The U.S. premium cable operator Starz has made a number of high-profile moves in the original-programming space as of late, notably with its dramas. Earlier this month, Starz gave the greenlight to American Gods, an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's acclaimed contemporary fantasy novel. The network also announced a third-season order for Power, following on a record-setting debut of season two on June 6 that logged 1.43 million viewers in its premiere airing. With a string of returning hits and a number of new highlights to come, Starz's original dramas have contributed to subscriber gains for the network as well. Carmi Zlotnik, the managing director of Starz, tells TV Drama Weekly about the strategy behind the increasing slate of original drama fare.
TV DRAMA: What is driving Starz's original-drama strategy?
ZLOTNIK: The strategy that is really at the core is to super-serve underserved audiences. We scanned the media space and looked at where we thought there were some audiences that were underserved, and one of the first ones that we [identified] was women. The test case for that was The White Queen. We saw a huge response for a story that not only was for women, but was also about women, with strong female characters. We doubled-down on that [strategy] with Outlander, and that's paid off.
The other [audience segment we identified] is African Americans. We felt that that was an underserved audience, so we started developing Power and then Survivor's Remorse, which are two different takes on programming for the African-American audience.
While [all these shows] had a target, they also had the ability to expand out to the more general audience beyond that target.
TV DRAMA: What has the response been from the creative community?
ZLOTNIK: In the last couple of years, Starz has started to emerge as a first priority for the creative community. This wasn't always the case. When Chris [Albrecht, CEO of Starz] and I got here in 2010, there was little to no development—there wasn't really a strategy or a personality that was informing the programming. I hope what we've done is communicate clearly to the entertainment community what we're trying to achieve and the kinds of projects that work for Starz. That's a moving target, because as we have things that are working, we also start to look for other things to continue to build our business.
Going after targeted audiences has worked for building subscribership; we passed Showtime at the end of last year as the second most-subscribed-to pay-TV channel in the United States. We're not stopping there. Now we're looking at other targeted audiences, such as Hispanics and Millennials, and trying to develop programming that will appeal to them as well.
TV DRAMA: Is there a certain type of drama you're looking for at the moment?
ZLOTNIK: While we had done a bunch of period pieces, right now we're looking at more contemporary pieces. Between Outlander, Black Sails and Da Vinci's Demons, we've got our needs for period dramas covered. So, we're really focused on contemporary stories. But, quality wins out—something that is compelling, from great writers, with great ideas and an ability to execute; we're always willing to look at that kind of material.
TV DRAMA: What types of financing models has Starz been using to support these originals?
ZLOTNIK: I'd like to think that the first rule of Starz is that there are no rules. [Laughs] In terms of financing models, we try to be creative. We work in all the known models: we own some shows, we license other shows, then we co-produce on others. It depends on the situation.
We're always looking for opportunities to buy rights. In the case of The White Queen, we bought all the territories outside of the U.K. and Benelux countries because we have Anchor Bay Entertainment for home video and a strong international distribution business with Starz Worldwide Distribution and Starz Digital, which we're continuing to build. When Ash vs. Evil Dead came to us, there likewise was an opportunity to get the rights for both Anchor Bay and our international distribution [business], so that was a very attractive package that went even beyond the creative auspices, which are tremendous.
TV DRAMA: Power has been a breakout success. Why do you think this show has resonated so well with viewers?
ZLOTNIK: African Americans over-index in pay-TV households, so we knew that there was an opportunity there. It just goes to show that when you deliver a high-quality program for a [targeted] audience demographic, it blows up. The word of mouth starts spreading; people who are subscribing to Starz start talking to their friends and all of a sudden you get more people subscribing to Starz just to get that program. That's the kind of phenomenon that we're looking to achieve.
The real power of Power is that it appeals to other audiences as well. There's nothing that's inherently African American about the story. It's a story that a general audience can relate to, and I think that's what was so compelling about the vision of Courtney [Kemp Agboh, the creator of Power], coupled with the experience of Curtis ["50 Cent" Jackson, the show's executive producer].
TV DRAMA: Tell us about some of the other originals returning to Starz.
ZLOTNIK: Outlander is in production on season two. It's such a pleasure to work on a show with this kind of team, led by Ron Moore, and this kind of ardent fan base. If you love the books, you'll love the series. If you haven't read the books, you'll still love the series!
We're finishing season three of Black Sails and getting ready to bring that back at the beginning of 2016. It has a very long production period because of all the visual effects. We're excited to bring this next season to Starz because the team in South Africa has really stepped up their game in terms of the visuals and the things that they've been able to achieve. [Then there's] Jon Steinberg's writing and the drama that just keeps getting richer, more intricate and more compelling.
TV DRAMA: What upcoming original highlights can viewers look forward to?
ZLOTNIK: Ash vs. Evil Dead is a return to a franchise—with Bruce Campbell reprising his role as Ash—that parents and their adult children can love simultaneously. It's an unbelievably fun combination of horror and comedy. It's great to have Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert reunited; there's no better producer than Rob Tapert, and Sam Raimi is a verifiable genius when it comes to putting images on screen. The combination of being able to do a show that is at the same time very modern and has retro elements to it—and feels like the original series but in a very modernized way—is huge fun.
We've got Blunt Talk coming out with Patrick Stewart, who is a legend. Jonathan Ames [the creator] has a fantastic pedigree as a writer and as a novelist, so he brings a level of intelligence to this satire of the news business. Also, it doesn't hurt to have Seth MacFarlane as an executive producer.
Survivor's Remorse is one of the most intelligent explorations on culture in our society. The setting of it is the world of basketball, but it's really an exploration of race and culture. Mike O'Malley has created these characters that are all of a sudden thrust into a position of wealth and privilege, and seeing how they acquit themselves of that is just fascinating. I love the way that Mike and the cast have taken a very inventive approach; I've never seen a show like Survivor's Remorse and I'm continually entertained by it.
TV DRAMA: Is the plan to continue to ramp up Starz's original-drama output?
ZLOTNIK: We're looking to grow until we get to an annual run-rate of about 80 to 90 episodes of original programming. We are nearly there in terms of growth, and we've got a lot that's in production or development that we're still looking to bring to the air. I can't wait until we get to show people Flesh and Bone at the end of this year. I think people are going to be blown away by what we've been able to capture in the ballet world.
We've got a series from Steven Soderbergh called The Girlfriend Experience, which will start in early 2016. That has a very indie-film approach to the subject of "the girlfriend experience," which involves high-end call girls of sorts. The show is about the price of intimacy.
There are still [projects] that we're just starting the development process on or we're waiting to get into production. For example, American Gods is a huge franchise and a huge book that has [a great] following. We've got Bryan Fuller and Michael Green writing it, who are the perfect people to do a show that has to be this visual. It's a challenging adaptation from a novel, but I'm sure this is the team to do it.
There's also The One Percent, which is from Alejandro Iñárritu and his team of writers that did Birdman. It's going to star Hilary Swank and Ed Helms. We haven't started to shoot that one yet, but we're getting close. It is one of those shows that there is huge anticipation for, to see what an artist like Alejandro is going to do once he brings his talents to television.