Former HBO chairman and CEO to start Jan. 1

The Starz constellation now includes Chris Albrecht.

The former HBO chief will take the reins of the Liberty Media division housing the 16 Starz-Encore pay TV channels, Overture Films, the Anchor Bay homevid unit and animation shop Film Roman.

Albrecht had been working with Starz for the past few months as a producer on a scripted series in development. The deal for him to become prexy-CEO of the overarching Starz unit, announced Tuesday, came together in a matter of weeks after he hit it off in meetings with Liberty Media prexy Greg Maffei.

Liberty is an aggressive company, and (Liberty chairman) John Malone is legendary in his ability to guide his companies,” Albrecht told Daily Variety. “I see this as a chance for me to (use) all of my skills, my relationships and my experience in an area that I know so well. The pay TV category is one of the most exciting places to be in the entertainment business.”

Albrecht is coming into Starz at a time when Liberty is looking to make the mothership channel a contender with HBO and Showtime by investing heavily in original programming. Liberty also aims to boost the profile of Overture as a theatrical distrib and Anchor Bay as a homevid operation. Albrecht said he intends to work primarily out of Overture’s Beverly Hills offices to be close to the hub of the creative community, though he will spend plenty of time at the Starz offices in Burbank and Liberty’s HQ in Denver. Albrecht succeeds Bob Clasen, who previously announced his intent to retire as Starz chairman-CEO at year’s end.

Albrecht’s move to Starz promises to put him back in the TV exec spotlight 2½ years after his swift and dramatic demise at HBO following his arrest in Las Vegas in May 2007 for an altercation with his then-girlfriend.

Albrecht was appointed head of Ted Forstmann’s IMG Global Media a few months after he left HBO, but his tenure ended after less than a year, in August 2008, when IMG couldn’t come up with the financing Albrecht had been promised to expand the company’s TV production biz. During his time at IMG, Albrecht spearheaded the sale of Brit series “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” produced by IMG’sTiger Aspect banner, to Showtime.

Since leaving IMG, Albrecht has been developing projects through his Foresee Entertainment shingle, and he pulled together Canal Plus and numerous other Euro co-production partners for a lavish 12-hour miniseries on the Borgia clan, to be penned by Tom Fontana. He’ll keep a hand in the Borgias mini, which is shopping for a domestic net, and a handful of other projects percolating at Foresee.

At Starz, Albrecht’s biggest challenge will come in finding the signature skeins that can set Starz apart from its main rivals, HBO and Showtime. The Starz cabler has had mixed results to date with its original efforts. Starz’s first drama series, an adaptation of the Oscar-winning feature “Crash,” has been scorched by critics. But showbiz-centric laffer “Party Down” has became a cult fave — it even earned an AFI nod as one of this year’s top 10 TV skeins. And Starz has a period action drama, “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” on tap for a Jan. 22 bow.

Starz has mapped out a plan to build up Friday night as the showcase for its original series; its goal is to have fresh episodes of shows running on the night on a 52-week basis within the next few years. Albrecht’s first order of business will be to review all the strategic plans for Starz and its projects in development, which include his own drama series about a young femme trying to make a name for herself as a fashion photog in Gotham (Daily Variety, July 15).

Finding a unique brand identity for Starz in the pay TV category is certainly at the top of my list” of priorities, Albrecht said. During his years at HBO, the feevee channel became a hugely profitable cultural force with such hits as “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” “Six Feet Under” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

As for Overture Films, headed by Chris McGurk and Danny Rosett, Albrecht said the unit has strategic importance to Liberty as a supplier of movies to Starz, but first and foremost, the distrib has to find traction at the B.O.

Albrecht spent 22 years as an exec at HBO, rising to chairman and CEO and holding those positions for the last five years of his tenure. At Starz, he’s coming in at the top at a time when the company has grand ambitions. Acquisitions are a distinct possibility, given Liberty’s deep pockets, though Albrecht said he was unaware of anything pending.

I’ve been brought in to help build this up, and to work with the management team that’s in place and make adjustments where necessary,” he said. “I’m learning a whole new company, but it’s a business I understand pretty well.”

In the wake of his stormy departure from HBO, Albrecht emphasized that the move to Starz comes at a moment when he is “very happy” in his personal and professional life.

I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t think it could be fun,” he said.

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