When pay TV channel Starz launched in 1994, it was as a competitor to HBO and Showtime in bringing recent theatrical releases to home audiences. In the years since, HBO's original series prompted a transformation of not just cable but all of serialized storytelling, while Starz primarily stuck to movies until the late-2000s. Its 2008 adaptation of Paul Haggis' film "Crash" marked the channel's first serious entry into producing its own scripted programming, running for two seasons and starring Dennis Hopper and Eric Roberts. In 2009, the network produced the Rob Thomas comedy "Party Down," with Adam Scott, Lizzie Caplan and Jane Lynch, which also lasted just two seasons but has become a cult favorite.
Starz found a ratings hit with "Spartacus: Blood and Sand," a sex and violence-filled historical epic that premiered in January 2010. That same month marked the arrival of new CEO Chris Albrecht, the man who oversaw HBO's rise to series dominance. In April of that year, Carmi Zlotnik joined Starz as its Managing Director, responsible for programming, development and production, having worked with Albrecht for 20 years at HBO where he was head of original programming production.
Since Albrecht and Zlotnik arrived at Starz, the channel's programming has gone through a major overhaul, and this year will see the premiere of at least four new series, beginning on January 25th with the pirate action drama "Black Sails" from Jonathan Steinberg ("Jericho") and executive produced by Michael Bay. Also on tap for 2014 are the eagerly anticipated "Outlander," adapted by Ronald Moore ("Battlestar Galactica") from Diana Gabaldon's popular series of novels; "Power," from executive producer Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson; and the second season of David S. Goyer's ("Man of Steel") "Da Vinci's Demons."
In the ninth of our regular series of interviews with network heads, Indiewire spoke with Zlotnik about the evolution of Starz's original series, the ambition behind the enormity of the production of "Black Sails," and his preference for premium television as an environment for creative storytelling.
How do you feel the expectations of TV audiences have changed over the past five to 20 years, and how does Starz's original programming fulfill those expectations?
Audiences have become connoisseurs of television. They're becoming more discerning in terms of storytelling and production value, and all the efforts that go into making these shows are becoming more appreciated.
It's interesting because I've been part of this recent evolution of television. I've watched it from its early days when we were at HBO and see that you couldn't have gotten to "The Sopranos" without having gone through "The Larry Sanders Show," "Tales From the Crypt," "Dream On" and "Vietnam War Story." A lot of things helped us evolve to the transitional step that was "The Sopranos," but ever since "The Sopranos" kicked in the door to what was possible in television, now a whole bunch of entrants have flooded in, which has created this fantastic space for creative people and audiences.
The television landscape in 2014 is so different from when the HBO Original Programming team accomplished that transition you just described. Considering that Starz is a premium channel requiring audiences to opt-in with a subscription fee, how do you set Starz programming apart within such a competitive environment?
I think it's a mistake to think of just the other pay-TV or cable channels as our competition. The reality is that we exist in a landscape where we have to compete against all other forms of entertainment -- movies, video games, books, music -- that are asking for consumers to invest their time or dollars. It's our job to look at that landscape and try to provide something that we feel is compelling.
I look for opportunities to differentiate Starz – what are other people not doing -- but I also look for pure inspiration and ambition. When you have a big emotional response to something you read or something takes your breath away, that's when you know that you've seen a glimmer of inspiration. Those moments act like a fleck of gold that you follow back to a vein, and they really inspire us as programmers.
One of the key things that we ask people when they come in to pitch a show is, "What's it about?" That question provides a doorway into the creators' psyche: What they're thinking about and the kinds of stories they want to tell. It provides one way to ascertain whether that's a rich vein that needs to be mined or something smaller. Then you can tailor what you do programming-wise in order to fulfill that promise.
Some ideas are better served as movies; some as mini-series; some as limited series; or some as series. We exist in a programming landscape where the best practice is to throw out all the rules. Everything has to be bespoke -- custom-tailored to not only the situation, but to the creative idea. That applies to not only the creative approach, but also to the business and production approaches.
Digital technology has certainly played a major role in this "third golden age of television" while also providing audiences with more say in how they experience their stories. How do you see the format of television continuing to evolve over the next five or 10 years, and what role to you envision Starz playing in that continuing evolution?
I've always been a fan of the non-commercial format and pay-TV just because it's inherently a better creative experience. I don't know if there's ever been a psychological study done that's shown how the continuing immersion in a story without being interrupted by commercials deepens the experience for the consumer, but intuitively I know that that experience is deeper because of its continuity and not being broken up by commercials. What we've seen is the expansion of technologies that you can use to the consumer's advantage, and each one adds a different viewing experience and potential.
For the people who want a linear experience, it may be because they want to savor each episode, and they want to engage in a social conversation that really analyzes what they liked about that episode before they go on to the next one. A linear experience congregates all those people together in a moment that enables a conversation. Other people, once they're in that emotional experience, they don't want to stay for just an episode, but they want to keep that experience going. So for them, on demand is great because it provides that option.
Then as the online experience and things like Starz Play come into line, that gives another opportunity for not only an on demand experience but also a portable one. You can take it with you. You don't have to lug around a big screen TV and set-top box. So as each of these technologies continue to roll out, we continue to embrace what activities they enable for the audience and program around that. I don't really believe in just the one-format-fits-all strategy. In terms of just putting all the episodes up as the only approach, that feels a little bit like going to a great restaurant, and instead of being served the meal in courses, everything is run out on the table at the same time. Some people might like that. I don't in particular. I'd rather savor my meal.
So do you believe that creative advantage will push business models towards more subscription-oriented, commercial-free services, of the Netflix or Amazon variety? As opposed to Hulu and Hulu Plus, both which contain ads?
No, I think what you're seeing is subscription-oriented options. It's not like a multi-billion dollar advertising industry is going to dry up and blow away. They have a need, and there will be programming that's made to fill it. Sports, variety and some of these competition shows where you can aggregate a live audience are fantastic vehicles for that. Sports is just live drama. Some things work inherently better for a commercial formatted business, but for storytelling, I think that the pay-TV and the commercial-free model is a better creative approach.