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 Crash, Torchwood: Miracle Day, Spartacus, 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 Banshee, Strike 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 (Crash, Camelot, The 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?
AIRED ON 7/9/2016
Season 2 : Episode 13