Starz eyes up to 4 series, 4 minis a year

Starz and Encore subs rise in Q1 over Q4

NEW YORK -- Premium TV network operator Starz is planning to roll out as many as four original series and four mini-series annually in the coming year, Starz president and CEO Chris Albrecht said Friday.

He said Starz, part of Liberty's Starz Entertainment group, is looking at new shows in various genres after the success of "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" as it continues to build its original slate under Albrecht's leadership.

The executive made his comments on a conference call after John Malone's Liberty Media reported better first-quarter results for home shopping network QVC and mixed financial trends at the various Starz businesses. One of the positive trends was a return to subscription unit gains for Starz and Encore over the fourth quarter, even though subscriber levels remain beyond the year-ago period following the recession.

Meanwhile, a decision on the future of the financially challenged Starz Media business, especially Overture Films unit, for which the company has been mulling options, could come soon, management said Friday. Executives also said it is looking at options for home video firm Anchor Bay, which is part of Starz Media, separately. Some on Wall Street have suggested Anchor Bay could be merged into Starz Entertainment.

At Starz Entertainment, the second season of "Spartacus" is still delayed without a production start date due to the recent cancer diagnosis of star Andy Whitfield. Without sharing specifics, management Friday said there have been encouraging developments recently on his health status though. Until he is ready for a full second season, executives said they want to keep the series and fan interest alive in creative ways.

Albrecht also highlighted the July start of mini "Pillars of the Earth" and the recent decision to produce "Camelot" as upcoming steps in the firm's original programming strategy. He said while the genres of the originals so far are similar, their financing arrangements are very different - something he has previously said will be a hallmark of Starz's approach.

Starz did "Spartacus" by itself and retained all rights, while "Pillars" was an acquisition of pay TV rights, and "Camelot" sees production and rights split with Graham King's new production firm, Albrecht highlighted.

The Liberty Starz group, which is driven by the results of Starz Entertainment, posted quarterly operating income before depreciation and amortization of $103 million, down 1%, on a 3% revenue gain.

The slight profit decline came amid higher marketing expenses related to Starz original "Spartacus," which Albrecht lauded for exceeding "all our expectations," as well as a $4 million writedown related to the second season of series "Crash."

Premium networks Starz and Encore posted decreases of average subscription units of 5% and 3%, respectively, from the year-ago period. But Albrecht highlighted that they returned to growth over the previous quarter amid the end of the recession. Starz ended March with 17.1 million subscription units, up from 16.9 million at the end of 2009, but still below the 18.1 million as of the end of the first quarter 2009. Encore subscription units rose from 30.6 million at the end of 2009 to 31.1 million at the end of the first quarter, but that was still below the year-ago figure of 31.9 million.

At Liberty Media's other major network business, QVC said its OIBDA increased 15% to $366 million on an 11% revenue gain.

And Liberty Capital Group, which houses other investments, such as Starz Media and Sirius XM Satellite Radio, saw OIBDA fall 11%, but revenue grow 33%. The OIBDA hit was mainly due to the number and timing of film and DVD releases by Overture Films. Albrecht lauded the performance of "Brooklyn's Finest" and "The Crazies," but said the firm continues to review strategic alternatives for Overture and expects a decision soon.
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