Starz COO Touts Global Streaming Expansion Amid CBS Takeover Speculation

Starz
Jeff Hirsch

"We are running into the global arena faster than anybody," Jeff Hirsch told an investors conference as he decided against commenting on CBS possibly eyeing the premium cable channel as an acquisition target for $5 billion.

Jeff Hirsch, COO of Starz, on Tuesday touted the international expansion of the premium cable channel, which comes amid escalating streaming wars globally.

Hirsch reiterated Lionsgate has big plans for the Starz streamer, now in 42 countries and expanding to 51 by July 1. "We are running into the global arena faster than anybody and executing really well. And it's an open space for us," he told the Sixth Annual Bernstein Future of Media Summit during a presentation that was webcast.

Hirsch's comments follow reports last month that Lionsgate was offered $5 billion for Starz, market speculation that he decided not to address during his appearance. "We won't speculate on M&A circling us," Hirsch told the investors conference.

On Starz's international expansion, he insisted the premium channel's relationship with rival streamers like Apple, Netflix and Amazon Prime was "complementary," and not competitive, as Starz helps drive customers to larger streaming platforms as they roll out internationally, and they in turn help Starz bring on and retain digital subscribers.

"We're not competing with Apple and Netflix. We're sold on top of them," he argued. Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer in May pointed to the international market as a $45 billion opportunity for Starz, while noting that the international version of the Starz streamer can potentially reach 25 million subs by 2025, though the expansion will cause losses of as much as $150 million in fiscal 2020 alone.

Hirsch said Starz series are playing well in the U.K. and Germany, two key European markets where the premium channel has launched. To sustain that foreign appeal, Starz is looking to include more global locations and talent in its homegrown series.

An example is the upcoming third season of The Girlfriend Experience, which director Steven Soderbergh was originally to have shot in Seattle. Now it will be lensed in part in London and include more of an international storyline and cast to allow global play for the series.

"So what we've started to do is everything we look at has to have an international feel," Hirsch said. Starz series are also employing Big Data to help develop scripts in development, though Hirsch was quick to insist artificial intelligence won't overrule content creators.

"We're not going back to writers and saying you need to put this in the script — 99 percent of this is art," he told the investors conference. "The last thing they need is an algorithm and Jeff Hirsch telling them I know better than that," Hirsch added about getting in the way of original writing and scripts.

Deal chatter about a CBS approach for Starz follows the steady integration of the premium cable channel and Lionsgate TV under Feltheimer, which follows longtime Starz CEO Chris Albrecht stepping down in March.

At Starz, Hirsch has rebranded and repositioned the flagship Starz and Starz Encore networks, launched the Starz app and got the company into the streaming business with Amazon by bundling the premium cable channel as part of Amazon Prime. Starz has also signed more recent wholesale carriage deals with Hulu and YouTube TV.