?”
Blank: It really was, but I remember -- you know, look, all of us, in jobs like this, even if you’re not on a premium network, which certainly has had different borders in terms of content than others have had. I would certainly say that there’s things I’ve worried about over the years. And maybe rightfully so, in some cases. Generally, not worth worrying about, but I was very worried about that. I wasn’t just worried about the overall response to it; I was worried about the local response in a lot of very conservative places around the country that Showtime found its way to, and still finds its way to.
Arenstein: Right. Let’s talk about another event that happened early in the 2000s, and that’s Bob Greenblatt joining you.
Blank: Bob joined us, I think, in 2003. And, you know, Bob and his successor, David Nevins, who’s now CEO, literally, over the past 14 years, 15 years -- they’ve been behind the voice of Showtime. And Bob’s arrival coincided with a strategic shift in the company from, I’d say, an economically disadvantaged environment for Showtime, to that point in time where Showtime was actually generating enough revenue and bottom line performance that we could start investing heavily in original series. And we had been, prior to that, really just doing a lot of movies of the week type of programming, with a few exceptions. And the first two shows Bob put on the air were Weeds and Dexter. And Weeds and Dexter, I think, provided the foundation for the Showtime brand that you see today. They were unique shows -- subject matter was unique -- and I think they were important creatively in a couple of ways. First of all, there is a Showtime lead character that is sort of a dysfunctional, highly disruptive, subversive sort of character that lives very close to the edge of responsible behavior, or, in some cases, way over. And that, in itself, is not necessarily that unique, but getting audiences to root for a Miami forensics cop who is a serial killer but only kills people who deserve to die, or a suburban housewife who starts selling pot to the neighbors to pay the mortgage after her husband dies suddenly, and, in successive seasons, gets far deeper into the underworld of that culture. But if you look to today in the shows that are the big hits on Showtime, whether it’s a Homeland, or a Billions, or a Ray Donovan, these lead characters all have a great heritage in Dexter and in Weeds.
And I think that’s been important to the Showtime brand, and the types of characters we’ve created, and the shows we’ve created. And I think that subversive nature of those lead characters reflects, in some way, to a brand that has a certain amount of subversiveness to us in terms of the programming choices we make and what people come to us for. And I always remember giving a quote, and I was -- I think I was on the CBS morning show, the second year or third year of Homeland, and those folks were all big fans of the show, and they asked about Carrie Matheson. And I said, “Well, you know, the unique thing about her character is that the CIA agent is really far more subversive a character than the terrorist is, in terms of the way she lives.” So, that was a very important period for us, back in the early part of the last decade, getting those shows on the air, and for the first time, really -- and I’ll use my words as an old brand guy and marketing guy -- where we really established a voice for Showtime. And I think, today, it’s a highly recognizable voice to our diverse users.
Arenstein: I did want to talk, though, about those, because I still remember those movies of the week that you produced, I thought -- as I recall, at a prodigious rate.
Blank: We did. I think, you know, one year in the late ’90s, I think we made 35 movies. And we made them about important subject matter. We won our first Golden Globe for a film called Dirty Pictures, which was about the Mapplethorpe obscenity trials in Cincinnati -- the Art Institute of Cincinnati -- starring Jimmy Woods. And some of them were quite good. Strategically, at that point in time, with limited resources, I think we believed that the trouble with those movies, for us, was that they came, and they went. Whereas the ability to have content like Homeland or Shameless on Showtime today, going into their eighth and ninth seasons, and creating a continuity of want with our audience, it’s really a better way for us to go.
Arenstein: There’s still one that I remember called Varian’s War. Do you remember that one?
Blank: Varian’s War --
Arenstein: Fabulous film.
Blank: -- was about Varian -- I forget his last name --
Arenstein: Fry. Wasn’t it Varian Fry?
Blank: -- Varian Fry, who helped get Jews out of France during the occupied period, just sneaking them over the border, basically. And there were people, like Chagall -- people in the artistic community. And I remember that one as one of the more -- Bill Hurt, I believe.
Arenstein: Bill Hurt, exactly.
