David Nevins couldn’t cite the accurate figure, but if he had to guess, he’d say 25 to 35 million people will watch the latest season of Homeland over a 52-week period. And if that’s not a depiction of how weekly and overnight Nielsen numbers only measure a fraction of a TV show’s impact, then we at The A.V. Club don’t know what is.
As the president of entertainment at Showtime, Nevins has a different relationship with the Nielsen ratings than his counterparts in the broadcast world. “Ratings are not the only criteria to look at for a show,” Nevins said during his executive session with the Television Critics Association this afternoon, citing Showtime’s rising subscriber numbers—now more than 22 million—alongside record overnight audiences for Homeland and Dexter. Coming near the end of a winter press tour where the threshold for a hit seemed to change day to day (not to mention the wrench thrown into the ratings works by Netflix and its full-season releases of House Of Cards and Arrested Development), Nevins remarks only furthered underlined the notion that, when it comes to determining the true size and makeup of a television show’s audience, the ratings just don’t matter as much as they once did. Except when it comes to boasting about the reach of your shows in front of a room full of critics, of course. So why report the ratings at all? “We try to give you ratings information as a matter of transparency,” Nevins told TCA members. “And you guys are in the business of covering hits, and we are in the business of making hits. I don’t know how you judge it without having some numbers.”
But by not confining his programming decisions to matters of total viewership and demographics, Nevins can provide a greater amount of breathing room for his shows. Or, you know, just let them go on and on and on and on. (Unless they’re The United States Of Tara.) However, with shows like Dexter, Californication, and The Big C deep into their respective runs, the mantra of Nevins’ session was “endgame,” a topic—as mentioned in the ballroom—that entered the television conversation only fairly recently. It’s a fitting coincidence that How I Met Your Mother was the talk of the CBS exec session while Dexter came up multiple times during Nevins’ time on stage; both are series that set expectations for a definitive ending from their start—and have, as a byproduct of their success, had to place those endings on indefinite hold. “Dexter to Showtime is what Batman is to Warner Brothers,” Nevins said, illustrating a reluctance to let his signature, still-popular series go.
But Nevins is in a more comfortable position than he was in taking his Showtime post at the beginning of 2011: The network lost one of his more valuable properties in 2012 due to the end of Weeds, but that was also the year in which Homeland claimed the Emmy for Best Drama. And while he’s heard your complaints about the plausibility of Homeland’s second season—and reminds you that “the suspension of disbelief is the scaffolding good storytelling is built on—Nevins is still intent on brandishing the show as the most powerful card in the network’s deck, using it to help launch Masters Of Sex in the fall of 2013. Dexter, meanwhile, is being shuffled to the summer, where it will lead into Ray Donovan. (And lead to an invented “Dexter versus True Blood” narrative in the press leading to the next seasons of both series.) There’s a sense of increased clout in the programming slate Nevins presented as the press tour: John Logan and Sam Mendes will follow up Skyfall with Penny Dreadful, an ensemble genre piece bringing together Dracula, Frankenstein, Van Helsing, and other enduring figures of Gothic horror. Matt Damon’s due to make a cameo in the second season of House Of Lies, continuing his tour of pay-cable outlets begun with HBO’s Liberace biopic Behind The Candelabra. (And there’s the second peg for your “HBO vs. Showtime” story.) On a superficial level, the decision to put two sizzle reels at the top of Nevins’ session imbued the network’s current slate with an air of importance. You can’t put that sense into an easily comparable or quantifiable metric—and if you did, you’d have to set Showtime against HBO in another trumped-up head-to-head competition—but it’s certainly grown since the pre-Weeds and -Dexter days when Showtime struggled to launch its own original programming. The next challenge is learning how to let some shows go.