For Starz to Go Places, It Might Have to Rebrand - Or Remind Its Subscribers to Watch

With a second high-profile cancellation, the movie channel might want to tell subscribers that it has other things -- original scripted series -- to offer.
Starz/Greg Williams
"Magic City" was a compelling series that couldn't find a wide audience.

It's not going to get any easier for Starz.

No matter the reasons behind the cancelation of Magic City, which will close out its second -- and final  -- season on Friday, it certainly looks like the same two-and-out scenario that happened to Boss, another high-quality, overlooked drama that came and went. And so the questions will start.

Can Starz, a premium pay-cable channel, even compete in a world where HBO and Showtime dominate from within while Netflix creates pressure from the without? After all, those three are working the same model that powers Starz, but you almost never hear anything about Starz in the zeitgeist.

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The normal reaction to Starz is that it's always going to be the third choice in cable for people trying to watch their budget -- that choosing where to invest their monthly subscription cash will ultimately doom Starz to forgotten status.

But the numbers don't completely bear that out. Netflix has 38 million subscribers worldwide (30 million domestically), HBO claims 30 million subscribers, Showtime 23 million and Starz 21.8 million.

Which means that, for the most part, the difficult element hasn't been getting people to subscribe so that it can sustain an original programming mission. It has more to do with the need for Starz to start training those subscribers to watch the original programming that just so happens to come free with all the movies they are buying the channel for.

That's a branding issue that HBO and Showtime shed long ago and one that Netflix reversed with a self-sustaining PR campaign when signing up high-profile originals like House of Cards and Arrested Development.

If Starz is less than two million subscribers away from Showtime -- but hasn't come near Showtime's ability to maintain the consistency of ongoing original programming -- then something is else is amiss.

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And maybe that's a message.

When Starz appeared here at the Television Critics Association press tour, CEO Chris Albrecht said: "For 2014, our goal is to air more than 50 hours of originals, and I think we're on track to do that."

The trick for Albrecht and Starz is to get subscribers to watch those 50 hours and watch in such numbers that the series will last beyond two seasons. And even that sentence is a bit deceiving because both Boss and Magic City were renewed for a second season before they even premiered. The same thing happened for Michael Bay's pirate series Black Sails, which won't premiere until January but Albrecht made the second season pick-up at TCA. The channel recently renewed freshman series Da Vinci's Demons and seems to be well-stocked going forward, with Outlander from Ron Moore, Fortitude from Simon Donald (Low Winter Sun, Wallander), Power, from Courtney Kemp Agboh (from an idea by Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson), the five-part miniseries Dancing On the Edge from Stephen Poliakoff (The Lost Prince, Gideon's Daughter, etc.) and the 10-part limited series The White Queen (based on the books from Philippa Gregory) airing on Aug. 10.

Obviously Starz isn't having much trouble attracting talent, though any hefty wallet can achieve that. But unless the channel wants to specialize in the limited series business, it really needs one of its scripted dramas to break out, like Spartacus initially did, but bigger. It's a little surprising that neither Boss, an excellent series which had a brilliant dramatic performance from Kelsey Grammer, nor Mitch Glazer's Magic City, which had a viewer-friendly Sopranos-Mad Men fusion to it, ever took off. Both of those series were big swings. Da Vinci's Demons is a lot lighter and more fun, so maybe that will be the direction going forward. But who knows -- there's no real brand-specific sensibility to Starz. Nor should there be -- HBO and Showtime and certainly Netflix  have done well by just trying to air quality shows without an emphasis on men or women, action or drama, etc.

So the answer for Starz is not an easy one to ascribe -- the channel just needs to get something launched that stays afloat. It's hard enough to survive in what is now an ultra-competitive high-end scripted landscape. Perhaps the channel -- currently using the "Taking You Places" slogan -- should think about a rebrand because, with a second cancellation, Starz seems to be going nowhere.

If the channel wants to thrive in the original scripted game, it better get that notion out in the ether. The last thing Starz needs is to get a reputation for having a subscriber base that can't support original series because they'd rather just watch second-run movies.


Twitter: @BastardMachine