With shows like Power, Outlander and the upcoming Vida, Starz looks to lap its premium- cable competitors as it targets “swim lanes” and new audiences.
Back in 2010, viewers who stumbled across the Starz network and got hooked on Spartacus or Party Down were likely high-fiving over the lucky find.
The sexy, bloody gladiator drama, which initially starred Andy Whitfield, and the wry comedy about cater-waiters, starring Lizzy Caplan and Adam Scott, served notice that the premium-cable network was about more than movies.
Despite such laudable programming risks, Starz — which launched in 1994 — remained mostly under the radar, even while Spartacus's Liam McIntyre (stepping in for Whitfield, who was diagnosed with cancer) battled mightily through two more seasons. But just as the TV business has changed dramatically since 2010, so has Starz's recognition factor.
While it cannot boast the multi-Emmy hauls of premium-cable rivals HBO and Showtime, or the seemingly bottomless wallets of Netflix and Amazon Prime, Starz has benefited from its unorthodox attitude and the savvy programming strategy that brought Outlander and Power to screens in 2014.
Less than a year after the launch of those series, Starz elbowed its way into the number-two spot in the bid for premium-cable subscribers. "That insurgent mentality drives the entire thinking of the company," says Carmi Zlotnik, Starz's president of programming. "I love what we're doing. We're not Walmart, so instead of trying to be all things to all people, we're a boutique that's making special things for special people."
Zlotnik and his boss, CEO Chris Albrecht, believe that women, African Americans, Latinos, millennials and the LGBTQ community have been underserved by Starz's premium-cable rivals. And while Starz is hardly the only outlet programming for specific audiences, the strategy is paying off.
Zlotnik still may call his network "the smallest kid on the playground," but it now has more subscribers than Showtime. And after its $4.4 billion acquisition by Lionsgate in 2016, the company has a fatter pocketbook for development — and a stronger deal-making position.
"Their knowledge of the industry is sophisticated," Zlotnik says of Lionsgate. "And what we have to offer — and what we can do with talent that comes to work with us — is much larger and more functional because of the combined company."
Since Albrecht and Zlotnik signed on in early 2010, Starz has seen a 41.4 percent spike in subscriptions — from 16.9 million to 24.5 million. Showtime went from 17.7 million subscribers in 2010 to 24.1 million in the second quarter of 2017 — a 36 percent increase.
HBO, still the largest of the premium-cable competitors, increased subscribers just 17.6 percent in the same period — from 28.9 million to 34 million in Q2 2017. (Starz provided all numbers from SNL Kagan.)
Albrecht and Zlotnik both came to Starz after long tenures at HBO. They first saw the value of a targeted strategy when the miniseries The White Queen, a historical costume drama based on Philippa Gregory's 2009 novel, attracted a significant number of female viewers in 2013. More than half the 4.8 million multi-platform viewers per episode were women over 18, making it the network's most female-skewing series at the time.
"We knew we were on to something," Zlotnik says. "If you could do something that was differentiated in the market, and compelling in its nature, people would subscribe in order to get that show. [We saw] that the accumulation of assets like that would make a valuable service."
For premium-cable companies, the number of subscribers is more important than the number of viewers for any individual show. While it was difficult in 2013 to figure out if The White Queen had helped boost subscribers, Zlotnik and Albrecht knew they needed to pursue female viewers after seeing viewer stats for the show.
"Going back to our days at HBO, the thing that Chris and I realized was that you follow your interests and your instincts," Zlotnik says. "The things that work, you declare as strategy."
With the success of The White Queen, part of the new Starz programming strategy was born. The show prompted more female-led stories — including its sequel, The White Princess, and of course Outlander, now the network's most female-skewing series. It also led the duo to consider other viewer groups they might be able to attract.
Zlotnik began organizing the development slate into what he calls "swim lanes." Starz continues to court female viewers with The Girlfriend Experience, a drama created, written and directed by Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan and based on a Steven Soderbergh film.
Starz had already made big inroads in genre television with Spartacus, Black Sails and DaVinci's Demons. Ash vs. Evil Dead, American Gods and the new Counterpart — starring Oscar winner J.K. Simmons — also swim in that lane.
The biggest success this strategy has yielded is Power, a drama about a New Yorker caught between the worlds of his legit business and his drug empire.
Created and executive-produced by Courtney Kemp (formerly a writer-producer for CBS's The Good Wife), the show also counts Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson among its exec producers and features a diverse cast. Its audience has grown in each of its four seasons. (Another Starz show targeting the African-American audience, Survivor's Remorse, ended after its fourth season in 2017.)
In summer 2017, the fourth season of Power averaged 9.3 million viewers per episode. It's the second-highest-rated premium-network scripted drama behind HBO's Game of Thrones and by far Starz's most watched series. It beats the more visible and written-about Outlander, which averaged 5.7 million viewers per episode in its third season.
