US CABLE: US premium pay net Starz is shaping its original programming strategy to provide best value for its subscribers while looking to feed its international rights business. Michael Pickard reports.
If the US cable space is becoming an overcrowded market, what then of the premium cable space? How does a network go up against giants such as HBO and Showtime, not just in a battle for subscribers but as the home of landmark series?
Enviably, both HBO and Showtime have become known for their flagship dramas – Game of Thrones, Band of Brothers and Boardwalk Empire on the former; Dexter, The Borgias and Homeland on the latter.
Starz, the channel led by former HBO president Chris Albrecht, is building its own slate of original programming, led by swords ‘n’ sandals drama Spartacus, which the network recently announced will be coming to an end after its third season. Other first-run series include Camelot, Magic City and Boss.
Furthermore, upcoming shows include pirate drama Black Sails; Da Vinci’s Demons, a coproduction with BBC Worldwide Productions; and Marco Polo, from The Weinstein Company and Electus, about the 13th century explorer. Starz has also put two new scripted series into development: sci-fi action-thriller Incursion, from Spartacus creator Steven S DeKnight, and Vlad Dracula.
It is these series that are helping Starz to stand out from its premium and basic cable rivals, says John Penney, exec VP of strategy and business development. “As a member of the premium TV category, we’re very attuned to the necessity to provide a differentiated content experience for people who are reaching into their wallet and paying each month for our service,” he explains.
“When you’re creating high-value programming and you’re trying to bring quality storytelling to the screen, you want to make sure your vision is one that is differentiated and unlike another channel.”
Starz has put in place a strategy that will see an original episode aired every week by 2014, by which time it will have a “mosaic of shows we believe will appeal to different audiences,” Penny says.
“We’ve already defined Starz as a place to go to for original programming, which was job number one. The next stage is finding the right number of series that keep the audience engaged with who we are – this new force in premium original programming. We’re well on our way. We have high hopes for Da Vinci’s Demons and Marco Polo, to define the network as a destination for viewers.”
Beyond commissioning original series for its domestic market, Starz also plans to exploit these properties around the world as it builds its portfolio of programming rights. However, Penney says the network is remaining flexible enough to evolve its rights strategy, depending on who its partners are.
“When you look at the financial models behind our shows, we’re moving towards a place where we can move between full ownership and the ability to take those rights globally through Starz Worldwide, or where we decide it’s opportune to bring a partner into the mix because of capabilities or resources the partner brings to drive international value,” says Penney.
This is, he adds, a “unique model” compared with most basic cable channels, and one that also allows Starz to “fund our programming 100%; to partner to deliver our programming in a global partnership, like we have with BBC Worldwide; or to look at hybrid models. That’s the benefit of being in the premium space versus the race to volume many of the basic networks are trying to achieve, through which it is difficult to achieve success in a short time and can be very costly.”
Penney is also aware of a shift in focus among the broadcast networks, who have begun greenlighting scripted dramas that might previously only have found a home on cable.
“There was a pendulum swing towards reality and light entertainment and they’re back focused on drama,” he says. “In the last 24 months, people seem to be more enthusiastic about scripted programming that is emblematic of premium TV.”
However, this could, Penney believes, lead to problems due to the nature of their ad-supported business models, whereby producing drama akin to cable series could alienate both their wide audience base and its advertisers.
“They’re experimenting,” he adds. “They became very leveraged to procedurals but they’re now seeing the wisdom of a broader approach. We’re seeing the pendulum swing back to a volume of scripted and non-scripted. They’re going to work across multiple categories of programming.”
Ultimately, Starz’s goal is to become a “consistent provider of event programming, to drive value for subscribers and distribution partners, but most importantly to really utilise this vision we have for creating quality,” Penney says.
With its slate of ambitious new dramas and plans for global partnership networks, more viewers could well be seeing Starz in the future.