Is Starz a newcomer to original programming? Far from it. Look back at the “Spartacus” franchise, “Boss,” or a few other assorted shows from the past decade or so. While the network not be in the game nearly as long as an HBO or a Showtime, they are a place that has tried to establish themselves as a destination for high-quality, edgy, and original programming.
Yet, somehow the past few years have put a new, larger, and even more impressive stamp on the brand. A network that was at one point one you only got for a free trial to for the purpose of movies is now becoming one that you want to subscribe to. It’s uncovered not only one of the biggest cultural phenomenons of the past two years, but also an under-the-radar hit that is performing better than the majority of other shows on premium cable. This is without even mentioning pirates. Who doesn’t love pirates?
To create the most juvenile analogy possible to describe their might (which only seems appropriate / ironic when talking about such super-adult shows), Starz is basically Captain Planet, and some of its particular series help to establish its power, which is an interesting choices of words thanks to the name of one of these said shows. Individually, they are all very strong, but together they turn this network into the biggest rising star of 2015, and one that award shows need to start looking at with a serious eye.
It seems appropriate to start our deep dive into Starz’s success by looking at the show that has in many ways been its catalyst. Adapting the Diana Gabaldon book series is no easy task. These stories are long, complicated, and have a heavy time-travel component. They’re also not cheap to make. The show took an enormous gamble bringing them to screen, but almost everything that they did in the development process was calculated and intelligent. First, they hired one of the greatest showrunners of all time in Ronald D. Moore (“Battlestar Galactica”). Then, they found two brilliant leads in Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan. While neither was well-known previously in America before the show, their performances have made them into two of television’s rising stars and hopefully perennial Emmy / Golden Globe candidates.
In picking up “Outlander,” what Starz did that was that they filled a particular hole in the market: A sweeping epic fantasy, one that viewers can get lost into in between the politics, the period setting, and of course the romance. No other show was doing what this show did in its first season plot-wise, and they did not shy away from the brutality or the more revealing scenes. “Outlander” is a show with staying power (just look at how many books Gabaldon has out there), and we still think it has a ways to go before it reaches its peak. More and more people are still discovering it, and given that there are only sixteen episodes so far, that is a small-enough number to attract new viewers.
One thing that makes many of these shows difficult to discuss commercially that ratings data for them is always inaccurate. It may be easy to sit here and spout of 18-49 demo numbers for individual episodes, but you also have to look at DVR plays, streams on the app, on-demand viewings, and other measures. With “Outlander” the total audience size is complicated further by its international popularity. Its total global viewership could be second to “Game of Thrones” among what we consider to be premium cable, but it is hard to have the data to know for sure.
Really ever since the premiere of “black-ish” in the fall of 2014, there has been a particular demand for shows featuring strong, diverse casts. In a medium that has been long filled with sameness, it is understandable that viewers want a different voice. Perspective speaks to audiences, and minorities were not being presented as mainstream leads for many years. This is in part a factor in the success of other recent shows like “Empire” and “Fresh Off the Boat.”
“Power” more than likely benefited initially in the ratings by having such a strong minority presence and providing that voice (not to mention the presence of 50 Cent on and off-camera), but the reason why people stuck around is because it is a really great, layered, dark crime drama anchored by a fantastic Omari Hardwick. Stories about crime syndicates / men living double lives were popular during the heyday of “Breaking Bad” and “Boardwalk Empire,” but like with “Outlander,” Starz found another show here that occupies a gap. The show experienced a huge surge in the ratings for season 2 thanks in part to this, and also because it was impressing to such a degree that people were actually recommending it to friends. This is something that TV executives grumble about in meeting rooms that they want, but it’s often a pipe dream that never comes to fruition. “Power” made it reality, and what we love about what we’re hearing about season 3 right now is that the writers / producers seem to be approaching it from the best perspective possible: Ignore the ratings and the outside noise, and just create the best bleeping TV show possible. It’s not about the guest stars or the ad campaign or anything else; if you build it, they will come … and they will keep watching.
While “Power” may not have the same robust catalog of established source material that “Outlander” does, we also get the sense that it is not going anywhere in the near future, either. Starz is showing all the faith in the world in it.
Pirates. Who doesn’t love them? Who doesn’t celebrate that day of the year when you get to talk like them? In terms of base numbers this is the lesser-rated of the three Starz series highlighted here, but it follows the same exact M.O. as the previous two: It celebrates originality in terms of setting, content, and tone. The network took a big chance here on an adult “Pirates of the Caribbean” with darker, political edges filmed on the other side of the world, and something that is definitely not cheap when you consider the ships and the costumes. We talked about gambles earlier, but one of the biggest ones in Starz recent memory may have been giving this show a second season before they really even knew how the audience would respond to it. That sort of faith is something other networks should take note of.
The risk proved to be worth it. The drama is great, the battles are epic, and above all else, the show feels authentic. We feel like this is how many pirates actually lived versus how we want to perceive them living. With so many other history-based shows, networks for various reasons often have to water down the end product for the sake of making it appropriate for standards and practices. It’s such a thrill that this is not the case here, and the writers can truly let that flag fly.
Given that Blackbeard is still coming to “Black Sails” 2016, isn’t it fair to say that some of the stormiest seas are still ahead? Of course, the on-screen pirates may not enjoy these tumultuous times, but we’re certain to from the couch.
We may still be in the golden age of television, but to get even more meta about it, Starz is in its golden age within the golden age. It’s producing great content (“Blunt Talk” and “Survivor’s Remorse” are both incredibly strong), finding unique ways to bring in all demographics of viewers, and really keeping their focus simple. Do they want great reviews and awards in their trophy case? Sure. Everyone does. At the end of the day, though, they’re about viewer satisfaction. If they are gaining subscribers and allowing fans the opportunity to discover new, fantastic content, they can throw themselves an awards banquet if they’re not getting recommendation elsewhere.
So give yourself a toast, famed Captain Planet known as Starz. You’ve combined your powers, you’re a hero, and you now have to find a way to take the other networks down to zero. (Okay, maybe we’re taking the analogy a little far now.)