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Premium Summer for Cable

By: Alex Weprin, Broadcasting & Cable

While much of the media business is in economic turmoil and ad-supported television is hurting, HBO and Showtime actually are thriving.

Both networks are up more than 20% in primetime ratings year-over-year, and a recent report from SNL Kagan pegged HBO's penetration at about 29.1 million homes and Showtime's at 17.1 million homes. Both figures are up from last summer, despite the lagging economy.

“As the advertising business has been tough in this recession, our model looks pretty good,” says Showtime chairman Matt Blank.

HBO has been stealing many of the headlines with its strong True Blood/Hung-induced Sunday night renaissance, but Showtime has been setting ratings records of its own with its summer lineup of WeedsNurse Jackie and Penn & Teller: Bullshit!

“I don't think it is a zero-sum game,” says Dave Baldwin, HBO's head of program planning, of the HBO-Showtime rivalry. “In our history, we have seen phases of upward spirals and downward spirals in terms of audience. Right now we are in a nice, healthy upward spiral phase.”

“We both exist quite well in terms of critical acclaim and profitability in the same space,” echoes Showtime Entertainment President Bob Greenblatt.

So while HBO's turnaround has captured headlines, Showtime is happily capturing network records. Rookie Nurse Jackiewas the highest-rated premiere in network history. Weeds is up 5% from last season and drew 1.68 million viewers for its season debut, the best for any program on the network this year.

And while the network has no new shows slated for the fall, Greenblatt expects to order one or two scripted series for 2010. Showtime passed on both of its pilots and two pilot presentations in the last development cycle. “None of those really were going to be the next great show for us,” he says.

But the network is also focusing on films. MGM, Paramount and Lionsgate are leaving Showtime to launch their own pay cable channel Epix in October, which has forced the network to ink movie deals with smaller outfits in an effort to keep the theatricals flowing after 2010. So far, the network has deals with The Weinstein Co. and Summit Entertainment, which produces the Twilight movie series, among other production companies.

The Weinstein Co. has been under particular scrutiny, with questions about its financial state and whether it can remain solvent. “We like their movies; if we don't get their movies, we will buy other movies,” Blank says. “But most of the speculation about them is probably premature. Let's see how they do with the films they have made.”


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