Premium Programmer: Chris Albrecht

Chris Albrecht joined US pay broadcaster Starz at the start of 2010, a move that reunited him with the world of premium TV, following his departure from HBO in 2007. He talks to Peter White about his plans for Starz.

Chris Albrecht was originally a talent agent at International Creative Management (ICM) before joining Time Warner-owned HBO as senior VP, original programming, west coast in 1985 and became president of the company in 2002. He was responsible for greenlighting shows including Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

However, he left HBO in inauspicious circumstances in 2007. He subsequently joined international producer and distributor IMG Global Media and IMG owner Ted Forstmann’s Forstmann Little & Co investment company, where his biggest deal was the acquisition of the rights to the sport of Slamball, essentially basketball with trampolines. But he left IMG less than a year after his arrival and set up independent production company Foresee Entertainment.

Last year at MIPCOM he announced plans to produce The Borgias with French pay TV broadcaster Canal+, Lagardere Entertainment-owned Atlantique Productions, EOS Entertainment and Beta Films.

“I’m very interested in being able to spend more time learning the business outside of the US. I see it as an important solution to [broadcasters’] problems,” he told TBI at the time. “It’s the beginning of a template that we can use to do real coproductions.”

But a few months later he was appointed president and chief executive of Liberty Media-backed Starz, where he is responsible for Starz Entertainment, Overture Films, Anchor Bay Entertainment and Film Roman.

He has already made a number of programming moves including acquiring the US rights to Tandem Communications’ miniseries The Pillars of the Earth and has set up his first original production Camelot in association with GK-TV, the recently launched TV division set up by The Departed producer Graham King as well as announcing a number of drama projects in development with Ben Silverman’s Electus including William the Conqueror and Peacekeeper.

The question is where will he take Starz now.

Why did you decide to join Starz?

This was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Starz has been making real progress on the original productions front, and we have so much potential to do a lot more. A premium service like Starz provides a very appealing opportunity to create programming that is fresh, entertaining and unlike anything already on TV.

And while I enjoyed being a producer and working from scratch on a number of very exciting projects – some of which might still surface – I like the challenges and rewards of being a programmer and executive even more.

What’s your programming strategy at the channel?

The short answer is “still evolving.”  An overall strategy isn’t something that I want or need to rush into. And we had some particular holes to fill and situations to deal with right away, which perhaps delayed some of our more over-arching plans, which isn’t to say that our recent deals run contrary to what we’ll do in the near future.

I can say my programming strategy will certainly focus on the need for us to produce and schedule shows that are highly entertaining and that give the feeling of being premium in quality and substance. There are multiple choices for viewers on TV, on satellite services, online; our job is to provide these viewers with programmes they want to see and that they can’t see anywhere else.

Do you see any similarities between HBO when you joined and Starz?

When I got to Starz at the start of this year, the landscape for premium programming was dramatically different from what it looked like when I joined HBO two decades ago. Back then it was still really only the big broadcast networks that produced and programmed original series. It was all but unheard of for cable channels to schedule originals. That’s obviously changed now.

But the similarity between the two services is that subscribers expect a premium experience. That means series with exceptional production values, stellar casts and provocative, original stories. The usual TV procedurals or discount programming wouldn’t have worked at HBO and wouldn’t work at Starz either.

How do you see the competition between the channels?

It’s not really a battle. It’s not just four networks competing. In our business most subscribers have two or three channels so we’d like to be the second one in every HBO home and the second one in every Showtime home. I’m not really sure what Epix is.

Would you consider launching Starz internationally?

Perhaps we’ll build platforms overseas. It’s a lofty goal but if you talk about monetising your content overseas, you want to monetise the brand overseas.

The channel has been ramping up its plans for original production with series including Spartacus and Party Down. What are your plans for original content?

Originals will certainly be a major part of our programming line-up. Just how much and what it will be is still being worked out.

We got into business with an extremely talented team when we ordered Spartacus: Blood and Sand. They created a truly original programme, and I expect we’ll be working with similarly accomplished producers in the months and years ahead.

What type of shows will you be looking for?

The new model is if it’s got a sword, we want it.

When I was at HBO we got criticised when we did too much period and then we got criticised for doing too much in New York. So when the Mad Men script came in, I said we definitely couldn’t do it. That’s when I started letting other people mess up my head.

Will you try and take international distribution rights to these new series you commission?

I’d like to be to financially powerful enough to take all rights but we need to be flexible. If there’s only US pay rights, I’ll still make a deal. If I need to fully finance it I will do that, every deal will be different. We need to be in the distribution business of our product.

You’ve acquired the Ridley Scott-produced big-budget event series The Pillars of the Earth, is this a marker for the types of series you intend to acquire? How important is the international television market for you?

The television business is changing, and becoming more global in scope, so we’ll definitely be looking beyond US borders to find the on-screen as well as production talent, financing partners and distribution outlets for our shows. The first big deal I was involved in when I came to Starz was to pick up US rights to the eight-hour event series The Pillars of the Earth, based on Ken Follett’s book. It’s a true international coproduction, and one with the ambition and entertainment value that we’re looking for.

Will you still be involved in the Canal+ drama The Borgias?

I’m still involved, though the effort is being driven by Takis Candilis and Klaus Zimmermann from Lagardere Entertainment, along with Tom Fontana and Anne Thomopoulos I’ll still exec produce if it ever goes. We tried to see if there was some way to merge the two [competing versions], but it didn’t happen. It is currently still trying to find the right level of financing.

Will Foresee Entertainment still exist?

My focus is on Starz and its far-reaching divisions and capabilities at the moment. But Foresee is still committed to some projects and will fulfill its obligations on those.