"Da Vinci's Demons" on Starz

Newly independent pay company is 'unusual animal,' chairman admits

Starz CEO Chris Albrecht is laser-focused on revving up original programming now that the pay cable group is a solo public company.

Albrecht talked up the company’s plan to expand the breadth of its series offering on Thursday during Starz’s inaugural shareholders meeting, which proved a breezy affair that lasted barely a half-hour with less than 30 people in attendance (including eight board members) at the Beverly Hilton. The eight items up for shareholder vote passed without a peep from the attendees, including the approval of proposals to have shareholders vote every three years in an advisory capacity on executive compensation packages.

But Gregory Maffei, Starz chairman who is also prexy-CEO of its former parent company, Liberty Media, acknowledged the elephant in the room, with prodding from a shareholder question. Starz has been seen as an acquisition target for a larger media company ever since it was spun off in January from Liberty — a move that was seen as Liberty’s way of putting a “For Sale” sign on the company.

“An independent pay service is a relatively unusual animal,” Maffei said in response to a shareholder question about whether Starz needed a partner. Maffei noted that there could be “synergies in programming, bundling and marketing” for Starz and a larger company. “We recognize those as facts in the marketplace,” he added, averring on the question of whether there are any such discussions under way for Starz.

So far, the biggest media congloms have shied away from stirring acquisition chatter about Starz. But the company got an important vote of confidence late last month when Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway disclosed it has amassed a 5% stake in Starz. (One attendee at the shareholders meeting sported a Berskshire Hathaway baseball cap, but it was not clear if he was affiliated with the Oracle of Omaha.)

Albrecht in the brief Q&A that closed out the sesh emphasized that the reaction from investors and the biz to a independent Starz has been “positive.” Since January, Starz’s stock is up 60%, closing Thursday at $21.89.

Going forward, Albrecht said that there will be a lot more effort expended on “ramping up original programming, especially after the decision we made to let the Disney content go” and expanding into new genres. Starz’s loss of Disney film titles in 2017 has raised questions about its long-term future as pay TV outlet, though Albrecht once again emphasized that Starz opted not to renew its Disney pact, which went to Netflix.

Albrecht touted the promise of the cabler’s latest drama series, “Da Vinci’s Demons” (pictured above), which has been renewed for a second season. With multiple plays across the week on Starz’s various networks and VOD platforms, plus DVR viewing, the aggregate aud has been significant. ” ‘Da Vinci’ is a very nice story for Starz,” Albrecht said.

Upcoming series for the cabler in 2014 include fantasy drama “The White Queen” and the Michael Bay-produced pirate drama “Black Sails.”

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