How 50 Cent and a Feminist Action Hero Are Finally Putting Starz on the Map

Photo: Kelly Chiello and Photos by Starz

For much of its two-decade existence, Starz has been seen as something of an afterthought among premium cable networks: If HBO and Showtime were Hertz and Avis, it was the Enterprise Rent-A-Car of the space. But that dynamic might finally be starting to change. At the end of last year, Starz (just barely) supplanted Showtime as the second-biggest pay-cable channel in terms of subscribers, pulling ahead of its longtime rival for the first time in eight years. More important, 2014 saw the successful launch of three new dramas, all of which seem headed for long lives. Stylized soap Power has become a ratings phenomenon for the network, tripling its audience over the course of its first dozen episodes. Outlander, the ambitious adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s epic fantasy-adventure novels, has attracted similarly strong Nielsen numbers, as well as a vocal online fandom and a slew of think pieces tied to its feminist twists on the action genre. And while it doesn’t generate as much media buzz, pirate epic Black Sails has also built a loyal following and will return for a third season. After years of struggling to define itself, Starz finally seems to have found its groove — and it’s done so by ditching the usual playbook for pay-cable success.

Typically, premium outlets looking to build their subscriber base have followed some version of the formula established by HBO during the “It’s Not TV” era of The Sopranos and Sex and the City. The grandfather of pay TV distinguished itself from its broadcast and cable competition by producing feature-film-quality fare, shows that seemed aimed as much at Emmy voters as consumers. The thinking was that all the positive buzz and attention would serve as marketing for the network, convincing viewers they had to subscribe to HBO if they wanted to see the coolest shows on TV. Starz CEO Chris Albrecht is quite familiar with this game plan because he helped invent it: In his life before Starz, he spent two decades overseeing programming at HBO, helping shape series from The Larry Sanders Show to the pilot for Game of Thrones. The strategy HBO used to transform itself from a movie channel into a TV powerhouse “was a good formula,” Albrecht says, as well as a simple one: “Do fewer episodes, back bold ideas, work to support the talent’s vision, and then try and market it well.”

When he arrived at Starz, many industry insiders expected Albrecht would just recycle the strategy that worked for him in the past. But two variables ultimately made him chart a different course. For one, as the first big player in premium cable and as a unit of the massive Time Warner empire, HBO — launched in 1972 — has never really had to worry about how much money it spends on projects, at least not in the same way as most other channels. Starz is no tiny start-up, but Albrecht clearly wasn’t going to have the same budgets as he did at HBO. An even bigger difference, however, is how much the media landscape has changed since HBO began remaking itself in the mid-1990s. “The game has changed,” he says. “The difference between then and now is that back in those days, there were only four broadcast networks,” while the basic-cable channels that were doing original programming — primarily USA and TNT — weren’t looking to win awards. “Now there’s not only so many more channels,” as Albrecht notes, but they’re all competing, to varying degrees, to find Emmy-caliber programming. Digital newcomers Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu have made the quest for quality even more brutal.

A few years into his tenure at Starz — and following disappointing results from early efforts, such as Kelsey Grammer’s Boss and the period drama Magic City — Albrecht’s philosophy about what pay TV needed to be now began to evolve. He cites a meeting with lower-level Starz staffers as pivotal to his shift in thinking. “I sat down here about two years ago, and I brought in some of the interns and some of the assistants,” he recalls. “I said to them, ‘What are you watching?’ And after I told them to be honest — because I didn’t expect them to tell me they were watching Starz shows — one of the striking things that came out of that discussion for me was that the choices that they make aren’t because they read a review or because they saw something being nominated for an award. It’s because their friends told them to watch it over social media.”

The chat with his younger employees convinced Albrecht that he didn’t have to win a ton of Emmys to get viewers to pay attention to Starz. If anything, in a world where there seems to be a new Best Show on TV every few weeks, series that can get even a small base of viewers super-excited are perhaps even more valuable than those that win awards or end up on top-ten lists, particularly if said viewers “are voracious users of social media,” Albrecht says. “Those groups, when you can lock them in as fans of something and deliver them the quality, deliver them the experience that they’re looking for, they then are a better marketing tool than a paid ad, or a ‘Nominated for 6 Emmys’ headline.” And so, Albrecht decided to shift Starz’s series development to focus on projects that would speak not only to specific segments of the audience but viewer groups that, despite having plenty of options on broadcast and basic cable, hadn’t always been targeted by premium cable networks. “I looked around and … it seemed as if there were audiences that were being underserved — that were still paying money but that were probably not getting the value that they would hope to get off of a premium subscription,” he says. “And we said, ‘Let’s target those audiences, and let’s back shows that we think can drive a real fervent fan base that then becomes the kind of advocacy group for the shows themselves.’” 

The strategy shift has clearly started to pay off, as evidenced by the growth trajectory of Power — a show created by an African-American woman (Courtney Kemp Agboh), executive-produced by a hip-hop icon (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), and starring a diverse cast. Its June 2014 debut averaged less than 500,000 same-day viewers for its initial linear play. But by the end of its first eight-episode season, the show’s same-day audience more than doubled, to just over 1 million viewers. Last month’s sophomore-season opener continued the growth story, with viewership jumping another 40 percent, to 1.4 million same-day viewers. Once DVR replays and VOD are counted, Power is doing even better: Starz estimates more than 6 million viewers are catching every episode, or roughly 25 percent of its subscriber base. That’s about the same as HBO’s hit Silicon Valley, which has the advantage of following Game of Thrones on Sundays.