Blank: Yes, William Hurt. I’m surprised I remember it, but I did. That was a good film.
Arenstein: Yes, a very good film.
Blank: It was an important film, yes.
Blank: We’re very proud of a lot of that content. It’s amazing. I was somewhere in the world in the past couple of years, and, you know, going through that just graveyard of channels that you see in a hotel somewhere in Europe, or South America, or something, and I come across some movie. I said, “This looks familiar,” and it was some Showtime movie of the week from, like, 1996. And I said, you know, “Look, things live on. It’s great.”
Arenstein: There was another series, though, early on, about a Latin -- a Latino family.
Blank: Resurrection Boulevard. We actually produced with Paramount, our sister company at the time, when we were part of Viacom. A great disappointment in the sense that I think it was a terrific, terrific series, and we could not get an audience for it. And, look, that’s the complaint of anybody who makes television series or movies. As many great television series and great movies never get an audience as series that do. But, look, I think part of that was just the challenges of the Hispanic audience, where what the Mexican audience will watch versus the Caribbean, Dominican, or -- I don’t know what the politically correct way of describing the different parts of the Latino audience are, but it was hard to appeal to everyone. And that’s one of the shows I have some regrets over from that period of time, just because I think it was really well done and could have been a much greater performer for us, and it just wasn’t.
Arenstein: On the other hand, it would seem to me that that’s something to be proud of, because going in that direction was --
Blank: Yes. We put a great emphasis on diversity, and that was, you know, one of the shows that we put front and center against that effort.
Arenstein: Yes, I remember it well. OK. So, then, let’s move on to something like Dexter.
Arenstein: How does that pitch come in, you know, when you see -- when it gets to you? Take us behind the scenes.
Blank: Well, that one, if I remember correctly, was based on a book, and I believe it was a producer by the name of Sara Colleton, who Bob Greenblatt had worked with at Fox, and she had optioned the book and brought it in with a couple of other really -- John Goldwyn and a few others who produced that show for us. And we loved the script, and we loved Michael C. Hall. And that was the first big show that we ever owned. So, very important from the business standpoint to Showtime. Today, we own Billions; we own Ray Donovan; we own The Affair. Most things that we commit to today we own at least a piece of it. It might be a small piece, but a piece of it. And that’s become a very important part of the overall economics of Showtime; we have, you know, many hundreds of millions of dollars in ancillary revenue, from nothing a few years ago. And Dexter was the first big show that we actually owned outright, and it continues to generate substantial revenue for us around the world and continues to play on the network. So, that was critically important.
Arenstein: Now, when you are looking at a pitch-- or when you did -- I don’t know if you still do -- but when you’re looking at a show, potentially, to run a show, are you looking at factors like, “Oh, yes, it’ll work in the United States, but not sure about outside the United States”?
Blank: Well, I think a little of both. I think one of the things that has changed dramatically is that, with the creation of all these streaming services around the world -- not domestically, but around the world -- their demand for content has increased exponentially. When I say “their” -- meaning the various players around the world. So, there are certainly shows, half-hours, that, a decade ago, half a dozen years ago, you would say, “OK, this is a great show, but it’s not going to play anywhere else, or we’re not going to get much money for it around the world.” The voracious appetite of these streaming services around the world have created an environment -- as well as the deals that we make -- that we pretty much put through everything that we produce. I think the first thing we think about is our base business: will this be a great show for our Showtime subscribers? You know, tie goes to the show that we own and that we think may work well in other markets and have lives after Showtime elsewhere, but, you know, our first priority is to put great programming on Showtime.
Arenstein: OK. You know, I wanted to get back to one other thing. You mentioned sort of the lead character giving a brand to Showtime.
Arenstein: Was that a conscious decision, or did it just develop after?
