Call-girl cable series unites rivals
Showtime, though smaller than HBO, is showing momentum and attracting top talent that once worked for the competition.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Matt Blank couldn't help himself. The CEO of Showtime Networks recently hosted a private screening of "Secret Diaries of a Call Girl." The series, which debuts on the cable channel on June 16, is about a high-priced prostitute - played by Billie Piper - who takes viewers behind the scenes of her profession. She even shares tips on how she pleases her well-heeled clients.
Blank had to make a joke at the expense of his longtime rival, former HBO CEO Chris Albrecht, who resigned last April after he was arrested for allegedly roughing up his girlfriend in a Las Vegas parking lot. "I know it sounds like the secret diary of Chris Albrecht," said Showtime's CEO. "But it isn't!"
Everybody at the screening at a private club in Manhattan laughed - including Albrecht. He was sitting right there with his coterie of publicists and the same girlfriend with whom he'd tussled in Vegas. (He was not prosecuted, and they are now engaged.) Albrecht enjoyed the moment as much as anybody. After all, he'd sold "Secret Diaries" to Showtime.
It was a good night for Blank and Albrecht, who'd long been fierce competitors. The sale of "Secret Diaries" marks Albrecht's return to cable television where he was once a dominant figure. Before he was fired, Albrecht ran HBO from 2002 to 2007, an era that TV Guide editor-at large Bruce Fretts describes as HBO's "golden age" when shows like "The Sopranos," "Sex in the City" and "Six Feet Under" attracted huge audiences and worshipful press coverage.
As waiters circulated with glasses of champagne and hors d'oeuvres, Albrecht talked about he discovered "Secret Diaries" shortly after he took a new job in September as head of global media at IMG, the one-time sports marketing and programming agency that is trying to morph into a worldwide entertainment company. Tiger Aspect, a British television production company owned by IMG, had just competed the show for that country's ITV network. Albrecht was convinced the show had transatlantic appeal. He said he shopped "Secret Diaries" to HBO. He ended up selling it to Showtime.
"Showtime just turned out to be a better partner," Albrecht says. Showtime thought about buying the format rights to "Secret Diaries" and making an American version. Albrecht advised against this. "Chris said, 'I don't think you'll do better than this'," said Bob Greenblatt, Showtime's president of entertainment. And there was another obstacle. Says Greenblatt: "It's hard to get American actresses to do the nudity involved." Presumably, the generous amounts of simulated sex in the show might have put them off, too. Then again, that's exactly why the series may very well take off.
Showtime executives play up the public relations coup of doing business with a former enemy like Albrecht. They are quick to add that the network will be premiering "Tracey Ullman's State of the Union" on March 30, a new show by the longtime HBO fixture.
In addition, they say, Edie Falco, famed for her role as Carmella Soprano, is working on an as-yet-untitled pilot for Showtime. But nothing apparently beats the sight of HBO's former CEO dropping by for a meeting. "I said, 'This is a historic moment'," recalls Greenblatt. "I never thought I'd see the day when he walked into Showtime's office."
The television industry is famous for its hype. But truth be told, Showtime's ability to attract former HBO notables bodes well for the network.
Showtime, a subsidiary of CBS Corp (CBS, Fortune 500), has only 15.5 million subscribers - half of what HBO has amassed. (HBO, like Fortune, is owned by Time Warner (TWX, Fortune 500).) But it added 1 million of them last year. TV Guide's Fretts notes that Showtime's newer programs are generating the kind of critical buzz that once flowed exclusively to HBO. "Showtime just has a lot more momentum then HBO, which seems stuck in a creative and commercial rut," says Fretts. (HBO declined to comment for this story.)
No wonder Blank and Albrecht acted as if they'd always been the best of friends at the screening. "I've known Chris for a long time," Blank said. "He was nice enough to bring this to us. It's nice to have him on this side." Albrecht, for his part, said that only journalists would be foolish enough to think there had ever been any tensions between the two of them. "That's just your guys' stuff," he scoffed.
The former HBO CEO said he hopes to do more business with Showtime. Perhaps that's why he seemed a little miffed when the lights came up after the screening of "Secret Diaries" and the audience was silent. "Come on," Albrecht complained, "it was sexy, wasn't it?" Then he and Blank went upstairs to a VIP reception with their respective posses and celebrated some more.