Starz’s Chris Albrecht on the Challenges of Buzz, Diversity and Budgets

For the first time in more than four years at Starz, Chris Albrecht looked and sounded comfortable as he showed off a new slate of programming for the premium cabler.

Albrecht went off the script at the start of Starz’s Friday session at the Television Critics Assn. summer tour, fielding about 20 minutes’ worth of questions that ranged from his thoughts on the pending MVPD mega-mergers to the struggle for Starz programs to generate pop culture buzz.

SEE ALSO: Chris Albrecht Hunts for Hits as He Reinvents Starz

In the process he dropped the tidbit that he tried to convince Universal to produce “50 Shades of Grey” as a TV series for Starz by offering the studio a three-year commitment.

“I told them you won’t have to worry about box office, you won’t have to worry about a (content) rating,” Albrecht said. His pitch went nowhere, but it was worth a try.

Albrecht talked up Starz’s slate as an effort to broaden the cabler’s viewership base with a wider variety of programs than it has offered before. Those include the filmmaking competition series “The Chair,” coming in September, and new scripted shows from such auspices as Steven Soderbergh and Seth MacFarlane.

Fantasy drama “Outlander” aims to tap into the “Game of Thrones” audience with an epic story based on an established book series, while “The Missing” is an intense emotional thriller revolving around a child abduction.

Two of Starz’s shows, drama “Power” and upcoming comedy “Survivor’s Remorse,” also feature largely African-American casts. “Power,” which has been renewed for a second season, has garnered the largest concentration of African-American households for a pay TV series since “The Wire.”

Albrecht was blunt in noting that “white people don’t (usually) watch shows that don’t have a lot of white faces in them. That’s going to take some time” for the show to build an audience, but he emphasized his support for the series that features Omari Hardwick as a New York City nightclub owner who lives a double life as a drug kingpin. “It’s a really good show,” Albrecht said.

Beyond programming, Albrecht addressed the challenge of breaking new shows and the struggle for Starz shows in particular to garner attention with media and with viewers.

“Maybe we should spend more money on marketing for the second season of a show,” he said, after noting how long it takes for shows to build awareness. And he said he was puzzled as to why some Starz shows don’t get more media attention.

When asked how he feels, as the head of an indie cable programming group, about the wave of consolidation among MVPD giants, with the pending mergers of Comcast and Time Warner Cable and DirecTV-AT&T, Albrecht turned the ham and showed his legs comically shaking. And then he chose his words carefully.

“There’s no reason why it can’t be a win-win,” Albrecht said. “It’s critically important that people don’t use their muscle to take advantage of their longtime partners — who were certainly a part of the success that (allowed) them to make these mega-mergers — there’s no reason why seasoned, fair-minded professionals can’t make this a win-win.”

Albrecht was even forthcoming when asked to contrast his current role at Starz with his old job at HBO. He smiled and noted that he’d had the experience of working with a programming budget “over $1 billion, and with one that is a lot less than that. That means two very different ways of approaching your work in the morning.”

He acknowledged that running Starz, which remains the subject of acquisition rumors now that it’s a standalone public company, “is more challenging than the 22 years I spent at my former premium cable employer … but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun.”

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