Blank: I think it evolved, and I think that one of the things that’s great today -- when I went out and hired David Nevins to be our president of programming with the hope that he would end up running the company when it was time for me to move on -- and David’s just been fantastic -- but one of the reasons I hired David was, I thought his taste was consistent with some of the things that we had been doing, and that he could kind of bring this to the next level, which he did. Which he did. So, I don’t know if, consciously, we put on a piece of paper that these are the things, but I think, you know, for me, in the old days, when I sat down and talked to the press or I sat down and talked to an affiliate, I would get asked the question, “What’s Showtime? What is the brand?” And that’s a question you get when it isn’t obvious to somebody. I never get that question anymore. I never -- if I do, once every several years, I’m tempted to say, “Have you ever watched Showtime?” And I think our company--, everybody in the company has a kind of communal sense of who we are and the type of things we do. And it’s not just in the scripted programming, but I think The Circus is a good example, taking a very different take on political programming than you were seeing out there. And I think the reason it was successful was because it wasn’t a talking head answering a question about tax reform or about foreign policy, but rather kind of getting to the other side of that candidate and what their lives are like in that sphere of a presidential campaign. Our documentaries: David Nevins always used the term “culture changing people or subject matter.” And it might be in a very narrow part of the universe, but that individual or that subject matter has a real cultural impact in there. That’s the reason why these music docs work so well. You know, music is such a part of our culture, and when these things come along, we love them. So, the brand development has been so critical over this period of time.
Arenstein: There was a documentary -- I believe it was last summer -- about the CIA that you did. Fabulous.
Blank: In the Company of Spies?
Arenstein: Yes, something with a company, yes.
Blank: In the Company of Spies. Again, we had tremendous access, and I actually think that’s a case where, because we had been doing Homeland, that this sort of came to us and was a terrific kind of partner to that show from a whole different point of view. And one of the fun things in Homeland is, that cast -- in fact, a whole bunch of us -- have gotten to go down to the CIA, sit with the most senior people in the CIA from all the directorates, and really hear what they thought about Homeland. And they loved it.
Arenstein: OK, good. Good. Let me just ask you: I mean, you know, you look at your career, you look at this timeline, and the long run you’ve had at Showtime -- and I say that admiringly. So --
Blank: Not everybody would.
Arenstein: No, I understand that, but I’m saying, to last that long. I mean, that’s -- this is a business where people come and go very quickly. In the old days, when you first started at Showtime, to now, tell me, in terms of the culture, tell me in terms of your leadership: have things changed?
Blank: Well, you know, I think things have changed dramatically. First, just the success of the business: my first year there, I think Showtime made 30-some-odd million dollars in profits, most of it non-recurring -- which means the profits were from settlements of lawsuits or one-time events, literally -- to a company that makes in excess of a billion dollars a year now. And I think the culture is a part of that -- big part of it. It was never a leadership culture, and you can’t just go in and change that if you’re not a leader. You can’t say to the company, you know, “We’re fantastic, we’re wonderful, but, yes, we’re a distant second to HBO. We don’t make any money, and we got a long way to go in the programming front.” So, I think it’s a gradual process. It’s getting people to believe in the content, believe in the brand, while those of us who run the company make sure that we secure the type of business relationships necessary to generate the revenue and begin a period of growth. So, I would say it was like turning an aircraft carrier or a tanker. It took a while. It took a while. And, you know, one of the things that I remember when I got to Showtime from HBO at the beginning of 1988, almost 30 years ago. There was a party a month or two later to celebrate that we had 10 million subs. Over the following 18 months we had two more 10-million-subscriber parties because we kept falling back below 10 million, so we’d get 10 million subscribers again, say, “Well, let’s have another party.” But, you know, from that period -- the mid ’90s, late ’90s -- on, we’ve had really steady growth in our subscribers. We’re somewhere in the area of 24, 25 million subs now, and the attendant revenue growth that goes with that which has allowed us to really direct the lion’s share of our efforts to developing great content and marketing that content, which is, to us, the most important thing we do.
Arenstein: OK. And just tell me, in terms of pressure -- you know, the bar being raised higher, and higher, and higher -- does that get to you, you feel?
