Can Showtime and Starz Become Prestige TV’s New Leaders?

With buzzy shows like 'Yellowjackets' and 'Gaslit,' two traditional networks are challenging HBO and Netflix's cultural supremacy.

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Design by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist.

Few periods in television history are as revolutionary as HBO's early-2000s shift. Rival networks have spent the last two decades chasing the critical and commercial longevity that The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, The Wire, and Band of Brothers inaugrated. And while much of the recent consideration around small-screen supremacy has concerned the ever-escalating streaming wars—revived again in the wake of Netflix's jarring first-quarter subscriber loss—it appears HBO may face renewed challenges from its two longest competitors: Showtime and Starz.

HBO's influence hasn't waned. It remains the most prestigious premium network, with 76.8 million global subscribers across the linear channel and the two-year-old streaming service HBO Max, home to successful exclusives like Hacks, And Just Like That, The Sex Lives of College Girls, and The Flight Attendant. But in the last several months, Showtime has unveiled a handful of series that helped to draw more new customers than any other time in the network's 46-year history, namely the thrilling survival mystery Yellowjackets and the revival Dexter: New Blood (reportedly its most-watched show ever). Meanwhile, Starz lured Julia Roberts and Sean Penn—the créme de la créme of traditional A-list movie stars—for Gaslit, the juicy new drama about unlikely Watergate whistleblower Martha Mitchell.

Both networks have had hits before—in Showtime's case, The L Word, Weeds, Dexter, and Homeland; in Starz's, Outlander and the Power franchise. But as the streaming-service surplus yields an obnoxiously crowded marketplace ripe for further disruption, with networks as varied as HBO, NBC, and (very briefly) CNN launching individual pay-based platforms, Showtime and Starz's ability to tap into classic viewing models proves that more content doesn't necessarily mean better content.

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Christina Ricci, Juliette Lewis, Tawny Cypress, and Melanie Lynskey in Showtime's 'Yellowjackets.' | Showtime

In some ways, this dynamic has been building. When Jana Winograde was promoted to co-president of Showtime in 2019, the shows she calls the network's "legacy hits"—Shameless, Ray Donovan, and Homeland—were coming to an end. Winograde sought to find "the next generation of long-running zeitgeist hit series." It's one thing to lure fresh subscribers, but she needed subscribers who would stick around for more than one or two titles. Out of that pursuit came Yellowjackets, Super Pumped, The First Lady, the Vanessa Bayer comedy I Love That for You, an adaptation of the sci-fi novel The Man Who Fell to Earth featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor, the forthcoming Shailene Woodley series Three Women, a yet-to-be-shot supernatural comedy created by Nathan Fielder and Uncut Gems' Benny Safdie that co-stars Emma Stone, and a Jon Bernthal-led take on the 1980 erotic film American Gigolo. On the movie side, Showtime forged a partnership with trendy studio A24 that includes the rights to older indies like Moonlight and Lady Bird, as well as the premieres of new releases such as The Humans and After Yang.

Winograde and Starz president of domestic networks Alison Hoffman say their networks are not eyeing versions of HBO Max or Paramount+ (the latter owned by Showtime's parent company and formerly called CBS All Access), wherein a growing library of content is produced solely for a corresponding streaming app. With smaller lineups, Showtime and Starz can maintain the streamlined brand identities that elude many of their competitors. Their offerings don't usually echo the magnitude of Netflix's Squid Game, Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, or Amazon's Reacher, but without the same glut of programming, they may sidestep some of the industry's volatility.
 

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Viola Davis in Showtime's 'The First Lady.' | Showtime

"We have a very curated portfolio of shows," Hoffman says of Starz, which in 2021 began an initiative dedicated to series about women and underrepresented demographics. "We are very diligent and purposeful about the shows we choose. We are really focused on the female gaze. It's not a more-is-more approach. Audiences, I think, find it satisfying to watch shows in a linear way, week-to-week—to continue that communal experience."

With 12 to 15 scripted originals per year instead of the hundreds that Netflix releases, Starz doesn't risk dotting its catalog with so many duds. Whip Media, a company that tracks entertainment data, revealed earlier this year that the average Netflix show has a short shelf life, with ratings swiftly declining month-to-month. That means little of its inventory truly seizes the zeitgeist in a long-term sense.

