Showtime has a problem. The problem is this: on a long enough timeline, all of its shows start to suck. It happened with Weeds. It happened with Dexter. And now it’s starting to happen with Homeland. It’s arguably Showtime’s most critically beloved series to date, and its rapid deterioration should be a wake-up call for the network.
Premium cable has become a hotbed for original programming in the last few decades thanks to Showtime’s chief rival, HBO. HBO, after all, brought us The Sopranos, The Wire, Oz, Deadwood, and Game of Thrones, just to name a few of their better-known shows. Showtime has been playing catch-up for quite some time now, but unless they focus on improving the quality of their programming rather than ringing every last bit of profit out of it, HBO will always come out ahead.
The main strength of HBO has been that since all the profit comes from subscribers, they do not have to worry about ad revenue. This has allowed the network to take risks and put on shows that are more about generating word-of-mouth than about being marketable. The hope is that that positive word-of-mouth will eventually lead to additional subscribers. Traditional network and cable TV shows, in contrast, have to maximize their Nielsen ratings in order to sell airtime to advertisers who only care about numbers, not about quality. Their goal is to get their advertisements seen by as many people as possible, and that’s why we’ve ended up with countless cookie cutter reality shows. Unfortunately, aiming for the lowest common denominator has proven a wildly effective tactic.
One would expect Showtime to follow the same path as HBO, since they share the same business model. And indeed, some of their programming has seemed pretty daring on paper. A show about a suburban mom who sells pot? Another show about a serial killer who only kills other serial killers? Those are solid premises, and ones that until recently would never have been seen on network TV or basic cable. But now things have changed. One of the most successful basic cable dramas in recent history was about a high school chemistry teacher who starts manufacturing meth after discovering he has cancer. Breaking Bad was both darker and funnier than Weeds ever was. It was also tremendously better written. Similarly, Dexter seems positively tame in comparison to NBC’s Hannibal, a show in which the talents of a serial killer are used to track down other serial killers.
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