If you have been paying attention to this space at all over the past few months, you will know several things to be true about numbers. They appear to be concrete in nature, but can often mean different things to different people. They can be read with a fluidity that will allow some to claim success while others acknowledge failure, and they are very, very important.
Take, for instance, the broadcast networks CBS and The CW. The former has about eight times the average number of viewers as the latter, but the latter is considered just as great a success as the former because their respective numbers fit their respective business models. The same is true for the pay cable networks. STARZ, for instance, surpassed Showtime last year in subscribers to become the second leading pay cable network, behind HBO. As it now stands, STARZ has about 23.6 million on its list, ahead of the roughly 23 million of Showtime. However, when the two networks had shows with similar viewership, those numbers worked much better for STARZ than they did for Showtime.
It’s natural to ask why that is, and the answer is surprisingly simple: It’s a completely different audience. Take a look at the programming on each network, and you’ll see what I mean. Showtime doesn’t have nearly the diversity of STARZ shows and its shows appeal to a much older audience. STARZ, meanwhile, focuses on the younger demographic, as well as a more urban viewer, while also utilizing the same sexy format that pay cable networks and streaming services can get away with.
There’s also the fact that, aside from a monster hit like Game of Thrones or a brand new player like Westworld, both of which are on HBO, the buzziest shows on this format air on STARZ. Outlander, for instance, only averages a little over one million viewers per episode through its first two seasons, but it is unquestionably one of the most talked about programs on television. The combination of sex, intrigue, romance, story, even costume and production design, make it unlike anything else out there, and it inspires such a rabidity in its fanbase, it actually made the cover of Entertainment Weekly earlier this year, with a huge feature story accompanying it. That’s not the kind of thing a run of the mill show earns, it’s only reserved for real hits, even if they only start off as the cult variety.
STARZ only began creating original programming 11 years ago, and started much the same way that HBO did, with awards bait projects like Magic City and the sexy Spartacus: Blood and Sand. While those shows did garner some viewers, they were by no means considered titanic successes. Things changed in 2010, when Chris Albrecht took over the programming reins. Three years after departing HBO, Albrecht had a new challenge and entered it with the same philosophy he’d had at the other network, but soon his thinking began to evolve. He realized that, just as the television landscape was changing, so was the viewership and how it watched. So he had the bright idea of talking to the young people in his company, the interns and the assistants, and learned that they paid much more attention to social media than they did to reviews.
And so a new plan was formed: create programming that gets people talking, and that word of mouth will drive viewership more than a few awards will. The results have been astounding. Turning to the unlikely source of Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Albrecht has a spectacularly successful show in Power, which garnered more than 3 million viewers for its season three premiere (a network record), even more when VOD and streaming are factored in. In fact, company estimates have the average viewership at closer to 6 million per episode, which puts it on par with any other pay cable program that is not GOT. Likewise, a partnership with basketball star Lebron James resulted in the popular sitcom Survivor’s Remorse, which had just six episodes in its first season, but just finished season three, a season in which its numbers continued to skyrocket. Both shows have been renewed, with Power getting a two season order.
The fact that these shows, both starring predominantly African American casts, are so popular, shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, considering that those same audiences tend to subscribe to pay cable networks more than most other demographics. And yet, there are very few shows targeted to them. Again, take a look at Showtime, where there are not many people of color leading their programming. The same can’t be said for STARZ, and the results speak for themselves.
Which brings us back to Outlander, which was created with a similar sensibility. Not only did Albrecht appeal to genre fans, with plenty of sex and intrigue, but he also recognized that the focus of the show was a central romance, and that it had a decidedly feminist bent. True, it’s viewership isn’t as high as the network probably wishes it was, but those numbers climbed from season one to season two, and the expectation is that it will climb again in the upcoming season three.
Since he was not being able to spend the same money as either HBO or Showtime — though that could change, which I will discuss further below — Albrecht also knew that attracting the same kind of talent he was able to draw to HBO meant offering more on the other side. This is why STARZ doesn’t actually shoot pilots, it just orders shows straight to series. Sometimes, in fact, a show will get a two-season order right from the start. This didn’t work out so well with Boss and Magic City, but it’s a model that has been mimicked by no less than Netflix, which gave just such an order to House of Cards, which is almost certainly what closed the deal for heavy hitters like David Fincher and Kevin Spacey.
Sometimes, that plays out in a more subtle way, like how the horror-comedy Ash vs. Evil Dead was given a second season before a single episode of the first had even aired. Now, just a few episodes into two, the network has already okayed a third, despite the fact that viewer numbers have dipped slightly from the year before. Still, with so much happening on the VOD and streaming sides, those numbers are incomplete.
