Will LeBron James’ TV Show Be a Slam Dunk on Starz?

LeBron James is the inspiration and producing talent behind a new TV show on Starz. Will it be a winner?

Feb 12, 2014 at 10:55AM

He Got Game, Blue Chips, maybe Hang Time, and possibly a handful more -- the number of movies and TV shows that accurately portray the sport of basketball is short, and most are over a decade old. A new project from Starz (NASDAQ:STRZA), though, could change that. It doesn't hurt that it's backed and inspired by LeBron James.

Will it be successful?

The background
Titled Survivor's Remorse, the series will follow the fictional Cam Calloway, "a basketball phenom in his early 20s who is suddenly thrust into the limelight after signing a multi-million dollar contract with a professional basketball team," according to Starz. In the story, Calloway's business manager is expected to be modeled after Maverick Carter, who works closely with James at LRMR.

With a home on Starz, the show will reach more viewers than CBS's (NYSE:CBS) Showtime and Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) Cinemax.

Premium channelHouseholds with access% of U.S.
Encore 42 million 36%
HBO 32 million 28%
Starz 29 million 25%
Showtime 28 million 24%
Cinemax 20 million 18%

Source: TV By the Numbers.

If Survivor's Remorse is simulcast on Starz's sister Encore, it can also reach more viewers than HBO. Although such a move is no guarantee, the network has shown Da Vinci's Demons on both channels.

In terms of sheer potential, Survivor's Remorse could have the biggest audience of any premium cable show. But that doesn't mean that all those people who receive the channels will actually watch the show.

Viewers per Episode, in millions*
Starz   HBO  
Black Sails 3.5 Game of Thrones 5.4
Spartacus 2.7 True Blood 4.5
Magic City 2.5 Boardwalk Empire 2.4
Da Vinci's Demons 2.1 The Newsroom 2.2
The White Queen 2.1 Veep 1.3

Source: TV By the Numbers. *Full weekend total, 2013-2014 season high.

Ratings data from this season indicates that Starz originals typically don't do as well as shows from HBO. In the 2013-2014 season, the top five Starz shows averaged a peak viewership of 2.6 million. By comparison, HBO's five best averaged a peak viewership of more than 3 million. Starz simply doesn't have a behemoth like Game of Thrones or True Blood at the moment.

Going further
Survivor's Remorse will have to outperform all of its Starz peers to be considered an über-hit, but don't expect it to get booted if it averages viewership between 1 million and 3 million.

Historically, basketball dramas and comedies haven't been very expensive to make -- there aren't a lot of special effects or expensive set pieces required -- and in this instance, Survivor's Remorse was given a fast-tracked development. Starz appears to be interested in the concept beyond its six-episode debut season.

But how much money will it make? That remains to be seen.

Unlike traditional cable programming, networks like Starz are in the business of reeling in -- and keeping -- subscribers. As Slate put it, "since the premium cable networks produce just three or four episodes of original television each week, they need to attract positive attention" or "buzz," adding, "the more [an original] show...dominates the cultural conversation, the more people will sign up."

In terms of sheer subscriber growth, Starz has been performing well over the past year.

Estimated Subscriber Growth, 2012-2013
Starz 5.8%
HBO* 5%
Showtime 3.1%

Sources: Media estimates and company reports. *Includes sister channel Cinemax.

When Survivor's Remorse is given to the network's already-expanding pool of viewers, the allure of LeBron James and NBA basketball could provide the "buzz" that most of its offerings lack.

Aside from Spartacus, Starz has no players among Pay TV's 12 most popular shows, according to user polls. Showtime and HBO, meanwhile, have nine between them, including Homeland, The Newsroom, and Game of Thrones, among others.

The future
Starz has made over $1.3 billion in revenue its past three quarters, and assuming Survivor's Remorse is cheaper to produce than bigger budget series like Game of Thrones (about $6 million per episode) and Camelot ($7 million each episode), it could stick around a while.

Images

Image via Keith Allison, Flickr.

The Wall Street Journal pegs the cost of an average network drama at or a bit above $3 million per episode, and any show based off of LeBron James and Maverick Carter's experiences has two things going for it most don't. First, it won't be forced to feature expensive actors, and second, it will get a boatload of free viral marketing. 

Starz told me they aren't releasing information on when Survivor's Remorse will debut this year, but if they were smart, it would coincide with the NBA's regular season tipoff in late October. Even if he doesn't win the Finals or a league MVP this year, James is a marketing force -- according to NBA.com, his jersey has been the most popular five times on the league’s lists of domestic jersey sales, including the most recent sales report. He will undoubtedly generate plenty of hype for his upcoming TV series.

For a network that's generating solid subscriber growth without a clear No. 1 like HBO's Game of Thrones or True Blood, LeBron and Survivor's Remorse might finally give Starz the slam dunk it's looking for. At the very least, the reward outweighs the risk of a show that's probably going to be cheaper to make than most.

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