Starz Is Capitalizing on Cachet of New Owner Lionsgate

Luring audiences with streaming service and titillating titles

Starz has a new owner, but it's going to be business as usual for the premium cable network.

On June 30, Lionsgate announced it was buying Starz for $4.4 billion in cash and stock, but "from a content point of view, Starz will very much remain on strategy," Starz CEO and president Chris Albrecht told reporters at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour in L.A. "We're going to be operating pretty autonomously within that unit, because we bring—no pun intended—a lion's share of the profits to the combined entity, so what you don't want to do is mess about with that. Our strategy is working."

However, Albrecht is looking forward to getting a cachet boost from Starz's new owner. "Talent is the valuable currency in this business. IP comes from that content," said Albrecht, who noted that with Lionsgate, "we will be able to attract more of that valuable currency … and we will get better at monetizing that valuable currency."

The long-term goal, said Albrecht, is to "turn these companies into product businesses" that go beyond just television and films into "products like the Starz app or other services that can be created and monetized by a one-of-a-kind entertainment company in today's media landscape."

Starz now has 24.2 million U.S. subscribers, which puts it ahead of Showtime. (Showtime said that factoring in the roughly 1 million subscribers to its direct-to-consumer streaming service, it is ahead of Starz in overall subscribers.) But "it's not a horse race," said Albrecht, who was given the title of president in addition to CEO, and whose Starz contract was recently extended through 2020. Instead, it shows that "the Starz strategy is working." 

That strategy includes looking for projects "with dedicated fans," like Ash vs. Evil Dead and Outlander. That will continue with upcoming drama American Gods, based on the Neil Gaiman bestseller. Starz is also developing a series based on The Dirty Girls Social Club, the bestseller from Alisa Valdés.

That built-in fandom is then amplified by social media, which Albrecht said is "our best auxiliary marketing team … better than a review."

Another key component of Starz's strategy is appealing to audiences that "don't see themselves reflected out there," said Albrecht, noting the robust African-American audiences who watch shows like Power and Survivor's Remorse. "I don't worry about doing shows for everyone, and I'm not even sure who 'everyone' is."

Starz recently shifted its original series to Sunday nights, the same night HBO and Showtime air their shows, which has resulted in record ratings for Power and Survivor's Remorse. "Right now, our strategy is to premiere everything on Sunday night," Albrecht said.

In April, Starz launched its own stand-alone subscription app, which will give users access to Starz's programing all through the internet without a cable or satellite subscription. It features a perk that rival OTT options HBO Now and Showtime don't have: the ability to download content to their devices and view them without having to stream it through a Wi-Fi or cellular network.

Albrecht didn't divulge streaming figures but noted that the service is attracting audiences in "income brackets that might be challenged to buy through the cable stack … There's an audience out there, and we expect that to keep growing."

The CEO also discussed the eye-raising title of the new drama he is developing about pole dancers in Mississippi, which is called Pussy Valley. "It's a story about cats!" Albrecht joked, when asked if that title will be printable in advertising and marketing if it ends up going to series. "It's the right title for the show; I don't know we'll run into trouble."