'The Circus' - Showtime's CEO explains why the hit campaign show has impacted the 2016 presidential race

John Heilemann, Mark McKinnon, and Mark Halperin from the Showtime original series The Circus:  Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth. - Photo:  Scott Everett White/SHOWTIME
John Heilemann, Mark McKinnon, and Mark Halperin from the Showtime original series The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth. – Photo: Scott Everett White/SHOWTIME

Re-posted from National Review Online 

On Sunday, January 17, a first-of-its-kind, real-time political reality show about the 2016 presidential campaign premiered on  Showtime.

The show, aptly named, The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earthwas timed perfectly as the presidential primary races of both parties morphed into their own unpredictable and highly entertaining political reality shows starring a candidate who was already a reality show star.

As a result, over the last 13 weeks, The Circus became a hit for the entertainment channel while setting the political world atwitter. Thus, the show’s name was either a stroke of marketing genius, just plain luck, or maybe both. David Nevins, President and CEO of Showtime Networks explained the genesis of the title to National Review Online:

When we first started, I was arguing to call the show “The Circus,” but the producers had concerns that it might be perceived as disrespectful to the electoral process. No one could have known how prescient that title ended up becoming. Now “the circus” has become a widely used catchphrase for the 2016 election as a whole.

Meanwhile, The Circus has crossed over from entertaining viewers of Showtime to penetrating the political news arena. Fox News Channel frequently airs Circus clips on several of its highest-rated shows, and Politico tips off Washington insiders about noteworthy scenes.

I asked Nevins whether, in addition to generating political buzz, The Circus was a hit according to Showtime’s own data, to which he replied:

Buzz is “monetizable” for us. We’re a subscription service, and we need people to be curious about our brand. The most tangible metric for us is our viewers. Since it first began in January, viewership for The Circus’s Sunday episodes at 8 p.m. has doubled. It’s hard to cut through all the election coverage, but this show is generating interest and differentiating itself in a crowded landscape.

Unfortunately, while The Circus is still gaining momentum and the entertainment value of the presidential primary races remain high, the show is going on hiatus after twelve original episodes and a special recap show that aired on April 10.

According to a Showtime press release:

The series will return in July with new episodes for the Democratic and Republican conventions, then go on another hiatus before returning in the fall for weekly coverage to coincide with the general election campaign.

Nevins explained why this is happening:

The truth is The Circus was originally intended as ten episodes for the primaries — four in June around the conventions — and ten more during the general.  However, we kept the show going two weeks longer than planned because the election has been so unexpectedly undecided. . . . We’ll continue to adjust the schedule tactically going forward.

Showtime made a huge financial gamble when they greenlighted The Circus. Conventional wisdom dictated that a political-campaign show would not have much chance of becoming a hit on a premium entertainment channel. Given this, I asked Nevins what his expectations had been and what he made of the show’s success. Nevins answered:

I honestly didn’t know what to expect for this show. We had a lot of discussions about what this series could be about. I think they have pulled it off beyond even my high expectations. My first concern was what kind of access they would get from the candidates and the campaigns — could we get the depth to adequately portray the melee? I think they have accomplished on a weekly basis what would have taken other documentaries a year to put together.

The “they” Nevins references are Mark Halperin, John Heilemann, and Mark McKinnon — three of the most distinguished political navigators on the campaign trail and in the media.

The magic of The Circus comes from watching how this trio interacts with the candidates and with one another, along with candidates’ families and campaign staff. Acting as co-hosts as well as show producers, Halperin, Heilemann, and McKinnon have been granted unparalleled access to the candidates chiefly because of who they are, what they know, the respect they command, and their obvious love for the political game.

For the record, Halperin and Heilemann are managing editors of Bloomberg Politics. They are bestselling authors who also host their own nightly political talk show, With All Due Respect, which airs weeknights at 5 p.m. on Bloomberg Television and re-airs at 6 p.m. on MSNBC.

The Circus is produced “in cooperation with Bloomberg Politics,” and Halperin and Heilemann appear on the set of their own show in most Circus episodes. That is obviously self-serving. But watching Halperin and Heilemann as they both make and report the news contributes to the overall charm that makes The Circus so uniquely watchable.

(The above clip was called “Dinner with the GOP Establishment” and it was the most buzzed scene on “The Circus.”) 

Then there is Mark McKinnon, the show’s “political strategist,” known for his mellow low-key wit, smarts, and humble personality. McKinnon is famous as the Republican media strategist who helped win two presidential campaigns — George W. Bush in 2000 and then again in 2004. It was McKinnon who initially conceived of The Circus as a vehicle to give outsiders the opportunity to watch a presidential campaign from the front row.

McKinnon’s media persona caught the attention of Megyn Kelly, host of the highly rated Kelly File, which airs weeknights on the Fox News Channel. Over the last few months, McKinnon has appeared regularly on her show to discuss the latest episode while Kelly airs Circus clips for millions of her viewers. Showtime has no way to measure the kind of credibility, publicity, and exposure that the news-channel exposure has given to The Circus.

When I asked Nevins whether he had received any blowback from subscribers complaining about unfair political coverage, he answered:

Actually no. The show has surprised people with how even it is. It’s unique in focusing on personalities and process rather than policy. One of the things that people appreciate about The Circus is its humanizing quality. It gives you a sense of who the candidates are beyond the debate stage. As far as any complaints, honestly, there have been none from the right or the left, which isn’t easy in this day and age.

That is an understatement and could be one of the many reasons that The Circus is popular with viewers of all political persuasions. But Mark McKinnon has his own theory: “People who watch it are telling us it makes them feel better about our democracy.”

And who can argue with that? To that end, I asked Nevins whether there are any plans for an after-election spin-off show, documentary, or new series utilizing hundreds of hours of un-seen Circus footage from the first twelve episodes. Nevins replied:

Yes, I am having that very conversation with Mark, Mark, and John this weekend about what to do with all of the extra footage we have. There is definitely an opportunity to do a deeper look at the primaries with all of the amazing footage we have shot. I think it could be something special.

Circus fans will probably agree while they wait for the show’s July return.

Myra Adams is a media producer and political writer. She was on the 2004 Bush campaign’s creative team and the 2008 McCain campaign’s ad council. E-mail her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @MyraKAdams.