Strong social-media support for Power has certainly helped, but just as with Fox’s megahit Empire — which the Starz drama predates — it’s a big spike in one audience segment (African-Americans) that has fueled ratings growth. Even though Starz is available in only about a quarter of all TV homes, Power this summer regularly lands on Nielsen’s list of the top 20 TV shows among black viewers. And according to Starz research, the show has the biggest concentration of black viewers of any premium-cable drama since The Wire. Albrecht notes that African-American audiences subscribe to premium networks at a higher rate than many other demographic groups — and yet despite this, pay-cable networks have historically served up few shows directly targeted toward them. Power took advantage of that untapped potential. “From a business point of view, it makes a lot of sense,” Albrecht says.

The same thinking is also why Starz green-lit Outlander. Genre programming, of course, is nothing new on premium networks: Shows such as Dexter, True Blood, Game of Thrones, and Starz’ own Spartacus all succeeded by going after superfans of those genres. But Albrecht believed Outlander would stand apart by blending action and fantasy with something less common on TV, namely a strong central romance and a feminist focus. (The story is told from the point of view of its lead character, a time-jumping Englishwoman played by Caitriona Balfe.) “It’s a different kind of show than has ever been on, in my memory,” he says. Albrecht figured correctly: While Outlander has plenty of male fans, Starz research shows that female viewers have been most responsible for the show’s growth, with ratings among women jumping 34 percent between its summer 2014 premiere and its late-spring 2015 finale.

In addition to changing the kinds of shows Starz makes, Albrecht’s strategy for building the network has also involved making some key behind-the-scenes shifts to the network’s development process. As noted earlier, when Albrecht joined Starz in 2010, he realized he wouldn’t be able to use big paydays to land top talent, at least not in the way HBO does. “So I [had] to use different parts of my brain,” he says. He decided to begin offering potential producers the chance to skip making pilots for projects and take a series directly to production. In some cases, Starz also agreed to green-light two seasons of a show in advance, even before the first episode aired. “We were saying, ‘Let’s step up for talent and show them the kind of support that is going to give us an opportunity to compete, even if we can't compete financially,’” Albrecht says. While some early bets might not have paid off with long runs, the strategy allowed Starz to play alongside better-funded rivals and land projects it might otherwise not have. And it has also inspired imitators, including Netflix, which snagged Kevin Spacey and House of Cards with a two-season production order. Albrecht is quick to note, “We went straight to series before Netflix did.” 

Albrecht will try to build on the successes of 2014 with more shows aimed at the same viewers of shows like Power and Outlander. Last October, Starz aired six episodes of the LeBron James–produced basketball comedy Survivor’s Remorse, which like Power features a number of African-American leads. While the show got good reviews, it didn’t have the same sort of ratings growth as Power, something Albrecht attributes to its short run. The second season of Remorse will last a more standard ten episodes and will premiere the week after the Power finale, allowing Starz to heavily market Remorse to the audience watching Power. Similarly, the network used the final episodes of Outlander to promote November’s Flesh and Bone, a mini-series from Breaking Bad writer Moira Walley-Beckett that’s set in the world of ballet. And later this year, Starz will debut two new comedies it thinks will attract vocal fans: Sam Raimi’s Ash vs. Evil Dead and the Patrick Stewart–led, Seth MacFarlane–produced Blunt Talk. “What we’re trying to do is get to a lineup, 52 weeks a year,  [with] a message out there for a group that’s going to be ardent about their feelings for one, and hopefully more than one, of our shows,” Albrecht says. 

The former HBO exec hasn’t completely abandoned more traditional pay-cable fare, including awards-bait programming. Black Sails, a pretty traditional action epic, won a pair of technical Emmys last year. Albrecht signed Steven Soderbergh to produce an anthology series (The Girlfriend Experience), while Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu is overseeing The One Percent, starring Hilary Swank and Ed Helms. And the network’s roster of future programs includes an ambitious adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and the sci-fi thriller Counterpart, the latter starring Oscar winner J.K. Simmons.  “We've got some pretty high-end stuff with some pretty talented people,” Albrecht says. He is also confident that the recent Starz surge in ratings and subscribers will soon be followed with some awards love. “I will make a bold prediction,” Albrecht says. “Within the next three years, there will be a Starz show that will win an Emmy for best series … I think we’re going to get there.”

And yet Albrecht seems determined to avoid getting caught up in the Emmy-chasing insanity that seems to have taken hold at so many of his rivals, both in the premium-cable business and at broadcast networks. “People take shows way too seriously,” Albrecht says. “There was a time when there were three broadcast networks, shows weren’t pretentious, [and] they didn’t pretend to be something that they weren’t. I’m not saying that there isn’t a lot of good work done … but I think sometimes people get too caught up in wanting to hear their names mentioned from the stage of an awards show, as opposed to [producing] something that is maybe more audience-driven … It’s like, guys, this is television we’re talking about, okay?” He even chides the media for building up TV too much. “If you read the New York Times, right, it’s like, do I really need the Halt and Catch Fire recap? Is this what’s going on here — we need recaps of every episode of a dozen or more TV shows? The answer is: We don’t.”

Albrecht’s tough line against “precious” TV might explain why, not long after he got to the network, he pulled the plug on the critically adored but low-rated (even for Starz) Party Down. But the exec makes it clear: His mini-rant is not meant to question the notion of recognizing great TV work, nor his own interest in making programs worthy of honors. “It’s not that we don’t want awards. I think a lot of our shows are easily as worthy as other shows that win,” he says, singling out Outlander for particular praise. The problem, Albrecht seems to suggest, is when the pursuit of such recognition takes priority over what he believes should be every programmer’s mandate: making entertaining shows viewers can’t wait to see — and, in the case of a network such as Starz, pay for. “We need to be populist,” Albrecht says of Starz. “People are spending their hard-earned money on us. And I don't know anybody who ever paid money just because a show won an Emmy award.”