Starz CEO Chris Albrecht opened the premium cable network’s time at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour Friday with news that Black Sails had been renewed for a second season — five months before the series’ debut. The pickup isn’t a foreign policy for Starz, with Albrecht even acknowledging the network’s unusual policy from the podium as the Michael Bay pirate drama joined fellow dramas Boss, Magic City and Spartacus as receiving the early greenlight for additional seasons.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Albrecht to discuss the practice, how the Cape Town-shot drama fits in with Starz’s increased push to up original scripted programming to 50 hours in 2014 and how he feels about increased competition from Netflix.
The Hollywood Reporter: You just renewed Black Sails for a second season — months before its debut. Why continue to do that now when that hasn’t always helped the series [Boss] in the past?
Chris Albrecht: These shows are so big. If we wait until they go on the air, then they won’t be on for another 18 months. So without a pilot, we’re picking up the first season and we’re just going off of what we see. Obviously, it would be great to know what the press is going to think. It would be great to know what the audience is going to think but ultimately, I’ve made my career putting on shows that I’ve believed in and given them a chance. That’s what we’re doing at Starz. We’ve re-created Nassau in Cape Town and it’s 18th century Nassau so it’s an enormous undertaking. The second season has more episodes than the first season so we just wanted to give them time.
THR: How will Black Sails fit in with your plans for 2014?
Albrecht: The unofficial hope would be Black Sails into DaVinci’s Demons. [Ron Moore drama] Outlander or [Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson‘s] Power in part of the summer, Outlander or Power in another part of the summer, then Fortitude, which people aren’t asking about now, but they will be. It will be available in the fall and depending on what else comes up and what resources we have, it’s a fluid plan but certainly Black Sails and DaVinci early in the year.
THR: You’ve got huge development slate. How much more original programming are you looking to add?
Albrecht: Our goal is to try to get more than 50 hours on the year in 2014. We can see if we can get there and then we want to ramp up significantly from there. Our decision to not renew the Disney deal was definitely in great part due to the fact that we saw originals as a much larger part of our future. The only way that we’re going to get there is to invest and invest aggressively, obviously in the stuff we believe in, stand behind the shows and get them on the air, which is the ultimate test of how they’re going to help your brand.
THR: Will you continue to bypass the pilot stage?
Albrecht: We don’t really have pilots in our plan. Maybe we’ll do a presentation on something or a shoot for Incursion [Spartacus creator Steven DeKnight‘s alien drama] but that’s one of the big projects that looks encouraging. How do you know if that’s going to work? How do you go straight to series on that and yet a pilot would probably be $30 million? We’re trying to get all the information that we can because half of that show isn’t even on screen because all the creatures are created afterward. It’s daunting. Pilots are an important part of the process but not one I see in our immediate future.
THR: Do you have any plans to explore comedy?
Albrecht: Yes, we think about it. It’s important to go into comedy with a point of view about what you’re doing. You’re trying to find unique voices or you’re trying to find young voices or you’re trying to compete with network-style sitcoms. Are you doing sketch shows, are you doing comedies that really have to be funny? Some of the funniest things we did at HBO were things that didn’t necessarily get the best reviews, but it sure made me laugh. We’re trying to come up with our own point of view about it and then if we can come up with something and we have the resources then we’ll venture the area. There are probably some opportunities there.
THR: Power is a co-production with CBS Television Studios, Outlander is with Sony Pictures Television. Are you looking to team with more outside studios?
Albrecht: We did Boss through Lionsgate. We’re not at all against doing deals with studios but we really need to be able to control the SVOD rights. Broadcast networks don’t need to do that. The basic tier channels don’t need to do that. The negotiating part of it is very challenging and sometimes you reach an impasse.
THR: Is the arrival of Netflix as a home for original programming good for Starz?
Albrecht: More original programming is good for everyone. The buzz for Netflix’s shows is definitely coming from the press, and there seems to be a love affair right now for them. I’ve been on the other side of that and know how that works and appreciate it. We’re all out there trying to do good shows. It’s a long road. I remember back in the early ’80s when everyone thought that HBO was going to eat the world. The movie studios were starting networks to make sure that HBO didn’t take over the business and 30 years later, there are 10 million more subscribers — [and they’re] still not at 30 million. There’s lots of headwinds and speed bumps. I think Netflix is a really good business and those guys are smart and they’re doing good work. There’s a place for them, and hopefully, a continued buzz for us.
THR: Looking at what Starz and HBO are doing right now, what’s the biggest difference?
Albrecht: HBO has everything; they need to have more movies and original programming and all the genres and everything. I think that Starz, being in the position that we’re in with our distributors, we’re a less expensive product to them, we’re a less expensive product to the consumer. We have the opportunity to focus our brand a little more narrowly and not have to try to compete on that level. We’d be very happy being the companion network in every home that has HBO.
THR: As a whole, what’s been your biggest challenge?
Albrecht: The biggest challenge is to become the place where the best people bring their best ideas. There are so many networks, so many well-funded companies that are offering opportunities. If you’re in a basic tier channel, you’re offering 100 million homes. If you’re HBO, you’re offering a ton of money. Netflix is offering a ton of money. The challenge is finding the message that you can deliver to the creatives that says, “Bring stuff here. We can meet your needs and we’ll be a good place to work.”
THR: What’s been the most valuable lesson you’ve learned so far?
Albrecht: Increased competition is increased competition (laughs). It means I’m probably working harder than I ever remember working. I’m having fun but it’s a very challenging environment out there and I like our slot. We’re not on the outside, we’re not on the rail but I like where we’re positioned but it’s definitely a challenging environment.
THR: What happened with the Boss movie?
Albrecht: [Series creator] Farhad Safinia didn’t see it. We were ready to make it with Lionsgate. In Boss‘ case there wasn’t a groundswell of support. The first season, people were comparing it to The Wire. It’s a cruel world out there and Boss was a fine show that somehow didn’t find the constituencies that were necessary for us to be able to feel confident. If we did a third season, we were going to do a fourth and a fifth.
THR: Would you have done anything differently in promoting Boss?
Albrecht: No. We picked up the show right away. We put in on less than a year after. We spent $20 million marketing those two seasons. When you’re working through a studio — and Lionsgate was great — sometimes it’s hard to communicate with the creative side of it. There was some miscommunication that made the second season not the continued vision of the first season. It was a fine show delivered by [season two showrunner] Dee Johnson. It just went on a different track and it was hard to then go back. So lessons learned.