Blank: No. You know, look, I think it’s one of the realities of business. These jobs are not easy to come by, and you’re going to come by them or stay in them by having a certain level of success that you exceed each year. It gets harder and harder; it’s very, very difficult now for any number of reasons. But, you know, I think that we’ve had tremendous leadership in the company -- very self-motivated group. A key thing was turning the corporate culture from a culture of kind of nobody caring about it to being a winner, and we like being winners. And I always used to say to the group that the objective is not to survive, the objective is to prevail. Nobody wants to go home from their job and say, “Well, we survived another week.” I think an awful lot of people do, not at Showtime, but in -- probably more people in the American economy today go home every night and say, “Well, I survived that one.” But that’s not what you build the hopes and dreams of a great career on. You want to prevail; you want to be successful; you want to do things that are important, that people remember. And we’ve been really lucky to have a group of people at Showtime who were able to make that happen.
Arenstein: And when did you feel that Showtime went from a culture of “Eh, we’ll just be a distant second to HBO” to a winning culture? When did that happen?
Blank: You know, I think it started in the middle, early part of the last decade. We started to have some shows on the air that were working. The industry was still growing at a very dramatic rate; we took advantage of that. We had the ability to go into our affiliates in a renegotiation and say, “Showtime is important. You now need Showtime. You’ve got to have it. We need to be treated fairly within the economic structure of what you do.” So, it’s all those things together, and it’s a gradual thing, but it’s great to have the opportunity to see the company where it was and to see it today.
Arenstein: Sure. Was there a particular time when you -- you know, was there a show, was there an award, that you said, “OK, we’ve turned the corner”?
Blank: I think the tipping point was Homeland. I think David Nevins had been on the job, literally, full-time, for a couple of weeks, and he called me up, and he said, “There’s a script I want you to read, and you got to read it really quickly.” And we read it, and we all loved it. And David had worked with these producers; he’d worked on 24 when he was at Fox. And we just thought that show was right for the time. Great writers, great show-runners, ultimately, a great cast. And, you know, we won the Emmy for that show. We won the Golden Globe and we won the Emmy. We won the Best Writing, we won actor awards. And I sort of felt, sitting there, having sat through an awful lot of awards shows over the years, that people took notice, and people were going to remember that Homeland was on Showtime, which was important, and that people would want to work at Showtime based on that. So, I think, you know, people say awards are really not that important, and I don’t know that they are that important with consumers per se, but I think they can be very important to the company, to the creative community that you work in, and to your ability to attract -- and I don’t think it’s so bad for people to watch the Emmys, and for Homeland to win, and for people to get up and recognize Showtime. So, that was great.
Arenstein: You know, I do want to make one point, though, and I want to talk about leadership. And I don’t know if you remember this, but when Bob Greenblatt left, I wrote a column about how Showtime had grown and improved tremendously.
Blank: I think I do remember that.
Arenstein: And this was kind of in the early days of email, and one day, I’m looking at my computer, and I have an email from Matt Blank. And I was like, “Wow, whoa, what is this?” And it was just a little note saying, “Thank you for that column. It was really nice. It was well done, and you told a really good story very well.” And I never forgot that.
Blank: I’m glad to hear that. That’s nice.
Arenstein: So, I asked -- I give you that little prelude because --
Blank: Thank you.
Arenstein: -- I am thinking that a person who does that -- what kind of leader is that person? Is that the type of leader you are?
Blank: Well, I always like to recognize--. You know, over the years, I can think of only one time in my tenure -- 20 years or so as CEO -- where I called somebody up about a bad article. I was always just, “Well, it’ll be gone tomorrow. They’re not going to change it; they’re not going to retract it.” I’m sure our PR people did, or I’m sure others did, and said, “What are you talking about? Why would you do that?” But, you know, look, I’m always pleased when I read something nice, if somebody says something nice, and I’m, you know, grateful that they took the time to actually do that. So, thank you again.
Arenstein: My pleasure. And, of course, I thought -- when I first saw that, I thought, “Oh, my God. What did I do?”
Blank: Yes, “What’s he mad about?” (laughs)
Arenstein: “What did I do wrong? What is he mad” -- but it was a nice article. And then I remember that you and I emailed a little bit because I complemented another series that you had started with David Steinberg, interviewing comedians about comedians.
Blank: Yes, David is fabulous.
