With Outlander and The Knick, Cinemax and Starz Are Poised to Compete With HBO and Showtime

By Cory Barker

Aug 14, 2014

In the last couple of years, cable networks old and new have taken some big swings with original dramas. SundanceTV took the lead in 2013 with Rectify, and this year, Discovery and WGN America joined the fray with Klondike on the former and Salem and Manhattan on the latter. This expansion into originals isn't surprising; for years, we've seen how this kind of programming can launch middling networks into a different stratosphere. But producing that initial series is just the first step. Despite the buzzphrases we like to throw around, no network becomes "the next HBO" with a single show. Even though I love it when a little guy like WGN America jumps into the ring with its first original series, I'm equally intrigued when a network that's been chugging along and making solid programming for awhile tries to pivot in an attempt to reach the next level. And it just so happens that Cinemax and Starz made that attempt in the same week, with the debuts of The Knick and Outlander, respectively.

As you're surely aware, this isn't either network's first rodeo. For Cinemax (which is of course owned by HBO's parent company), The Knick is original series number four—well, assuming you're not counting all the ahem, "after dark" programming—after co-productions like Strike Back and Hunted and TV.com favorite Banshee. Starz has been pumping out originals in earnest for nearly a decade, including CrashTorchwood: Miracle DaySpartacus, Magic City, Boss, DaVinci's Demons and Black Sails, though only Spartacus and DaVinci's Demons have managed to make it past two seasons. More to the point, many of the Cinemax and Starz's series have been solid-to-good, especially BansheeStrike Back, and Spartacus. To say that either The Knick and Outlander is the first or will become the network's best is disingenuous and speculative. 

However, while a few of the networks' past shows have hit with audiences, both channels are still pretty far removed from the discussions that surround new series on HBO and Showtime. For better or for worse, one of the key things that premium cable networks rely on is buzz. We know that Girls and Masters of Sex don't get as many as viewers as, say, NCIS. But if the right people are talking about those premium cable shows and the word-of-mouth convinces non-subscribers to take the plunge, HBO and Showtime win. Cinemax and Starz typically haven't enjoyed a seat at the buzz table, despite the fact that some of their best programming has been more worthwhile than some of the more frequently discussed shows on HBO or Showtime. With The Knick and Outlander, Cinemax and Starz are trying to join the conversation—and they're doing it in very smart (albeit familiar) ways.

What's particularly smart about both shows is that they take the elements that Cinemax and Starz are known for—blood, violence, nudity, etc.—and combine them with strategies that tend to draw people in. To wit: 


BIG, RECOGNIZABLE NAMES BEHIND THE SCENES


Most notably, The Knick and Outlander are shepherded by very respected and famous creative types in Steven Soderbergh (while The Knick is written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, Soderbergh is getting all the attention for his direction) and Ronald D. Moore. Say what you want about our increasing and sometimes annoying focus on single auteurs or showrunners, but those big names draw people in—especially when they're big names for producing innovative and entertaining stories. Tim mentioned in his review of The Knick that the series will be heaven for all the Soderbergh fans out there, and in the TV world, Moore might have an even more devoted fanbase (depending on how you feel about the Battlestar Galactica finale). Cinemax and Starz have had notable showrunners on the payroll before (Steven S. DeKnight and Frank Spotnitz come to mind), but not like this. Soderbergh and Moore will have a major impact because they'll bring in viewers and because they'll help make good TV.


ON CINEMAX, A BIG STAR ON THE SCREEN

It's not just the familiar talent behind the scenes that makes The Knick a safe bet for Cinemax. Along with Soderbergh, The Knick benefits from a triumphant move to television by Clive Owen, an actor who hasn't been as well-served by Hollywood films as much as he deserves to be. Owen appearing on The Knick isn't as big of a get as Matthew McConaughey on True Detective, but it's still a big deal—and not just because he's a recognizable name, but because he's a really great performer. This is especially beneficial for Cinemax, whose previous forays into original programming haven't featured anyone near Owen's stature (no shots at Antony Starr, Philip Winchester, Sullivan Stapleton, or Melissa George; we're just talking star power here). It's easy to see that the network believes the Soderbergh/Owen combination can bring it some awards attention—another way to make a mark and pull in new subscribers. 


