Network chief has high hopes for 'Boss'

At Starz, Chris Albrecht is boss, and the irony doesn’t escape him.

The pay cabler is betting heavily on its next original series, “Boss,” which offers Kelsey Grammer his most important dramatic turn in a career dominated by comedy.

The five-time Emmy winner plays a hot-headed Chicago mayor suffering from a fatal neurological disease he’s hiding from both those close to him and his constituents. The series could allow Grammer the kind of genre leap that has done wonders for Bryan Cranston.

Albrecht doesn’t anticipate auds will suddenly forget about “Frasier” while watching “Boss,” but he wants Grammer and the series to put Starz firmly in viewers’ minds. The net, which has made some breakthroughs with its “Spartacus” franchise, is still finding its way in a very busy TV landscape.

“We’ve got to walk carefully and not make mistakes,” Albrecht told Variety from at the Television Critics Assn. confab in Beverly Hills.

“From a programming point of view, there’s always opportunity to do new stuff that hasn’t been done before, but it’s crowded out there,” he said. “We started doing stuff at HBO when there were four networks doing (original programming), and now there’s 40. So that always adds a little different degree of difficulty.”

Even if “Boss,” which debuts Oct. 21, fares well for Starz, the Liberty-owned network won’t reap all of the benefits: The series is produced by Lionsgate. As HBO can attest, significant money is made when networks own their own series. HBO, for example, owns both “Game of Thrones” and “Boardwalk Empire” and makes millions when those shows air overseas.

Albrecht is well aware of that fact, but he sees it as part of the Starz growing process. He believes that no matter who’s paying production costs, the most important thing right now is to get the programs viewed by as many TV watchers as possible; that exposure will make Starz a competitive player.

“We’ve made the decision to look for partners on some of our shows outside of the U.S. because it’s how we’re looking at being able to ramp up,” Albrecht explained. “The trade-off is you don’t control your brand outside of the U.S.”

On the distribution side, Starz — which also includes a multitude of genre channels, as well as Encore — needs to get into more homes in order to better compete with HBO and Showtime. Hurting Starz’s bottom line to some extent is the fair share of households that receive the net’s programming because cable providers, satcasters and telcos are bundling the channels for a discounted price.

One way Starz is differentiating itself from its pay cable competish is that it greenlights series straight from development.

The shortcut comes with risks, however.

“We’ve added a degree of difficulty for ourselves because we’re not doing pilots. We don’t want to spend the money to do them,” Albrecht said. “That’s been a challenging process. One of the purposes of the pilot, aside from being a sales tool, is to look at it as a practice run. You get to go back when you’re in production and fix it. You can’t that when there’s no pilot.”

Albrecht spent 22 years at HBO and spearheaded some of the net’s signature shows, including “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City” and “Deadwood.” He looks back at those times and realizes that if Starz is to be part of the same conversation with HBO, he’ll have to employ a bit of what he learned over there from Jeff Bewkes and company.

“What I take from HBO is a lot of experience and appreciation for how difficult it is and how much we need to apply ourselves here,” he explained. “What I also take away is that it wasn’t a secret formula, but it was a really good formula, and here I’m trying things a little different.

“I feel very good about where we are creatively. I think our best is certainly yet to come, and I feel very bullish that with good strategic thinking and execution on the business side, Starz has a really good story to tell,” Albrecht added. “That was part of the excitement of me coming here, to be able to have that kind of influence on the company.”

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