Arenstein: Donald Rickles, and Seinfeld on Rickles --
Blank: No, he’s a fabulously interesting guy, raised, you know, as a fairly religious Jew in a small town in Canada, like, in Saskatchewan or one of those provinces I can’t pronounce properly. And he’s had an amazing career as a stand-up comic. I think he holds the record for most appearances on Carson. He wrote for Carson’s Oscar when Carson used to host the Oscars. He directed, I think, Seinfeld’s, I believe. He’s still a director. And he’s so well-liked that when he brought that in, we did it for, I guess, three seasons, had a great experience with him. I run into David quite a bit and he’s a wonderful guy.
Arenstein: It was. Anyway, so, I just wanted to say that that was a nice thing, and --
Arenstein: -- I think that, probably, that’s the way you lead a company, too.
Blank: Well, we -- you know, we have a very open company. Our executives are all very open -- open-door policy. And, you know, what’s amazing to me now, when we do big corporate events or anything, to see how young the company is. It makes me really feel old when I get in the elevator in the morning, that’s for sure.
Arenstein: Talking about company events: I mean, some of the Showtime parties at NTCA were just so creative and clever.
Blank: Yes, we’ve had fun over the years. I’m going to miss those; definitely going to miss those. And, you know, we’ve been fortunate, because we’ve worked with a lot of great talent who are always willing to step up, and do things with us, and do things with the company. And, look, we’re in the midst of sea changes in this business, and I think it’s important for the company to be well liked and respected in our various communities we do business with. I’m still close to an awful lot of our major distributors, people I’ve known forever. I think the respect that David Nevins and his team have in the creative community is up there with any company in the business, and I think that’s meaningful. I think that’s meaningful, and in some ways, it’s a lost art, as the economics change. And, you know, look, the way I kind of describe the business, it went from a distribution business -- you know, frankly, back in the ’80s, into the ’90s, if you had a good deal with Comcast or you had a good deal with Time Warner Cable, or whomever, you could find a way to be packaged and kind of survive. And I think that world changed a lot over the past 15 years or so, where, yes, all that was important, but ultimately, it was about brand and content. And now, ironically, we’re going back to a world where it’s brand and content, but it’s distribution, because with all the over-the-top players, distribution is changing so much. So, now, we spend an awful lot of our time talking about our new distributors and how our direct-to-consumer business works. And the next phase for us is really data science, because, for the first time, we get -- sort of amazing, after all these years, but for the first time, we get a great deal of data about how our customers came to subscribe, what and how they’re watching. Are they binging? How much time do they spend between episodes? What are they watching? When their favorite series is over, what are they doing? Are they going off? Are they coming back on? That, and the obvious household data, really changed the way we schedule, the way we program -- we need a lot more content -- and certainly, the way we market. So, having that foundation of that brand and that content is so critical to now taking advantage of these new distribution environments, as well as the new types of data and information we can glean from these new distribution environments to help us program and market the service better. So, in some ways, it’s come full circle, and in some ways, it’s all new -- every day is new.
Arenstein: Yes, but, I mean, it’s -- when you’re saying that, you definitely sound like the marketer that you are --
Blank: (laughs) I can’t get away from it.
Arenstein: -- wanting to know more and more about the customer --
Arenstein: -- and now you’re able to.
Blank: Frankly, that was always -- you know, I always joke. I would go on Bloomberg, or go on CNBC, and I’d say, “Gee, we have a great business. We have 22 million subscribers,” or, “we have 18” -- whenever. And I remember when I went on to talk about our over-the-top launch. Two and a half years ago, I went on Squawk Box and I said, “I really wasn’t truthful with you guys over the years. I come on the show; I’d say, ‘We have 20 million subscribers. It’s a great business.’” I said, “Comcast had those subscribers. DirecTV had those subscribers. Now, we have subscribers, which means that we can run our business very, very differently, and that’s a tremendous advantage from the marketing standpoint.” So, it’s fun. I’m jealous of those who’ll get to do it for the next 20 years.
Arenstein: So, what are you going to do with all the spare time? You told us before the taping that you’re not going into the office every day any more.
