If TV offers a glimpse into a society’s tastes, Showtime’s new hit, Billions, may show that America is still fascinated with finance. The show tracks hedge fund billionaire, Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod, played by Damian Lewis who’s back on the network after starring in hit espionage serial, Homeland.
The show has a growing following of loyal fans who tune in every Sunday night to see what’s next for Axe Capital. Showtime revealed that Billions enjoyed the most successful debut performance the channel has logged to date, scoring over 3 million views and counting. According to Deadline, prior record holder Ray Donovan recorded 2.91 million views including linear premiere night and advance sampling on subscriber platforms in 2013.
Main character Bobby Axelrod is a likable, if not easily irascible, figure who can be a faithful husband, attentive father, and loyal friend while also running a fund built on trading inside information. Beyond his ego, Axe’s main nemesis is Chuck Rhoades, an old-monied U.S. Attorney for New York hell-bent to rein in Wall Street excesses. Rhoades is played by Paul Giamatti. The cat and mouse game escalates quickly as Chuck maniacally builds a case against Axe, who proves pretty resourceful at wiggling or thrashing his way out of every trap the prosecutor sets for him.
Some believe the main story line was inspired by US Attorney Preet Bharara’s pursuit of criminal charges against hedge-fund mogul Steve Cohen (though the show’s producers deny this connection ). But, there’s a growing sense of empathy viewers have with Axe, who, in spite of the fact he’s made billions via clearly illegal research methods used by his analysts, seems a genuinely affable rags-to-riches underdog. Rhoades, on the other hand, just doesn’t enjoy the same support among viewers in his ruthless pursuit of justice. It’s that contrast that’s another major theme throughout the series.
Here’s Lewis in an interview with the WSJ about his role: He says that position, along with Axe’s blue-collar background, is part of his appeal to the audience. “Immediately it’s a sort of David-and-Goliath story. You find yourself oddly rooting for an underdog,” even though he now works in a gleaming-glass building filled with valuable art.
Whether Axe is dodging a battery charge for slugging someone who drove his children while drunk or partying with the band before a Metallica show, users are rooting for him.
Launch and marketing of the show
The show, which debuted early in 2016, was heavily marketed to finance professionals. The WSJ, via its new content studio, produced a minisite for the show’s launch. The marketing website, entitled Gaming the American Dream, includes a short history of hedge funds, a look into who these money managers are and what they like to spend their billions on. As part of the marketing package, there’s also interview footage with real people who live and breathe this world.
According to Adweek, the show is also growing via strong influencer marketing. Goldman Sachs scheduled a screening of the pilot and hosted a panel discussion with the show’s writers and producers to discuss the show’s themes and characters. Showtime’s EVP and CMO Don Buckley remarked, “We think it’s going to be an important center of influence for conversation about the show.”
The show also ran a marketing promotion with swanky travel site, Jetsetter, including a survey that asked users to input where they’d travel if they were billionaires. The site, which caters to wealthy people looking to book exotic vacation packages, created 4 trip packages as recommendation depending on how users completed the quiz.
In a run-up to the debut episode, Showtime also partnered with music discovery app, Shazam. Users of the app could scan real US currency to unlock special content. Fans were encouraged to use the visual recognition feature of the app and scan any $1, $5 or $20 bill — each bill had unique content associated with it.
The show is very active on social media channels including Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Showtime uses these channels to complement activity with insider views, commentary, apparel sales, and sneak peeks at future content.
Showtime is currently advertising its show, along with an offer for a free trial of its service, on prime time TV. The following ad was aired early in March on CBS during the show, 48 Hours.
Building an audience within the finance industry
Part of the magic the show is that it’s come post 2008 at a time when finance and its masters-of-the-universe leaders have been toppled from their public pedestals. In a world that doesn’t trust Wall Street, it could have been easy to produce a grassroots series that mocks this world and rejects the ostentatious wealth that it’s produced. But Showtime didn’t do that — instead, Axe is seen as a mega rich every-man, who’s not above helping out the struggling owning of a pizza joint he used to frequent as a kid. He’s shown as an attentive father, reading stories to his kids and playing with them on all fours. Axe seems just like us, except that he’s making million-dollar trades, kicking underperforming management out of a closely-held family business, and winning at merger arbitrage.
Much like Silicon Valley’s fanbase among entrepreneurs and employees in startups, Billions is captivating financial industry types. Dealbreaker, which itself covers the people and industry portrayed in the show, recaps the show regularly and provides its own layer of analysis of each episode. Others have said that it’s the first show to really get Wall Street right. So, while the show hasn’t received a lot of critical acclaim to date (save for the acting performances of Lewis and Giamatti), its realistic portrayal of the insider baseball of the finance industry (down to the fleece vests Axe and his analysts wear and the drinking games they play) may be enough of a following to make it a successful series.
From Maureen Ryan, a TV critic at Variety:
So Billions… is in the “buy” column for now. If it strays too far into repetition, and if its palpable energy and verve can’t hide a tendency toward predictability — common enough occurrences on soaps about rich people, and on Showtime programs in particular — it’d be easy to dump the show as ruthlessly as Bobby Axelrod excises a poor performer from his portfolio. But in the first half of its season, the lively momentum and diverting character studies of “Billions” offer reasonable dividends for those willing to invest.
That leaves room for future financial dramas. Maybe next up for Wall Street will be a reality show about marketplace lending?