With "Outlander," Starz Takes a Try at Becoming More Like HBO, Showtime

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article said that Starz stock is down 70% over the past year, which is incorrect. Starz began trading as an independent entity on Jan. 14, and its shares have roughly doubled since. The Fool regrets the error.

Outlander Executive Producer Ronald D. Moore. Source: Starz.

Starz (NASDAQ: STRZA  ) began production on Outlander this week, its latest try at a hit original TV show.

The show is based on the hit book series from author Diana Gabaldon and tells the tale of a married former WWII combat nurse transported in time to feudal Scotland, where she proceeds to fall in love with a young warrior. Ron Moore, one of the principal architects of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series that won awards for the Syfy channel, is executive producing Outlander for Starz.

We've seen this strategy work before. HBO has turned George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series into the monster hit Game of Thrones. Another Time Warner show, ratings winner The Vampire Diaries, is based on the L.J. Smith books of the same name. Over at Showtime, screenwriter James Manos Jr. turned author Jeff Lindsay's novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter into an epic drama that just finished its eighth and final season.

So that's the good news. The bad? Starz has a checkered history with originals. Boss and Magic City ended after two disappointing seasons. The White Queen, a 10-episode series developed in concert with the BBC, scored well in the U.K. but remains a one-off. Starz shows earned just three Emmy nominations during what amounts to a Golden Age for cable television programming.

Comparing that record with what HBO has achieved would be unfair. But what about Showtime, Starz's other pay TV peer? Californication has already run six seasons and is due for a seventh. Nurse Jackie has five seasons in the books. And Homeland, about to enter its third season, was a serious contender for Outstanding Drama Series at this year's Emmy Awards. Actress Claire Danes won Outstanding Lead Actress In a Drama Series for her role as CIA analyst Carrie Mathison.

Production success has led to financial rewards. According to CBS' (NYSE: CBS  ) latest quarterly report, Showtime serves 77 million subscribers currently, up from 75 million last year at this time. What's more, cable networks revenue grew 16% in Q2 versus 8% in the June 2012 quarter because of, among other things, "higher licensing revenues from digital streaming of Showtime original series."

If only Starz could claim similar success. Then again, the network has to start somewhere.

I'm rooting for Outlander and Starz's other forthcoming original, Black Sails. Heck, as a Battlestar Galactica fan, I'll probably watch Outlander on principle. But if history is any guide, I'll be in the minority. Therein lies the problem for investors. I'd find it tough to recommend Starz stock without first seeing ratings momentum among its original properties.

Think I'm wrong? Are you watching Starz originals? Tell us about it in the comments box below.

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  • Report this Comment On October 08, 2013, at 8:53 PM, bodhidolma wrote:

    I recently watched White Queen and thought it was very good. I have no doubt there will be an audience for Outlander. This wildly popular book has sold 20 million copies worldwide; all 7 books in the series have been on the NYT best-selling list, and the author (Diana Gabaldon) has hundreds of thousands of fans worldwide and is currently finishing Book 8 and will write one more.

    Then, there are people like you who will check it out because it's Ron Moore. I'm pretty sure you (and they) will stay. I certainly hope Starz stays around, because I for one would like to see this play out all nine seasons!

  • Report this Comment On October 08, 2013, at 10:16 PM, BonnyScot wrote:

    Really looking forwArd to this series. Just hope we get here in Australia.

  • Report this Comment On October 09, 2013, at 5:51 AM, gkarlkvist wrote:

    I for one will be watching the Outlander series. I am not yet a Starz subscriber but I will become one with the premiere of Outlander. Diana Gabaldon is my favorite author and I am also a fan of Ron Moore. Nothing could keep me from watching this series.

  • Report this Comment On October 09, 2013, at 6:59 AM, JennyCVA wrote:

    I am already a Starz subscriber but would also have become a subscriber _for_ this series. I am a fan of Diana Gababldon's books and love following @writer_DG and this show's male lead, Sam Heughan @heughan, on twitter. The female lead is Caitriona Balfe @caitrionabalfe, and a Hobbit favorite Graham McTavish @grahammctavish is another principal on twitter.

    I enjoyed Pillars of the Earth and now watch White Queen on Starz.

    Starz is investing quite a lot on this series by contracting with director, John Dahl, director of Breaking Bad, to direct the first two episodes of the 16 episode first seasons (which follows Diana Gabaldon's first book Outlander).

    You need not have read the books to enjoy the series. I hope you'll join me in watching this show come April 2014.

  • Report this Comment On October 09, 2013, at 7:18 AM, MSuasoSC wrote:

    I have been waiting for the Outlander Series to come to TV and I'm so glad that it has finally made it!! I fell in love with the series over 11 years ago and still continue to read the books today over and over. Diana Gabaldon's books are beautiful written and once you start reading you can't put it down.

    You don't have to have read Diana's books to be able to follow and watch the series, I have watched Spartacus, DaVinci's Demons and now White Queen, without knowing what the story was about and loved them all. Now, I'm looking forward to Outlander and will be watching April 2014...Thank you all that are involved and Starz for bringing the Outlander series to life!!!

    Join the Outlanders in April 2014, for a story that involves time travel, love, history and so many other things...You will love it :-)

  • Report this Comment On October 09, 2013, at 8:27 AM, Hairyb wrote:

    I think that Starz is trying to find the right shows that fit their network. Starz went on the air in 1994 as a movie channel and just started original programming about 5 years ago. However, there a major problem Starz does have.

    Unlike HBO and Showtime model, Starz is an independent company that is doing OK. However, in a few years, they need to find a major buyer that can provide a larger budget for original programming and advertisement. I am not saying that HBO and Starz need to merger together, but I think Starz has less money for production cost compared to the other pay channels.

    HBO is owned by Time Warner and Showtime is owned by CBS. HBO and Showtime has the power to promote their shows across their sister networks (for example a HBO show can be promoted on CNN or TNT, both Time Warner properties). Starz doesn't have those connections to promote their shows. That is why "Boss" and "Magic City" really didn't do well on Starz because they didn't promote the shows very well. Starz need to advertise their shows, especially with their upcoming show "Black Sails."

    I really do think that "Black Sails" could be a hit for Starz, but they need to promote it like it's the next big thing!

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