Blank: No. You know, look, I’m not the type of guy to retire. At the very least side of things, I’ve got a bunch of not-for-profit things I’m involved in and can spend more time on, and I’ve been involved with some Broadway stuff and can spend some time. And then, at the other extreme, I have a bunch of folks in the investment community who are buying companies, or own companies, and have said, “Can you help us out?” And I think my answer to that is yes, if it’s not competitive with Showtime, and if it allows me to have a little more control over my time and life so that I’m not a 24/7-type guy. And, you know, there’s an opportunity to do some new and fun things, and I’m looking forward to that, and I’m looking forward to keeping in close touch with Showtime, because that’s like a family to me, and I think they will continue to do great.
Arenstein: Yes. You know, Matt, I wanted to mention -- I know you won’t do it, but I will. I was always impressed by, quietly, how well you -- or how much you did, philanthropically. And I know you didn’t want to get headlines about that, and it was written about a little bit, but it was kept under the radar, pretty much, and I think that was your choice, but I think it needs to be talked about, because it’s important. I know it’s important to you; it must be. What are some of the causes that you’ve looked at over the years?
Blank: You know, I think the main thing for me -- I’ve been involved with an organization called the Harlem Children’s Zone for over 20 years now, and it’s an organization that, in the period of time that I’ve been involved with them, have gone from serving 600 or 800 kids in Central Harlem -- and families -- to 15,000 kids in Central Harlem, with a couple of charter schools, massive programs, many hundreds of millions of dollars of endowment from nothing. And that’s an organization I’ve been fortunate enough to get Showtime involved with. It was led, for most of these years, by a truly inspirational leader by the name of Geoff Canada who’s had tremendous national recognition for what he’s done for children. Geoff’s actually just sort of stepped up there, also, in a little less of the day-to-day and a little more time spending time with kids, which he used to do. And, you know, I feel great that it’s been embraced by Showtime. I think a bunch of Showtime employees are up there this week wrapping Christmas gifts for the kids. So, you know, look, it’s important. It’s important in terms of the communities we live in and the life we get to live in a place like New York. And it’s important, you know, from a business standpoint, in terms of the culture of the company. And it’s hard to have healthy businesses, healthy companies, without healthy countries, and I think that’s important to all companies, and I’ve just been very lucky to associate with them. I’ve done a bunch of other things in the arts, but I think they’re the organization that’s been most important to me.
Arenstein: I remember, also, if my memory serves, you were very important with Cable Positive when it was around.
Blank: Yes, I got involved with Cable Positive sort of early on, and, you know, the Cable Positive story was an interesting story. It was an organization that the industry got behind at a period of time where, I think, AIDS information was critical in this country. And then, I guess, the belief was that it had served its purpose in one way, shape, or form, but I’m very proud of what they did over that decade or so, that that organization was active in the industry. And I actually think it had a major impact on the companies in the industry.
Arenstein: I do too. What are you proudest of, when you look back on your very long and successful career, Matt?
Blank: You know, I think the obvious thing is that -- I remember, when I left HBO in the beginning of 1988, everybody was like, “What? How could you do that?” And I remember getting to Showtime on my first day, and went to a couple of meetings, and I said, “Oh, my God, what have I done?” But, you know, I think it’s a -- I had this great opportunity early in my career, at HBO. I went there when I was 25 years old, and my first two years there, I went to 40 states, I think, and I got to see the beginnings of a business at a really grassroots level. And that’s an experience that not a lot of people get to do, and it changes you as a businessperson if you get to live through that -- both the struggles and the successes of that. I think, for Showtime -- you know, I think I’m proud of the fact that we were a company that was not widely respected, and today, is extremely well respected, and has a first-class organization of great leaders, great managers, great people. And the fact that, with David Nevins taking over now, we are all on the same page in the company about the strategy for the future and what will breed the next generation of success for that company. And that will always have just a very special place for me.
Arenstein: If I turn on the set -- well, we probably won’t even have to turn on sets 10 years from now.
Blank: No, just say, “Turn on.”
Arenstein: “Turn on Showtime.”
Blank: “Turn on Showtime.”
