HBO, Starz and Showtime ideal homes for exotic worlds

Pay television is increasingly discovering the value of visiting strange and exotic worlds. And no, that isn’t a reference to Baltimore or New Orleans.

As fans pack their Storm-trooper costumes for Comic-Con Intl. — an annual immersion in all things pop culture that will kick off in San Diego on July 22 — several programs they’ll be previewing share a pay TV lineage. That’s in part because pay channels are realizing that traits common among sci-fi and fantasy fandom — cultish devotion, viral communication and, perhaps most important, a willingness to spend money, sometimes lots of it, on that which tickles their fancy — dovetail nicely with the needs of pay-to-view subscription services.

While teens and young women flock to “Twilight,” HBO stumbled into its own lucrative bite of vampire lit with “True Blood,” a series with a wildly appreciative audience base. Last year at Comic-Con, the show’s reception from a screaming crowd brought to mind the Beatles in their prime, if Paul and John had fangs and sucked blood.

Yet that’s just the first salvo of several pay projects to come. HBO is producing “Game of Thrones,” based on the George R.R. Martin fantasy books, which is already causing a storm online.

Starz, meanwhile, found a surprise hit with “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” — which really owes its greatest debt, despite the title, to the movie “300” — and is forging ahead with two other high-profile series: “Camelot,” based on the Arthurian legend; and “Torchwood,” a British spinoff of “Doctor Who” (actually an anagram of its sire) about an ageless alien-fighter that had already won critical plaudits and loyal acolytes on BBC America.

The major networks haven’t completely abandoned science fiction and fantasy (although their appetite for such risks seems limited), and there’s a basic cable network, Syfy, ostensibly devoted to it. Still, pay TV in many respects represents an ideal venue for such adaptations.

The main reasons, like virtually everything else in TV, come down to ratings and money.

Pay services crave attention more than they do mass audiences, and often have the latitude to spend more lavishly on projects than do ad-supported networks. Perhaps foremost, though, dealing in fantasy offers a way to attract a core fan base willing to pay a monthly fee while simultaneously setting themselves apart from the pack.

“It’s particularly good territory for pay TV,” says Carmi Zlotnik, Starz’s recently installed managing director, reuniting him with prez-CEO Chris Albrecht. “Lawyers, doctors, cops — they’re all pretty well done on standard television. … It’s all about differentiating ourselves from what everybody else is doing.”

For Starz, sci-fi/fantasy also meets two key criteria in its programming strategy: offering the equivalent of “popcorn movies,” in series form, apart from the weightiness of HBO and character-driven dysfunction of Showtime; and seeking concepts with international and ancillary appeal, recognizing that trips to other worlds have a way of bridging global borders.

As for the domestic advantages, pay TV is spared the slavish devotion to ratings that have led many thematically similar network series to experience a premature demise.

During Albrecht’s tenure at HBO, the service often described its audience as a quilt, stitched together from various demographic swatches. Using that reasoning, there’s a patch of “Torchwood” enthusiasts, say, who will likely never cancel their Starz subscription provided that the show’s around.

Determining how best to present such material on television is clearly an issue for Warner Bros., which controls DC Comics; and Disney, having acquired Marvel Entertainment. Beyond their theatrical plans, both labels have not only begun making racier direct-to-video animated features but placed a premium on mining secondary characters — ones that have cult followings but lack the public recognition of Superman or Spider-Man — in new platforms.

Of course, these fantastic undertakings can also come at a steep cost, but fortunately, ratings aren’t scrutinized as closely in the pay space as among their broadcast brethren.

“It doesn’t have to be huge, and it doesn’t have to satisfy an advertiser’s needs,” Zlotnik says, adding that such shows need only connect with their target audience.

For these reasons and others, there’s probably never been a better time for TV fans to geek out — provided, that is, they don’t mind paying for the privilege.

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