Starz Chief Explains the Cabler's "Premium Female" Push

COO Jeffrey Hirsch talks with The Hollywood Reporter about why shows like 'Counterpart' didn't work and how he plans to evolve the premium cable network — with Lionsgate's help.
Courtesy of Starz
'Outlander' (left); 'Counterpart'; Jeffrey Hirsch (inset)

Starz's new direction is beginning to take shape.

On Friday, Starz COO Jeffrey Hirsch made his debut at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour and subtly unveiled a new direction for the premium cable network formerly fronted by CEO Chris Albrecht.

The executive announced a season-three renewal for The Girlfriend Experience and a straight-to-series order for a new take on Dangerous Liaisons, while also cancelling the rookie entry Now Apocalypse. By the end of Starz's time before critics, Outlander's return would be delayed to 2020, and Mary J. Blige would be announced as the star of its Power spinoff with the flagship series being split in two parts.

With the moves, the network's new approach — dubbed by Hirsch as "premium female" — is coming into focus.

Below, Hirsch talks with The Hollywood Reporter about where the new programming mandate came from, why critical darling Counterpart didn't work and how Starz plans to compete for subscribers with billion-dollar spenders like Netflix and Apple.

You're not replacing Chris Albrecht as Starz CEO. You now are fully owned and backed by Lionsgate. What have you learned about this network that prompted the shift to, as you called it, "premium female"?

Chris brought me in four years ago and then we merged with Lionsgate. It's been a great combination of the two companies. We've taken Starz from being a domestic company to a global one in a little over a year. We couldn't launch into the global arena if we didn't have the Lionsgate library coupled with the Starz originals. That's given us an opportunity to be a global company vs. a domestic one. We've also learned that over time, looking at our programming slate, while we talked a lot about serving the underserved and giving voices to talent that has never been seen on TV before, when we dug deeper, we learned it was premium women who were driving the service. We've started to lean into that. Everything we do now has to service that kind of programming mandate.

So what's "premium women"?

A little older — probably 24-54 and a little more economically viable than other segments, in terms of broadcast. They really like high scripted drama, great women in history and a lot of IP. You look at the audience for Outlander and that's the perfect audience for us. We've done a lot of research around that and figured out that women are twice as likely to buy apps that are under $10; they're more loyal; they're lifetime value on a digital side is much longer. Whether we were smart enough to figure that out or we backed into it, we've seen it and are now leaning into it in a big way.

That term is just…

For a long time I was calling it "female-centric," but we're not trying to be Lifetime. We're not trying to put programming on that is at the exclusion of men. A lot of the couples who watch Outlander, the woman finds it and she brings her spouse to watch it. We do have a large male universe of viewers, but if it doesn't serve that female audience, it's not for us.

Still, it's such a shift because so much of what that network was built on was male-focused content like Spartacus and Black Sails.

Spartacus actually skewed female. Black Sails was a little more balanced and skewed more male. But Spartacus was female characters manipulating the men around the board. Power is 65 percent female. If you look at the show, on the surface, it's a good-looking African-American drug dealer trying to get out of the trade and it's a gangster male show. But the real core of that is it's a soap opera with a love triangle.

As you reassess your programming slate, turning your back on a critically beloved show like Counterpart — which has a 100 percent score for both seasons on RottenTomatoes.com — seems questionable. Was that decision based purely on the fact that it was a male-focused show?

Justin Marks is a great writer. I'd love to find something else we can do together, but John Landgraf grabbed him when we canceled the show. It was very complicated and there's nothing wrong with being complicated. But to a certain extent, part of my view on the world today is for the most part people's lives are tough and when they come home at night and want to escape their lives, they want to be able to get into a piece of content very easily and escape. Counterpart was really hard for people to get into — it wasn't accessible.

If Counterpart had a woman at its center, would there have been another season?

It depends. There's a lot of shows out there that have wonderful female leads that skew male. You have to be very careful. What we have seen with our Spanish Princess/White Queen series is great women in history play really well for that audience. We'll lean into that as a quasi-genre. Outlander — you can say that it's great because women like it because she's a surgeon who goes back in time, but there's also another side of that, which is there's some eye candy for that audience and people like when he [Sam Heughan] has his shirt off. You have to be really thoughtful about when you're looking at a piece of content and whether it's really going to be female or not. And it's not easy. The nice thing for us is 65 percent of our show leadership are female. You don't need me to figure it out; we have professionals doing that.

Now Apocalypse was a big swing for Starz and was canceled after one season. Was this too male-skewing? Too low-rated? Both?

I loved the show and it was a swing. It was very male. As you start to look at our portfolio of shows, because we have to have two or three things on every quarter to service this female audience, if it doesn't meet the audience, we just don't want to have it on the air right now.

Outlander is not returning until 2020. Is that to allow Starz to reset and use it to kick off a new push for "premium women"?
It was always going to be next year, actually, just based on production schedules and such. We really like where we fit it in, in terms of that audience tradeoff [with Power]. It will [return] earlier in the year.

