Has Starz Found Its Sopranos?

Last February, when DirecTV’s The101 quietly began airing repeats of a gritty, R-rated Australian crime drama called Underbelly, the satellite network promoted the show as Oz’s “real-life Sopranos.” So it seems appropriate that the TV executive who launched that seminal HBO mob hit now plans to remake Underbelly for U.S. audiences: Vulture has learned that former HBO chief Chris Albrecht, who took over as CEO of pay cable network Starz last December, has acquired the U.S. rights to the Australian show and is making development of the project a top priority. Combined with Starz’s already announced plan for a new take on the Camelot saga and to co-produce new episodes of U.K. cult hit Torchwood, it underlines Albrecht’s goal to push Starz — currently jump-started by Spartacus — into the same league as his former home and Showtime. And he’s pursuing his goal with a globe-scouring strategy that was anathema to the way he did things at HBO.

During a twenty-plus-year run at the network that started in 1985, Albrecht and his team methodically stayed in-house as they developed iconic series such as The Sopranos, Sex and the City, The Wire, and Six Feet Under. Outside studios were rarely involved in the process, and if a project had been even contemplated by another network — let alone produced somewhere else — HBO generally didn’t want anything to do with it. As one observer notes, Albrecht “was the guy who passed on Queer As Folk because it had already been done overseas.”

But Albrecht’s HBO reign, during which the network emerged as the home to the small screen’s most acclaimed original series, was a different era: The net had time and little competition. By contrast, Starz is trying to follow that model in an era in which even networks created specifically to air old content — TV Land and AMC — are drawing sizable crowds and often critical raves with their original shows. In other words, Starz needs to make noise, and Albrecht wants to make it quickly.

While using concepts already tested elsewhere doesn’t guarantee success (Coupling, Viva Laughlin), some observers believe it increases the odds. It certainly has with such reality hits as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, American Idol, and Big Brother, and scripted concepts have increasingly been able to proliferate around the world, like the British Office and the Israeli In Treatment (which was one of Albrecht’s last successes at HBO). One industry insider argues that “TV is starting to become a lot like the theatrical side, a much more homogeneous global market, where there are very few big hits that aren’t hits around the world. If something works, it seems to work around the world.”

There are also strong financial incentives to think globally. Torchwood and Camelot are both being produced with international partners (with the shows airing in other countries either simultaneously with or right after their U.S. premieres), making Starz’s bottom-line investment much less than it might be were the network to go it alone. That’s important, since Albrecht will need to take more at bats if he’s going to build a critical mass of buzzworthy shows. And unlike the seemingly limitless budgets he oversaw at HBO, which had annual revenue in the $3.5 billion range, Starz isn’t so flush with cash: The company brought in just a bit more than $1 billion in revenues last year.

Albrecht is clearly hoping Underbelly’s phenomenal success in Australia (its 2008 premiere drew more viewers there than any other non-sports broadcast, and the show won the country’s equivalent of the Emmy for Best Drama) can be replicated here. Since the show is based on real events that took place in Australia starting in the seventies, Starz can’t simply film the original scripts using American actors. But the network is currently researching various American crime families that they can build effective story arcs around … just as long as the clans aren’t from New York or New Jersey, which would invite calls of Sopranos copycatting.

Assuming the right real-life inspiration can be found quickly, a script could be ready well before the end of the year. If Albrecht likes what he sees on the page, insiders say he’s prepared to eschew the usual pilot stage for Underbelly and go straight to series.

Has Starz Found Its Sopranos?