Arenstein: What am I going to see in about 5 or 10 years on Showtime?
Blank: You know, I don’t know. I think -- one thing I think, for certain: you’re going to see a lot more content, because I think the nature of the competition, and the nature of a business where someone doesn’t have to call a cable operator and say, “I want to disconnect Showtime,” or have somebody come and pick up a converter, or bring a box, or -- you know? I think that it will be a much purer consumer experience. And it will also be a more challenging experience for us, in many ways, because it’s very easy to just go online and click, and OK, Showtime is gone. So, “Oh, now I just watched my Shameless for this season, and, you know, I’ll watch Billions and Homeland next year when they’re showing.” So, I think we want to make sure that we bridge our subscriber universe so that, you know, it will not be Homeland ends and Billions comes on. As you’ve probably noticed, shows start -- we used to have four seasons. Now, we got a lot more, because new shows start in the middle of another anchor show season, and we try to bridge those audiences. We’re learning a lot more about who’s watching which shows, and that allows us to program differently, but it means we also have to have more content there. And so, you know, I always say to our various groups that we do a lot of important things in the company, but nothing is more important than the viewer experience. When they turn the network on, how much is there for them? And that’s whether you’re watching it on your iPhone, or you’re watching it on your 75-inch TV, if you’re watching it direct from Showtime, or you’re watching through Xfinity at Comcast, or Spectrum’s platforms. The consumer experience is critical, and ultimately, people are there for the content, and we’ve got to give them what they want.
Arenstein: Sure. Finally, cable’s legacy: what’s a big story about cable that the general public probably doesn’t know?
Blank: Well, you know, I think that that’s a good question. I mean, I always thought that one of the unfortunate things about the cable industry was, this industry was shepherded by some of the great entrepreneurs of the twentieth century. When you read about Bob Magness, you read about Alan Gerry, you know, up in Liberty, New York -- I have a friend who was raised in Liberty, New York, and he said that when he was a little kid, his first TV, Mr. Gerry used to come over, because he had a TV store; he’d put the tubes in. And, you know, Alan Gerry built this big company that he ultimately sold to Time Warner. And I think that, you know, if you go back to the beginnings, the great entrepreneurs in this business never got the same credit as other great entrepreneurs, because people were so fundamentally unhappy with cable service. And that created a cloud over the industry for so long.
Then let’s come to the other end, today. I don’t think a lot of consumers are really aware of the technological innovations that Comcast is doing with Xfinity, or Charter is doing with Spectrum, and what that experience through cable will be like in the years to come. And, you know, it’s so important to us, when -- one of the things we’ve seen has been -- one of the good effects of our over-the-top and direct-to-consumer -- developing those services -- is that, when you go on the Showtime app on your iPhone, or if you get it through Roku or whomever -- others -- Amazon, Hulu -- you’ve got 1,600, 1,800 hours of content right there, on demand, in your hand. And a few years ago, that wasn’t the experience on a lot of our linear distributors, where you, literally -- we had, as recently as two years ago, we had affiliates-- and I think it’s probably still happening. I shouldn’t even say that. In some places, say, you’re getting 40 hours a month. So, that is an unacceptable comparison. You cannot sit on your sofa and go to Showtime On Demand and get 40 hours, and pick up your iPad, buying it from another provider, and you’ve got 1,600 or 1,800 hours of on-demand content. So, that has forced the industry into a certain amount of consumer interface equilibrium, and I think that’s critical. I think that’s critical. And, you know, they always say, any business competition forces you to be better, and there’s a lot of ways to be better, and I think the consumer experience from the legacy providers is getting better and better, as well as the broadband speeds, and all of the other things that you can do. And not that that’s not true with Amazon, or not true with Apple, or Hulu, or whomever. It’s just that I think you’re going to see more of a balance in the future. Ultimately, you shouldn’t -- who you are getting that from shouldn’t be a factor. You know, I mean, if you go to Walgreens and you buy a tube of toothpaste, that Walgreens experience shouldn’t carry over to you’re standing in front of the mirror, brushing your teeth at night and thinking about Walgreens. You want people thinking about your brand and who you are. And I think, ultimately, we want all of our distributors, including ourselves, to be providing a better level of consumer interface and consumer experience than users were historically used to.
