As 'Outlander' starts strong, Starz plays the niche TV game

Mon Sep 8, 2014 3:23pm EDT
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By Piya Sinha-Roy

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A period drama set in the Scottish Highlands, with a sassy female lead caught in a star-crossed time-travel romance may prove to be a turning point in the evolution of premium cable network Starz, as it faces an uphill climb against its well-heeled rivals.

As basic cable and premium networks such as Twenty-First Century Fox Inc's FX Networks, Time Warner Cable Inc's HBO, CBS Corp's Showtime and Netflix Inc's online streaming service ramp up original programming to lure viewers, Starz is gaining a footing with the genre-bending "Outlander."

A romance based on books by Diana Gabaldon, "Outlander" is Starz's key product in drawing female viewers and part of its strategy aimed at developing niche audiences.

It follows Claire, a married nurse in 1940s Britain who finds herself transported back to 1700s Scotland during a second honeymoon trip to the Highlands.

"We're focused on not trying to be everything for everybody, but trying to have a couple of things that are really important to every demographic group that we have," said Starz chief executive Chris Albrecht.

Starz made "Outlander" available on its on-demand platforms a week ahead of its Aug. 9 premiere, drawing 5 million total viewers to date, the largest multi-platform audience in the network's history. The show has averaged nearly 3 million viewers tuning in to new episodes on the Starz flagship channel each weekend since, and its second season has been greenlit.

Demand for period dramas was fueled by Emmy-winners such as HBO's fantasy series "Game of Thrones" and PBS Masterpiece's "Downton Abbey."

"There's an appetite for audiences who are willing to go to places that take them out of their day-to-day reality and into another world," said "Outlander" creator Ron Moore.   Continued...

Claire Randall played by Caitriona Balfe rides a horse with Jamie Fraser played by Sam Heughan in a scene from Outlander. REUTERS/Starz