'Billions': Showtime drama will come back for a second season

Showtime's new program will have a second season. How is the cable network doing against such competition as HBO and Starz?

Jeff Neumann/Showtime/AP
'Billions' stars Paul Giamatti.

Showtime’s new drama “Billions” will be coming back for a second season. 

“Billions,” which premiered earlier this month, stars Damian Lewis as Bobby Axelrod, who is in charge of a hedge fund, and Paul Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades, who is the U.S. Attorney for the southern district of New York. The two are connected by Chuck’s wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), who works at Bobby’s company.

The program has gotten mixed reviews from critics so far. The first episode of “Billions” debuted online early. 

Showtime’s original programming has become a source of awards season favorites, with shows like “Homeland,” “The Affair,” “Masters of Sex,” and “Shameless” all being nominated for prizes such as the Emmy Awards or the Golden Globe Awards.

How many viewers have been drawn to the cable channel? 

Showtime’s numbers are usually below, for example, those of HBO’s fantasy program “Game of Thrones” and AMC’s show “The Walking Dead,” but then again, there’s not much like “Thrones” or “Walking” on television – the smash hit show “Thrones” has become HBO’s most-watched program of all time. “Walking" also regularly draws massive numbers. (Also, unlike Showtime, AMC doesn’t require a subscription. But the two channels often end up going head-to-head at awards shows.)

So Showtime doesn’t have a big hit that draws stratospheric numbers like HBO or AMC.

“Billions,” however, is doing quite well. According to the network, counting viewers who checked out the pilot early digitally and watched it on TV on its debut date, “Billions” had the highest-rated series debut episode ever for the network. 

However, for subscribers – an important number for HBO and Showtime as well as other subscription cable networks – Showtime fell behind Starz last year. While HBO, Showtime, and Starz all experienced growth, Starz came in at number two ahead of Showtime, with HBO still at number one.

“The margin between Starz and Showtime is small, and it is unclear how long the repositioning of the two networks will last,” Deadline writer Nellie Andreeva noted at the time. “Nevertheless, the quarterly No. 2 finish for Starz is giving a boost of confidence to the pay cable channel which – like HBO, Showtime and now Cinemax – has been beefing up its original series slate.” 

Others feel Showtime needs some course correction. Guardian writer Brian Moylan wrote near the end of last year that “the cable channel lost its way.” 

Moylan pointed to programs like “Dexter,” “Homeland,” “Weeds, and “Nurse Jackie” as hits that made the name of Showtime.

“Then something happened,” Moylan wrote. “’Weeds,’ ‘Dexter,’ and ‘United States of Tara’ came to a close. Homeland hit the creative skids, faltering with critics, and lost all its must-see-TV heat… Shows such as ‘Ray Donovan,’ ‘Shameless,’ ‘Masters of Sex,’ and ‘House of Lies,’ modestly enjoyed by critics and the Emmy voters, weren’t part of the cultural conversation in the way their predecessors were, though they pulled in a decent number of viewers.”

The network’s upcoming “Twin Peaks” continuation could help, says Moylan. But overall, it goes back to having a big hit like "Thrones" – no easy task, or everyone would make one.

“Showtime’s strength is going to be in numbers, creating a beast so big that even lone wolf HBO can’t hunt it as prey,” Moylan wrote.

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