Arenstein: I think of you as a creative guy, but also, you’re a businessman. You have a Wharton degree, there, so you’re a legitimate business guy. How do you see yourself? Are you a business guy, or a creative guy, or a mixture of both?
Blank: I think a little of both. I’ve always loved the content. I mean, I was the kid, growing up, who, you know, I would sneak back in the living room and watch television. I wanted to work in television or film when I got out of Wharton, couldn’t get a job, worked in packaged goods, financial services for a couple of years, and ended up at HBO. But one of the things I enjoy about my job is, I get to cover all of it. I’m not the guy who chooses the programs. I’m not the guy who takes the pitches. But I’ve been fortunate to have great executives that I talk to every day, and have had the opportunity to express my opinions, and to be a great advocate for the brand, and a great advocate for the shows we’re making. But, you know, I feel pretty comfortable putting a suit on and doing an investor meeting for CBS, or I feel pretty comfortable, you know, in a T-shirt and jeans, going and hanging out with a lot of our people on the creative side. So, I try not to define myself, but I feel pretty good about being able to -- after all these years, being able to cross a lot of different parts of the company.
Arenstein: OK. And talk about your personal legacy, if you would.
Blank: Well, I’d like to think it’s the strength of the brand, and more importantly, what a great group of people we have at Showtime, and the fact that we are an important player out there. You know, for the past decade or so, we’ve been part of CBS Corporation, and I can remember my very first meeting -- budget, strategic, or planning meeting with CBS -- and Leslie Moonves, who’s been a tremendous supporter of Showtime, said to me, “Matt, doesn’t it bother you that HBO was so successful, and you guys are still so far beyond?” And I said, “You know, what bothers me is that you’re the first one that ever asked me that question, of all the bosses I’ve had. And the answer is yes, it bothers us every single day, and we can’t control what they do, but I think we’re at a takeoff point now where we can control what we’re doing, and we’re going to be much more successful in competing with them.” And, you know, I think that was sort of the start. We were on our way, then -- the start of the new Showtime today. But the legacy is that we think we’re competitive with any brands out there, in terms of the importance of the programming that we are creating and doing, and that we can compete. And, I think an important part of anybody’s legacy who’s leaving a position that’s like this is, “How well can your company do when you leave -- not when you were here, but when you leave?” Because if, tomorrow, the bottom falls out, you didn’t do a very good job of preparing the company for the future. So, I feel good about that.
Arenstein: Matt, you have a persona. Let’s put it that way. You have a persona in the industry of being not only a nice person and a very thoughtful person, but a very funny person, a humorous person, an articulate person. I remember a number of jokes. I remember when we honored you at Cablefax, and, you know, we had a few honorees, and we had a few events where we honor people, and you said something like, when you picked up the award, “What happened? You didn’t -- you’ve gone through all the list of executives and got to me?” It was something like that. It was much better than that.
Blank: I always felt that had to be the case, if I was being honored or speaking at something.
Arenstein: Right. (laughs)
Blank: Who’d you ask first?
Arenstein: Exactly. So, how do you prepare for a speech? How do you think about these things?
Blank: You know, I really never prepare very much. Look, I like to have a good time. I think a sense of humor is important. I think, sometimes, we take ourselves too seriously. And for me, it’s just fun. You know, the irony is that I remember a point in my career, probably pre-Showtime, at HBO, where my boss said to me, “you really have to--,” I had spoken to a group of affiliates, he said, “You won’t be successful if you don’t learn to speak in public better.” And I was always scared to death of it, and I think, at some point, I did it so much that I just got used to it. And everybody’s different. I think my nightmare is a big, prepared speech or remarks, and my usual modus operandi is, I’ll put some thoughts together for something, but in the moments before I go up to speak, I scribble a few things on a little note card, and I get up and try to be spontaneous. But mostly, I just like to have fun.
Arenstein: Matt, thank you so much. It’s been a lot of fun.
Blank: Thank you.
END OF INTERVIEW