Kemp isn't a fan of the term "underserved audiences," but as the showrunner for Power, she recognizes the economic benefits that such programming can offer a network.
"This isn't something that anyone did out of the goodness of their heart," she says. "It's not programming altruism — it's just smart business. The only color that matters in Hollywood is green."
Zlotnik agrees that the strategy is good business. Power has definitely helped Starz see green. Thanks to its subscription app, the network can track which shows are attracting new subscribers. According to Zlotnik, each new episode of Power creates a spike in viewers and subscribers.
"At the end of the day, a subscription is a subscription," Kemp says. "If the majority of the Starz audience is watching my show, we're no longer talking about the underserved audience, are we? We're talking about the Starz audience."
Outlander doesn't work just because women watch it, she notes. "It works because it works — it's a good show." The same is true of Power, she adds.
"Our show has certain themes that are universal, and it's the universality of those themes that make the show work. Everyone — white, black, whatever color, whatever gender, whatever sexuality — everyone has a 'one who got away.'"
Starz has been supportive of both her show and her career development, Kemp states. In May 2017, she signed a multi-year exclusive overall deal with Starz and Lionsgate that allows her to develop and produce new projects for Starz and other shows through her End of Episode production company.
Now, she says, she has the opportunity to create jobs and to address the perception of people of color in the media. In addition to season five of Power, Kemp is working on Get Christie Love, a reimagining of the 1970s ABC series that starred Teresa Graves; the new series, also for ABC, stars Kylie Bunbury, who turned heads as the first woman in the MLB in Fox's Pitch.
"I'm very lucky to be able to do this job, and I wouldn't be here without Starz," Kemp says. "I was untested; I was young. I was unproven, and they let me run my own show. That's something no other network would've done. That's actually much more revolutionary than putting the show on the air, because it got to maintain its voice.
"People responded to the voice of this show," she adds, "because they respected my point of view — because it sounded like them, because it was authentically like their own. I think that is more relevant in a way."
Seimetz, who's wrapped two seasons on The Girlfriend Experience, also found Starz to be a "hands-off" partner. When she, along with collaborator Kerrigan, decided to cast herself in season one as Annabel, the sister of protagonist Christine (Riley Keough), she didn't have to ask for permission.
"I just decided," Seimetz says, because it made sense for the production. She fears that level of creative control may have spoiled her for her next project.
"They just let us loose, and trusted that we'd come back with something," she says. "It's really hard, as a creative, to come back from that."
Seimetz chuckles when told that Zlotnik characterizes Starz as an insurgent network, but she doesn't dispute it: "It's an aggressive, and accurate, term."
Starz is securing its insurgency by putting even more women and people of color in charge, with new lanes of programming aimed at Latino, millennial and LGBTQ viewers.
The network has several shows in development from Hispanic creators, directors and writers. The first to get a series order was Vida, a half-hour drama about two Mexican-American sisters in East Los Angeles. Tanya Saracho, a former writer-producer on ABC's How to Get Away with Murder, serves as showrunner and executive producer.
Sweetbitter, based on the novel by Stephanie Danler, is a young woman's coming-of-age story set in the New York City restaurant world. Danler wrote the pilot script.
The project came to Albrecht and Zlotnik's attention thanks to their desire to hear from diverse Starz employees, not just executives. A lower-level employee praised Danler's novel at the office, and the word spread to chief marketing officer Alison Hoffman. By coincidence, she'd also read and loved the book.
"The people who work here are the first test group," Zlotnik says. "We have open conversations and everybody contributes, from the assistant to the executive level. It's why we've worked really hard on building a diverse staff and a diverse department. We all have blind spots. We don't want to have too many of the same blind spots and miss an opportunity, or do something in the wrong way."
Vida and Sweetbitter, both set to premiere in 2018, jump between swim lanes, Zlotnik says. They both have female-driven stories as well as LGBTQ and millennial characters.
"No show sits within just one swim lane," Zlotnik states. "There's always going to be crossover. Ideally, they hit in multiple ways. In the case of American Gods, it's genre, but it's also diverse. It's talking about really important subjects — about immigration and belief.
Outlander is a genre show and a female show. It's a romance and a historical drama. It gives a lot of different entry points for potential audiences and subscribers."
That crossover, ultimately, is what Starz is looking for in its original programming, Zlotnik says. While network execs talk about "underserved audiences" and target those viewers to spark discussion in social media and in the press, they want that conversation to spread so that their shows eventually mean "more things to more people."
"We're looking for passion," Zlotnik says. "We want to ignite this feeling of fandom — deep and abiding interest — so that people want to talk about the shows. They get exposed to new kinds of characters and new kinds of worlds that they don't normally see."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2018