Showtime’s Nevins Got His Start at the DSCC

Posted March 5, 2012 at 6:01pm

Showtime President David Nevins has an impressive résumé that includes producing a long list of award-winning TV shows, working in top positions at Fox Broadcasting Co. and NBC Universal, and overseeing a fast-growing premium cable channel.

But if you look a little closer at the TV executive’s credentials, you’ll see a story arc that’s hard to ignore: The man responsible for developing some of the most gripping political dramas in recent memory, such as “The West Wing” and “Homeland,” got his start working as a Beltway insider — though not a “high-ranking one,” he’s quick to note.

Before packing his bags and leaving for Hollywood in the late 1980s, Nevins worked for a few short months on the press relations staff at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which was headed at the time by Sen. George Mitchell (Maine).

“It was your typical Hill internship,” he said in a recent phone interview with Roll Call.

While there, he did what most fresh-faced college graduates do while they wait for their big break: He clipped newspapers. He photocopied sections of the Des Moines Register and the Washington Post.

While he downplayed his tasks within the office — going so far as to call them “menial” — he said his work at the DSCC taught him a valuable lesson about press relations in politics.

“I learned the power of a positive headline” and the importance of a good photo, he said.

Dealing in Relationships

His work at the DSCC wasn’t Nevins’ first foray to politics. 

He grew up nearby in Bethesda, Md. When he was 17, his father, a lobbyist, arranged an internship for him with then-Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.).

It would have been a dream internship for most teenagers looking to build their résumés. But not for Nevins.

After meeting with D’Amato’s chief of staff, he quickly discovered that the Senator’s politics “were not aligned” with his (as any viewer of “The West Wing” could have guessed). So he refused the position.

“My dad was so pissed,” Nevins said.

Between his refusal to work for a committee chairman and his insistence that he never collected a paycheck at the DSCC, Nevins made it clear that he’s never been drawn to working in the Beltway.

But he’s clearly been drawn to fictionalizing it. 

For instance, “Homeland” — the first show that he green-lighted at Showtime — offers viewers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into a world guarded by classified government secrets. The show follows CIA intelligence officer Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes) as she investigates a recently rescued prisoner of war (played by Damian Lewis) on the suspicion that he works for al-Qaida.

In its first season, the show won widespread critical acclaim, not to mention Golden Globes for Best Actress and Best TV Drama. It even received a nod from the White House, when the president told People magazine that it’s one of his favorite shows.

“You never know what’s going to catch the zeitgeist,” Nevins said.

“Homeland” has the right elements to resonate with audiences — and push a few buttons — in an era of heightened anxiety about national security in much the same way “24” did in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Viewers see Mathison use sophisticated surveillance equipment to spy without authorization on Nick Brody, the recently returned prisoner of war. They see turf battles play out between the CIA and the FBI. They see elected officials spin national security rhetoric for political gain.

Nevins concedes that “some things are fudged for storytelling.” The show is filmed in North Carolina, and many critics have taken note of its inaccurate depictions of D.C. landmarks.

But he insists that the show aims for accuracy on “the big details,” such as organizational culture and human behavior.

That’s part of what distinguishes “Homeland” from other political thrillers. It depicts cultural clashes and competing constituencies within the Beltway — something that has “never really been tackled before” on TV, Nevins argued.

“I think the show does a good job portraying the relationship between the intelligence community and the political establishment,” he said.

The complicated web of political players provides a context for the drama that unfolds in the first season.

The script was originally written for a broadcast network. Nevins said that after he read it for the first time, he talked with the writers, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, about ways to adapt the story for a premium cable channel, where there are far fewer content or language restrictions.

“It became a lot about complicating relationships between characters,” he said. They made the CIA agent “more complicated” and the celebrated prisoner of war “more ambiguous.” 

The team developed storylines that portrayed both government officials and terrorism suspects with conflicting motives and sympathetic personal details.

And viewers are hooked. During the past year, “Homeland” has become a must-see show among audiences across the country — particularly in New York and Washington, D.C.

“I would hear from someone who works in the White House. I would hear from someone in the network news business,” Nevins said. “It’s great when it’s the influencers you attract.”