The way Starz CEO Chris Albrecht tells it, he has no problem pointing out how broken the Emmys are to a bunch of TV Academy executives. After the Starz (STRZA) drama Outlander–which featured critically-acclaimed performances from Sam Heughan and Tobias Menzies in its first season – was snubbed by the voters this year, Albrecht invited a few TV Academy folks to his office to tell them exactly what he thought.
“They said they had 140 dramas were submitted. I said, ‘How possibly could this group choose seven best nominees from 140 programs?’” Albrecht said in a recent interview with Fortune. “They certainly didn’t see 140 programs. The Emmys is not a meritocracy. It’s a game. A political game.”
If the 63-year-old programmer seems a tad exasperated, he may have a right. The former CEO of of HBO (TWX) who developed The Sopranos, he’s managed to turn Starz into the second most distributed premium network in the US — right behind HBO. By shepherding serious dramas like Outlander and Power, the pay cable network has boost subscriptions by more than 7 million (up from 16.9 million when Albrecht first came aboard in 2010). The network now has more subscribers than Showtime, Bloomberg notes.
And with shares up, Starz (which counts billionaire John Malone as its biggest shareholder) is reportedly in early talks with AMC Networks (AMC) about merging. Asked about the rumors on CNBC (CMCSA), Albrecht would neither confirm or deny the rumors, but said, “I do think that there’s a good business rationale for different companies coming together. When you put two good companies together that have complementary and supplementary businesses and have good management teams and are both executing well on their own, I think that’s an opportunity.”
As a former talent agent for the William Morris Agency, Albrecht had the business foresight to deploy the straight-to-series development model when he arrived at the then-Liberty-owned (LMCA) Starz. The practice not only helped him skip the costly and time-consuming pilot process. It also enabled Starz to attract A-list talent, like Academy Award-winning producer/director Steven Soderbergh (Syriana, Oceans 11), Alejandro Iñárritu (Birdman) and Hillary Swank, who would otherwise have overlooked the small cabler.
“Premium networks have changed a lot in recent years,” said Vasily Karasyov, an analyst for the investment firm CLSA. “It’s not about films anymore. It’s about original content. That’s how you become an attractive co-marketing partner to distributors and to viewers.” That’s what Starz managed to accomplish while controlling costs, he adds. (Albrecht, however, did manage to land on a list of highest-paid media chiefs last year.)
After a short stint heading the Ted Forstmann-owned IMG Global Media, Albrecht came to Starz in 2010 just as the service was experimenting with original fare like Party Down and Spartacus. The new gig represented a second chance for the charismatic executive, who left HBO after a highly-publicized altercation with his then girlfriend in 2007.
“By the time I came to Starz you had 25 well-funded companies, at least, making originals,” recalls Albrecht. “It was not just enough to do shows. I think we really needed to come up with a point of view about where we were serving in the marketplace. How we were differentiating ourselves? That took me awhile to figure out.”
The key was to target specific (see: underserved) audiences. After spinning off from Liberty in 2013, Starz began attracting African-Americans with critical faves like Power (at 6.8 million, is most watched show to date) and Survivor’s Remorse. Outlander gives Starz the chance to target lots of female eyeballs, especially those who can’t get enough of Diana Gabaldon’s addictive book series.
Starz says its on track to reach its programming goal of 75-80 new original series episodes per year. Besides more seasons of critical faves like Outlander and Power, anticipation is strong for Ash vs Evil Dead, a TV version of Sam Raimi’s international cult hit movies, along with Flesh and Bone, a limited series from Emmy-winning writer Moira Walley-Beckett (Breaking Bad) about the New York City Ballet.
For 2016, there’s The Girlfriend Experience, which is based on Soderbergh’s 2009 movie of the same name; The Dresser starring Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen; The One Percent from Iñárritu that stars Swank and Ed Helms; a sci-fi thriller called Counterpart with Simmons; and American Gods from Bryan Fuller (Hannibal), which is based on Neil Gaiman’s international best seller.
“As a talent representative, I have yet to meet one actor, writer, or producer who wouldn’t work with Chris a second time,” says Jay Sures, managing director of United Talent Agency. “Chris makes decisions with his gut, and talent respects the honesty and passion that he brings to the table on every single project.”
There are, of course, some projects that Albrecht hasn’t been able to land, such as a female-friendly book that he tried to adapt for Starz. Alas, Universal wanted to make 50 Shades of Grey into a movie, instead.
“We could have done the NC-17 version and have what the audience loved about the book be there on the screen. I said I’d give three seasons, one for each book,” Albrecht recalled. “But Outlander, I think, has a lot of that same appeal in the sense that it’s got a very strong female character who is a sensual woman and Caitriona Balfe portrays that beautifully. I think that if you’re serving audiences and trying to please them then Outlander is doing a great job and possibly better than some of the shows that got nominated.”
Hear that, Emmy voters?