Starz CEO Chris Albrecht on Moving Beyond Disney, 'Older White Men' (Q&A)

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Chris Albrecht

Ahead of the world premiere of Starz' hip-hop drama "Power," Albrecht outlines his bold strategy to ramp up original productions and go global.

This could be the year Starz finally starts getting some respect.

The pay TV group, which Chris Albrecht has run since 2010, has long lived in the shadow of its bigger competitors HBO and Showtime and their headline-grabbing, Emmy-winning dramas.

While HBO shows such as Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire and True Blood and Showtime's Homeland, Dexter and Nurse Jackie were basking in critical acclaim and ratings glory, Starz' original drama slate has been too often disparaged as low-brow and second-tier (hello Spartacus!).

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But 2014 could be Starz' year. The network debuted a trio of high-profile and critically acclaimed series last year: with double Emmy-winner Da Vinci's Demons, historical drama The White Queen and pirate epic Black Sails. This year will see the launch of hip-hop drama Power, from creator/showrunner Courtney Kemp Agboh (Grey's Anatomy) and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson; the ambitious sci-fi fantasy Outlander, based on the best-selling book series by Diana Gabaldon; and the LeBron James executive-produced Survivor's Remorse, which will mark the network's entry into the scripted comedy space.

But Starz has bigger plans, including taking America's No. 3 pay TV brand global.

Albrecht sat down with THR at the international television market MIPTV in Cannes to discuss his hopes for the world premiere of Power, whether there is too much quality TV today and his big international ambitions for the network. 

You've ramped up drama production dramatically at Starz recently. Is the main incentive behind this to replace the Disney slate when your deal with them runs out in 2016?

Well, we're up to 50 hours of original programming a year and want to continue to ramp that up. We want to be putting out a new show -- a new episode -- every week of the year, to give us something to talk about and to continue to grow the platform and the business for our shareholders. We'd like to get up to 75-85 hours [a year] of original programming so that we'll be in a good place when the Disney deal runs out in 2016. Disney only gives us 8-10 movies a year, so it is not like [the loss of the deal] will be a big hole in our schedule. But once we decided to forgo the Disney deal was when we got really into original programming. At first, Starz was a movie service and we started dabbling in originals because everyone was doing it. Now it's a core part of our business and is expanding what the Starz brand means.

Everyone is producing original series right now. Is there a danger there are too many shows out there, with too much competition for the same audience?

It's funny. I was at a party the other night and someone was telling me: “I TiVo all these new shows and now I have to watch all this stuff!” People do seem to be taking their television very seriously these days. More is always nice if you are a programmer at heart, as I am. But more is not necessarily better. It is possible to have too many shows if you can't market them appropriately.

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But we are in a very important place – our distribution partners make a lot of money on premium pay TV. There are only really three brands in that category [Starz, HBO and Showtime]. And we want to build that brand up with original content; original shows are what make the brand robust. But we don't need to beat everyone to win. The way the market is, the demand, everyone can do well.

The Starz brand used to mean very macho, male-focused shows, like Spartacus and Magic City. That seems to be changing.

With our new shows we are starting to serve some demographics that might have been underserved before. We are diversifying our slate – making some noise. The White Queen was the first-ever Starz show that more women watched [60 percent of the audience] than men. Outlander, which we are adapting, was a huge book for women. And then there's [ballet series] Flesh and Bone, which we think will also have a strong appeal for the female demographic. With Power and Survivor's Remorse – which is our first comedy – our slate's becoming much more diverse.

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The idea is to have a target audience that is not just older white men, who have traditionally been the premium pay audience. This also makes Starz more interesting for potential partners outside the U.S. We are open to doing deals and partnerships for our content internationally. We are very much in the nascent stages [of our international expansion]. The first stage is selling our shows internationally – having the rights to sell them internationally. We did that with Black Sails, we're doing it with Power. Going forward I can envision possible Starz-branded platforms with international partners.

Is international where you see growth coming from?

Definitely. In their annual report, Time Warner recently disclosed more information about HBO, where they showed how much money they were making off international now – because they have got control over their international business after being mainly minority partners for years.

Does that mean Starz will be looking to control international rights on all the shows you do?

That would be ideal but in order to ramp up in a cost-effective way and to get the shows we want, we will be willing to go into joint ventures, co-productions and split-rights deals. Outlander, for example, is Sony's production. That's a pure licensing deal. But if a program is particularly expensive – like Black Sails – you look at the cost of selling the rights internationally and see if it's worth it to take them yourself rather than get someone else's sales advance and let them take over the show when we are spending 80 percent of the budget.

You've done a few straight-to-series shows -- will that be the model for Starz going forward?

We came to the straight-to-series model because we were the new kids on the block and it allowed us to get shows on the air while going through fewer hoops. But it adds another layer of difficulty. The pilot is a great tool. It's really an experimental process.

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What we won't do is the broadcast model – that is greenlight in May, shoot in August and be on air in September. There's not much you can do with that model, which is why so much broadcast drama looks so similar and conventional.

What's your relationship to Netflix now that you've pulled Starz programming off the service?

We still look at them as a potential partner. Personally, I'm friends with them. [Netflix Chief Creative Officer] Ted Sarandos is a personal friend. But we won't be selling them shows at the end of their season – as AMC has done. I can see how it is good promotion for AMC but that's a double-edged sword. We won't be doing anything with them that hurts our business. We compete with Netflix for some original series but we can compete and both still exist.

You've made a lot of announcements about new series in the pipeline. How many of them are going to make it to the screen?

There have been a lot of things announced. Actually so much that we've said, "Let's slow down the pipeline." We still want to be open to things that come in fully formed – like what happened with Boss when it was Kelsey Grammer and [executive producer] Gus Van Sant and we ordered two seasons. We have Power coming up, Outlander and Survivor's Remorse. Then we have the [BBC limited series] The Missing. We might have one or two more series for the fourth quarter of this year.

Then in 2015 we have Flesh & Bone – which is a real challenge for us. Instead of casting actors and getting them to dance we've cast dancers and hope they can act. It's a bit like getting professional athletes to play a real game. It's TV without a net.