ON STARZ, POPULAR SOURCE MATERIAL

For Outlander, the other big draw isn't the cast but the source material. The show is of course based on Diana Gabaldon's book series of the same name that's sold millions and millions of copies around the world. While Starz is no stranger to projects based on different types of source material (CrashCamelotThe White Queen ), Outlander is on another level as a clear adaptation of an ongoing and popular series of novels. While the Game of Thrones comparisons are easy to make, they're certainly relevant (the good news is that Outlander is quite similar to Game of Thrones, as Lily hinted at in her preview). Trying to appeal to Outlander readers is a smart strategy, and one that probably seemed very current to Starz with Game of Thrones' successes in mind. 


Looking at The Knick and Outlander, it's clear that they employ different—yet similarly prominent—strategies. The Knick is the more star-studded affair, developed with the hope that the old "film stars come to TV!" adage still holds true. Meanwhile, Outlander is the expensive adaptation of a beloved property in the trusted hands of a respected industry veteran, with similar expectations that the material, Moore, or both will help bring in viewers. The Knick and Outlander are better—or at least have the potential to be better—than what Cinemax and Starz have produced up until this point, without departing too much from their networks' other fare. But the slight tweaks are very important when it comes to getting people talking, and it already seems to be working. Both The Knick and Outlander were more highly anticipated and discussed in the lead-up to their premieres than the typical Cinemax or Starz show. 

Note: Discussion in the comments has made me realize it's worth noting that Soderbergh and Owen first pitched The Knick to HBO but the project was moved to Cinemax due to some differences in how HBO likes to develop shows. Soderbergh wanted to move quickly, and that's not HBO's game. So The Knick is really trying the HBO approach, just on another member of the conglomerate family.

What's more, it's not just talk: Starz's pre-release strategy for Outlander netted the pilot 900,000 views before last Saturday's official premiere, and by the end of the weekend, the show had scored 3.7 million total views on various platforms, the largest debut in Starz's history. Similarly, The Knick garnered 1.7 million total views in its first weekend, a very strong number for Cinemax. Ultimately, comparisons to HBO and Showtime can't be made  just yet, but with these two new shows, Cinemax and Starz are much closer than they were before. 


What do you think? Will Starz and Cinemax ever be able to truly compete with HBO and Showtime?


  • Comments (46)
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  • KrzysztofGrzy Oct 04, 2014

    If we are talking about bold moves and new tv series then it should start with the amazing choice of music composed by Cliff Martinez for the Knick! It is just mind blowing good. I know they did it because the music of the beginning of the last century was awfully boring, but still they could go secure with "strings-and-horns" and not with contemporary electronica. Well done!

  • GirishKrishna1 Aug 22, 2014

    I am thrilled about Outlander. I haven't read the books, but this show seems to be going in the right direction.

  • songokou77 Aug 19, 2014

    Why aren't you guys reviewing the Knick also? It is fantastic. It makes me wish a lot of other directors would try their hand at a TV series and not just direct the pilots, even if the show has their style, but to actually direct it all like this seems to be.

  • wudntulik2know Aug 31, 2014

    What happened to The Knick on Friday? Cinemax having a pledge drive?

    Fair show, only just watchable.

  • songokou77 Aug 19, 2014

    Imagine a PTA or Wes Anderson tv series.

  • KitMacKay Aug 18, 2014

    I'm absolutely thrilled that, we're not only getting Outlander, but we're also going to get a second season for the Dragonfly in Amber story.

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  • M_OutlanderFan Aug 15, 2014

    Ron D. Moore has trusted hands for a reason. He's taking a well respected series and honoring its excellence by carefully developing it into a recognizable yet satisfyingly varied adaptation. Well done, sir.

  • Mcarson09 Aug 15, 2014

    Starz really hasn't kept many shows going. I read the first outlander book and I'd rather not watch the show till starz renews it. They really dont play at the same level as HBO.

  • thekaitling Aug 15, 2014

    Starz renewed the series this morning. Are you psychic?

  • Mcarson09 Aug 19, 2014

    ;)

  • BruceBruce836 Aug 15, 2014

    If memory serves me correctly, Kelsey Grammar was nominated and won an award for Boss. I'm really sad that it wasn't able to move pass season 2 and really deserved to have the story wrapped up in a shortened 3rd season

  • BruceBruce836 Aug 15, 2014

    *past

  • Anonymous_A Aug 14, 2014

    Not sure about Cinemax but as for Starz, in time, they probably be a worthy rival for HBO as I predict that Outlander will eventually match GoT in terms of quality in everything. Another great article, Cory! :D

  • firedrakes Aug 14, 2014

    cinemax is owned by the hbo



  • thekaitling Aug 14, 2014

    I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked Outlander. People should give it a shot even if it doesn't sound like something they'd be interested in.

  • Mcarson09 Aug 15, 2014

    You should read the books if you haven't already.

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