Similarly, the sexually graphic Girlfriend Experience was a seemingly odd choice, adapting a Steven Soderbergh movie that was not terribly successful critically or financially, but the result was probably exactly what Albrecht and his team expected: only a few hundred thousand conventional viewers per episode, but tons of buzz and an extremely visible social media presence. It also featured a star-making turn from Riley Keough, which is only a bad thing in that she won’t be returning for the inevitable second season. The show will actually exist as an anthology, with a whole new story featuring an entirely new cast of characters when it returns in 2017.
Perhaps the one show that could actually fit in on one of the other networks is Blunt Talk, starring Patrick Stewart which, in its second season, has fallen off considerably from its first and might not get a third. This, interestingly, makes sense. It’s the one show the network has on the air that doesn’t necessarily feel like a STARZ show, so of course its performance is far out of whack with the others, that do.
Not to say there haven’t been recent misfires. The ballet mini-series Flesh and Bone, for instance, did not draw a whole lot of viewers and was derided as one of 2015’s worst shows by the same Entertainment Weekly that so celebrated Outlander. But those are in the minority, as Albrecht and his team have found their footing. The upcoming fourth and final season of the pirate epic Black Sails falls into the successful category, while also winning the network several Emmys in technical categories, which still looks good, whether you’re actively trying for them or not.
Fiscally, things had been mediocre, at best, with stagnant growth and revenues that were only about 75 percent of the numbers Showtime was pulling in. In fact, revenues for the third quarter were down from the year before for both the three month and six month periods ending June 30th. That’s normally a bad sign, but the overall urgency changed drastically this summer. I mentioned above that STARZ might not have the same budgetary restraints it had previously, and that has to do with the change in the company’s status, which occurred when it was purchased by Lionsgate for $4.4 billion. The deal is a big one for both sides, as it gives Lionsgate an outlet for its content and an established screening service (which retails for just $8.99 per month — even less with an Amazon Prime or Hulu membership — much cheaper than either Showtime’s service or HBO’s), while also raising STARZ’s profile and access to top notch talent.
Additionally, there’s the licensing deal STARZ just signed with Vimeo (joining new partner Lionsgate, the first film studio to do so) to show its programming on the new global television store. The deal suddenly makes available to subscribers in more than 150 countries all of the network’s original programming, giving it an enormous jump in visibility as Vimeo tries to take on Netflix.
That’s not all. The partnership does something else for STARZ: gives it a unique opportunity to work with a television production division responsible for such shows as Mad Men and Orange Is the New Black. While neither of those would ever make one think of a STARZ show, neither can the overall quality of each be denied. With this new reality, STARZ suddenly might be able to have its genre cake and be able to eat its Emmys, too, so to speak. I know that metaphor doesn’t quite work, but you understand the point. Albrecht’s philosophy of eschewing the kind of highfalutin programming that draws awards allows him and his company the freedom to put shows on the air that might, in fact, earn those same awards. Outlander is a prime example of a show that is so well respected, it’s probably only a matter of time before it gets the same type of Academy love that, say, Homeland might get. Before you dismiss that as hyperbole, recall that Homeland is every bit the genre show that Outlander is, it’s just done so exceptionally well that it crosses over into the mainstream. There is no reason to believe that a show like Outlander — or, for that matter, any number of other shows the network will produce — can’t find a similar level of respect.
The same could be said for a show like American Gods, based on the popular Neil Gaiman novel and the next big network show to hit the airwaves, which it will in 2017. The show fits right into the genre fare the network loves so well, but stars Ian McShane and comes from acclaimed (and prolific) creator Bryan Fuller, who also was behind a little show called Hannibal you may have seen (though, judging from the ratings, you probably didn’t, which is a shame, but also a discussion for another time). That’s some impressive talent there, and that’s not all. The other major project on its way is the sci-fi thriller Counterpart, starring Oscar winner J.K. Simmons. Also ordered to series, it’s about to start production and should also see the light next year.
If it seems small potatoes that there are only two series moving forward at the moment, that’s probably because it is. STARZ hasn’t yet moved into the realm of its two prime competitors, and there’s no guarantee that it will. Just because it has access to more money and more content thanks to its new partnership with Lionsgate doesn’t mean that Albrecht and company will change the way they’ve been doing business. Having said that, there are a number of projects in development and under consideration by the network, including another urban drama from 50 Cent, a cop show starring Antonio Banderas, and about a dozen others, any of which could be that next big, buzzy show, that not only captures viewers’ attention, but also puts the network in the same awards conversations that Albrecht was having during his stint at HBO.
Numbers can be strange. One network can have solid revenue but be perceived as stagnating and perhaps even on its way down, and another can have mediocre financials but be viewed as a network on the rise. Such is the situation between Showtime and STARZ. It probably wouldn’t be the wisest move to bet on one to really thrive in the near future at the expense of the other, but if you really had to, judging solely by the programming currently on the air and what is expected in the coming months, the choice probably wouldn’t be too hard.
For more entries in our network series, click here.