You're doing more of The Girlfriend Experience and Dangerous Liaisons fits in well, on paper, with your new push for premium women. As you reshape Starz, what are some of the other things you're looking to do now that you have access to Lionsgate's big library? What's the next step? Does everything need a female lead? How does John Wick fit into that?

We've been in early development with John Wick and it's The Continental, which is actually about the characters and back in the day when the hotel in New York came into being. There's a lot of phenomenal female characters that have been written into the series. Women love crime. But it depends on the content; it doesn't necessarily have to be a female lead. There's a lot of movies that have great female leads that are very male-centric movies. We just have to be careful on that. We have a great group with [Starz programming president] Carmi Zlotnik and everyone under him who understands this mandate that we have and are working with our women leaders on the shows.

You're plotting a Power spinoff and splitting the final season in two and adding an aftershow — all the hallmarks of turning your flagship series into a greater franchise. Is Power that for you?

Yes. We look at Power as a universe, where there are extensions that spin the next chapter of the story. [Creator/showrunner] Courtney Kemp has done a phenomenal job of laying out what all those look like. It's almost like Marvel's universe of characters but with the Power cast. We have three or four ideas [for other spinoffs] that we're looking at.

Is the goal to have one version of Power in every quarter — similar to what AMC is doing with its crown jewel, The Walking Dead?

We would like to have something that serves the African-American female audience every quarter. We'd like to have a lot of stuff that serves all females every quarter. We also have to think about it globally now. What we're seeing in Europe, because so much of the content on services is sports-centric, they love our slate that we bring over there because it's so female and it's counter-programming against sports. We feel good about the strategy and feel like it's not work to get to this mandate. It is the business and it is the right thing to do.

American Gods has had three showrunners in as many seasons and THR has reported extensively on its behind-the-scenes troubles.  To what do you attribute all the chaos behind the scenes?

Any time you have the original showrunners step away, for whatever reason, and you bring in someone else, change is always hard. And change is hard when you have a cast that is that accomplished together. Chic Eglee (The Shield) is doing a spectacular job; he's a great showrunner who is really mounting the show well. My experience has been that everything is moving smoothly and they'll hit their schedule, and Fremantle is doing a good job managing that.

Netflix, Amazon, Apple, HBO and WarnerMedia are spending billions on content. How does a premium cable network like Starz compete with that?

Netflix has done a good job convincing Wall Street that if you don't spend $15 billion on content, you should go home — which I don't think is the case. If you look at our OTT product domestically, we're growing faster than HBO and Showtime with a third to a fourth of the content. When you have a show like Power, it doesn't matter if you're spending $13 billion — you'ev got lightning in a bottle and that's all you need. We're not trying to compete with those guys; we're a premium service. We've always been sold on top of TV, cable, satellite, Amazon, Hulu. You'll see a day when we're sold on top of Disney. We are unique in our programming strategy and we are a great compliment to all those services. I'm not trying to replace television. At the end of the day, homes will have four or five of these services and we're happy to be number two, three or four. And if we can be number three around the world with our unique programming strategy, coupled with a couple of hits, that's a great place for us to live.

When Netflix is offering their insane volume of content for the same price that Starz is, what's your pitch to keep and bring in new subscribers?

The Office is the number one show on Netflix. The other show on Netflix that's really performing well is Outlander. The nice thing about being in a creative industry is it's not just you can go buy all the creativity and keep it from other people. There's always a fresh voice. Part of the reason why we're leaning into this underserved audience and female focus is because others aren't. At the end of the day, we want to be a complement to those other services with a very unique programming strategy. And we've been really successful to date and I think we will continue to be.

The Office is leaving Netflix. How much longer will you allow shows like Outlander to be on Netflix before it moves to the Starz OTT service?

We have 4 million OTT subscribers and will continue to lean into that. We are buying a bunch of library stuff from Lionsgate to put on the service and will continue to do that. The Outlander deal was a Sony deal that was done before I got to Starz; I would not have allowed that to happen. It's the ying and the yang from a business perspective of taking the short-term money and building great, long-term enterprise value. And if I put my straight business hat on, from a shareholder perspective, building great enterprise value is the most important thing. We made a decision as Lionsgate, working with Kevin Beggs and Jim Packer's group, that we are going to all service to Starz, domestically and internationally, and will make a big run at it.

How has your programming budget changed under Lionsgate?

We don't disclose that. But would it be nice to always have more, sure. But that's true of almost anything. I feel like we have the right amount of spend to continue to compete and be successful. The other nice thing about being with Lionsgate is they're out looking for stuff knowing what I'm looking for. We've got 3 Arts, which we own 51 percent of, that's also bringing a lot of great stuff to us that we're now seeing earlier. We've widened the aperture of what we want to see. We'll bring some comedy back to the network. We're seeing pitches from studios we haven't seen in years. And that's because people are excited about our "premium female" push.

How will the number of scripted originals you guys do change?

Right now, we're around 11 to 13 scripted originals. We're taking a portfolio approach. It's unlikely to change. We're trying to make sure that everything we do is in service to that mandate.

Will you be buying more from other studios?

We will be. We've bought more shows in the past four months than we have in the past year.