Caitriona Balfe (left), Sam Heughan

Starz could have made Fifty Shades Of Grey. That’s the banner headline coming out of the network’s session at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, at which CEO Chris Albrecht briefly related his pitch to Universal for a small-screen adaptation of E.L. James’ best-selling erotica series. There’s not much to the story—Albrecht presented an offer to the studio, and the studio went another way—but it does speak to the network’s current approach to willing long-tail TV prospects into existence. One literary-based project—the network’s Emmy-nominated acquisition The White Queen—was referred to as “the gift that keeps on giving” during the session, and Albrecht spoke positively of the self-sustaining source material of other best-selling book series.

Of course, attempts to squeeze multiple seasons out of its shows have made Starz something of a premium-cable punching bag in recent years. Its hair-trigger renewal habit backfired in a big way with Boss, which was given a second season before its poorly received first season even debuted. Onstage in front of the TCA today, Albrecht appeared acutely aware of this reputation, laying out his reasoning for applying the early-renewal strategy to Black Sails and Da Vinci’s Demons even though it didn’t work out so well for Boss. Paraphrasing FX boss John Landgraf, Albrecht mentioned that cable programmers aren’t seeing viewers discover their series until three seasons in—so why wouldn’t Starz increase the odds of getting its shows to those vaunted third seasons?


The venn diagram overlap of these talking points is the upcoming Outlander: Albrecht gave no indication if a second season is already on the way for that series, but there are seven more Outlander novels ready for adaptation, along with a handful of related short stories. (And given its particular yen for keeping its shows on the air, surely Outlander’s producers at Sony Pictures Television could muscle a few more books about time-traveling Highland romance out of author Diana Gabaldon.) The series has long been discussed as a potentially Game Of Thrones-sized breakout, with a built-in fanbase that might be amenable to checking out Leonardo Da Vinci’s insane Renaissance adventures or a Michael Bay-produced pirate show. Outlander has been long-discussed in general, dating back to July 2012, at a time when executive producer Ronald D. Moore attached himself to potential projects like some sort of genre-fiction katamari. Perhaps acknowledging the long wait for the show’s arrival, the premiere will be available online and on-demand one week prior to its Starz debut.

In short, 18th century Scotland could be the future of Starz. Or just HBO circa 2001 or 2004: This fall, the network will debut two shows that might as well be its Project Greenlight and Entourage. The filmmaking competition The Chair is Starz’s maiden voyage into unscripted programming, not counting vestiges of the network’s original, Hollywood-focused mission statement; the LeBron James-produced, pro-basketball-themed Survivor’s Remorse marks the network’s first original comedy since the 2010 ends of Party Down and Gravity; (James did not attend the TCA session, as he was busy elsewhere.) Those early-’00s years were Albrecht’s glory days at HBO, so it makes sense that Starz’s potential emergence would mirror HBO’s—to the point that the CEO accidentally referred to Power as The Wire when speaking of the former’s popularity among Starz’s African-American subscribers. And depending on how viewers take to Outlander, Survivor’s Remorse, and The Chair, such comparisons could turn out to be valid.

Stay tuned to The A.V. Club for more updates from the Television Critics Association summer press tour, which lasts through July 23. And be sure to follow TV Clubbers Erik Adams, Sonia Saraiya, Myles McNutt, and Will Harris for up-to-the minute commentary on Twitter.