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Chris Albrecht, CEO, Starz

Having run HBO and greenlit shows including The Sopranos and Sex and the City, Chris Albrecht served a stint at IMG and as an indie producer. Since early 2010 he has been CEO and chairman of Liberty Media-owned premium cable channel group Starz. In August, Starz and BBC Worldwide inked a coproduction pact; Albrecht tells TBI about what that deal means for the US cable channel.

TBI: Was Torchwood: Miracle Day the starting point for you inking a production and distribution pact with BBC Worldwide?

CA: Torchwood was part of the discussion. I’ve had a long relationship with Jane Tranter dating back to her public service [broadcast] days and me being at HBO. When I went to Starz and she came to the US we started talking about working together.

At Starz, we had started thinking about our strategy for ramping up originals in terms of finance and production expertise and the BBC has that and also has great distribution expertise and a great library, so we started talking about a broader relationship.

It also gave us the ability to have one partner for things that we are not producing by ourselves – which is something that we still do have the desire to do. But if a project is not in our hands we know it is in those of people who we trust in terms of licensing our brand [through selling the programmes].

TBI: Doesn’t this kind of deal reduce your flexibility to work with a wide range of producers and talent?
CA: Not every programme has to go through the BBC. We have the ability, if someone else brings us something, to do that and we will also do some things ourselves and retain rights. We are doing that with [upcoming dramas] Noir and Magic City.

We could probably have put on as many hours ourselves, but this agreement gives us the ability to put on programmes that will live up to the promise we make of delivering premium television. It affects the amount of money that we have to invest and ‘de-risks’ the investment for us. It allows us to put more money into more ambitious productions. We would have to be less expansive if we were doing it ourselves.

TBI: When will we see the first show to come out of the partnership?
CA: There are a couple that we are talking about now and we hope to get one into production quickly. How many will there be? It’s an accordion process because we want shows to run for four or five seasons and if you’re talking about 10-12 episodes a year that could be a lot of programming. Given the mutual commitment to extend the agreement, it could easily be a couple of hundred hours of programming.

TBI: Does the deal underline the fact that the TV business is becoming more international?
CA: Just like the theatrical business the TV business will increasingly look to international revenue as a piece of how you evaluate return on investment. It’s happening already and will continue to happen.

TBI: Does bringing on international partners also speak to the rising scale and cost of producing premium cable content; is it getting out of control?

CA: It’s not spiraling out of control. But, look at the basic cable networks, the FXs and AMCs of the world, and they are doing fine drama for sometimes US$2.5 million or US$3 million an episode. In premium, the networks have some advantages over basic in that they can be a bit more adult with their content sometimes, but that alone does not make it worth paying for. There also need to be higher production values.

Because of the advantages of the subscription over the ad-supported model, I compare premium cable shows not to other TV shows, but to theatrical film – TV shows that hold up in the same line as blockbuster theatricals. For Starz to compete in that world, the partnership with the BBC will be crucially important.