By Katey Rich, June 30, 2016
Starz, once a premium-cable network on the upper reaches of the dial in search of an identity, is now a confirmed Hollywood power player—a $4 billion one, at that. Lionsgate announced plans today to acquire the network to the tune of $4.4 billion in cash and stock, creating what a press release touts as “the largest independent television business in the world.”
On the power of mega-hit Outlander, which draws a fervent audience and the kind of weekly speculation that makes it one of television’s few rivals to Game of Thrones–level obsession, Starz has recently elbowed its way into the outrageously crowded market for original TV series. It’s a place Lionsgate was already familiar with; the studio may be famous for producing the Hunger Games films and Now You See Me, but on the television side they have backed Mad Men and Weeds, two shows that paved the way for the original-TV content boom.
The sale to Lionsgate also serves as a redemption story for one of the key figures in creating modern television, Chris Albrecht, the former C.E.O. of HBO who left the company in 2007 amid personal scandals after a 17-year run that saw the debut of era-defining hits The Sopranos and Sex and the City. When he joined Starz in 2010, as he told Vulture he aimed to replicate the buzzy success of those shows, but with a modern twist: targeting “voracious users of social media.” By targeting shows at audiences otherwise underserved by premium TV—such as the women who flock to Outlander or the African-American fan base for Power—Albrecht reasoned, “Those groups, when you can lock them in as fans of something and deliver them the quality, deliver them the experience that they’re looking for, they then are a better marketing tool than a paid ad, or a ‘Nominated for 6 Emmys’ headline.”
Lionsgate knows a thing or two about that audience targeting as well, having built one of history’s only female-led action franchises around The Hunger Games and, through subsidiary Summit Entertainment, created a monolith out of the romantic Twilight novels. A Lionsgate purchase of Starz had been rumored for some time; Lionsgate purchased stock in Starz last year. And the company doesn’t seem to be aiming to make any huge changes on the pay cable network it just purchased; Starz announced earlier this week that Albrecht will remain as its chief executive through at least 2021. Peak TV, and the man who helped invent it, aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.