As recently as last year, no streaming service could match Netflix's subscriber statistics or cultural clout. Every competitor under the sun—from platforms like Apple TV+ and Disney+ to old-school broadcast outfits like FX and AMC—looked at Netflix as the industry ruler. Maybe its crown could be punctured, but would it ever fall? The answer, it turns out, is more up in the air than most imagined. Netflix has hemorrhaged a significant 200,000 subscribers in the first quarter of 2022 and expects to lose 2 million more this spring, prompting higher-ups to consider cheaper ad-supported tiers. The resulting existential crisis within the company indicates that Netflix's mythological stature is waning right as megahits Stranger Things, Lucifer, and Ozark take final bows. "The entire town’s rooting against them," a rival executive told The Hollywood Reporter. Netflix's stock price fell 35 percent last month. What better time for places like Showtime, Starz, and FX to fill the gap?

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Greg Kinnear and Courteney Cox in Starz's 'Shining Vale.' | Starz

In addition to Gaslit, which premiered April 22, Starz has P-Valley (returning for a second season in June following creator Katori Hall's 2021 Pulitzer win), the Courteney Cox ghost comedy Shining Vale, the Harlem friendship gem Run the World, a forthcoming adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons, and dramas about the lives of Catherine de' Medici and a young Queen Elizabeth I.

Starz and Showtime may be able to capitalize on the streaming era's slipperiness, but whether either can replicate HBO's sheen is another matter.

HBO and Showtime both debuted in the 1970s, primarily airing uninterrupted theatrical movies, sporting events, and concerts. As onetime USA Networks executive and current TV historian Tim Brooks points out, HBO was the first to "go full-throttle on prestige as a way to draw in subscribers." Television suddenly seemed smart in a way it hadn't before. HBO's numbers eclipsed Showtime's—the former reached about 30 million homes in the '90s, while Showtime hit 20 million, according to Brooks—and the company spent heavily on Emmy campaigns that resulted in high-profile wins for The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Angels in America, and others. Rivals have been chasing that glory ever since, including Netflix, which introduced originals in 2013 with a strong, awards-friendly slate that spanned House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, and an Arrested Development revival. Despite streaming's ascendancy, HBO re-upped its sovereignty in the 2010s with Game of Thrones, True Detective, Veep, Big Little Lies, and more.

Starz got a later start, launching in 1994 as a multichannel system broadcasting theatrical movies according to genres: Starz Encore Action, Starz Encore Suspense, Starz Encore Family, etc. The network didn't dip seriously into original programming until 2007. Head Case (an Ali Wentworth comedy about a therapist to the stars), a spinoff of the Oscar-winning movie Crash, the historical epic Spartacus, and the Kelsey Grammer political drama Boss were among the first premieres, but until Outlander in 2014, nothing caught on. Less than a decade later, Starz is able to attract the likes of Roberts and Penn. If the network can finally make inroads with the Emmys, which a show like Gaslit seems tailored for, that cachet will only grow.

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Sean Penn and Julia Roberts in Starz's 'Gaslit.' | Starz

As of February, Starz claims 31.4 million subscribers. Showtime and Paramount+ ended 2021 with a combined 58 million. Those numbers still fall short of the ones seen across HBO and HBO Max, but the fact that they are rising as Netflix's are falling means there's room for traditional models in the age of cord-cutting.

"Showtime, certainly in the last 20 years, has really been willing to schmooze and offer the big money and go after awards," Brooks says. "Starz, which was really a secondary kind of service, has been rising, too. It's not in first or second place, but it's coming up much stronger behind HBO and Showtime than it ever has before. In middle-class homes these days, people are trying to figure out a hundred streamers and which ones are important enough for them to actually pay for. There's a lot of in-and-out on both streaming and on pay networks. If you can keep them there, month after month, you can make a lot of money on that. It's getting the talent in there to produce these very high-profile, very bankable shows."

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Matthew Jacobs is an entertainment editor at Thrillist. Follow him on Twitter @tarantallegra.