Network replicates HBO, Showtime playbook

In the world of original programming for cable, Starz is admittedly a latecomer. In 2008 it was able to “Crash” the party, but in 2009 will it be able to “Party Down” as a success?

“Originals are a very important strategy for us,” says Stephan Shelanski, executive VP of programming for Starz Entertainment. “Movies will still be our primary source of product, but we felt getting into originals was important for our growth.”

“Crash” — a series adaptation of the multiple-storyline 2005 Oscar-winning film — represented Starz’s initial foray into hourlong drama last October. Now “Party Down” — a half-hour laffer from “Veronica Mars” creator Rob Thomas about Hollywood catering employees — debuts today, its latest bid for a zeitgeist comedy after the cabler launched its first original series a year ago in January with the sitcom “Head Case.”

Bill Hamm, exec VP for Creative Development at the channel’s sister company Starz Media, says identity is certainly important, but being patient is, too.

“We need to have different pots on the stove all cooking at the same time, and they should all be different,” says Hamm. “Are you good at edgy programs, or female-appeal programs? Until you find out what that is, you should be experimenting.”

Starz is especially bullish about its second greenlit hourlong, “Spartacus,” a 13-part action series from “Spider-Man” helmer Sam Raimi about the legendary warrior slave that will use virtual environment effects a la “300” to bring ancient Rome alive. It’s a style that will not only keep costs lower than usual for an epic-themed series, but looks to take advantage of the current vogue for bloody graphic-novel visuals.

“It’s going to look like nothing else on television,” says Hamm. “Nobody is doing an R-rated action series anywhere in the world right now, so this is opening up new doors for us.”

The early plan is for “Spartacus” — which starts filming this month in New Zealand — to debut either the fourth quarter of 2009 or first quarter of 2010, but in all likelihood it will appear after “Crash” returns for its second season. Although “Crash” never wowed critics, the channel renewed the show — albeit with a creative retooling under new showrunner Ira Steven Behr (“The 4400″) — after sensing that its marketing push had created a strong enough awareness in Starz as a destination for originals.

“It can help us continue to brand our channel,” says Shelanski. “We’re pleased with the new team we’ve got on board to bring it to the next level.”

“Crash” is a co-production with Lionsgate, but with “Party Down” and “Spartacus,” Starz — under its production entity Starz Media — is beginning to generate projects solely inhouse.

“It creates an owned asset for our company that we can create value out of,” says Shelanski. “So on that level, original programming made a lot of sense for us.”

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