Bell Media has signed a multi-year content deal with Starz, the No. 2-ranked premium paid U.S. television platform.
As part of the deal, the channel The Movie Network Encore will get Starz branding next year.
Individual Starz shows have aired in Canada for years, including "Outlander," which will remain on the Corus-owned specialty channel W in Canada, and "Black Sails."
The brand new Starz spy thriller "Counterpart" launched Sunday on CraveTV. Starz has more on the way, including a new adaptation of "Howards End."
Negotiations had been going on for about a year, with officials at Lionsgate — an international entertainment corporation with roots in Vancouver — brokering the deal.
Lionsgate acquired Starz in 2016 for a reported US$4.4 billion.
This is the first time, however, that the entire Starz brand has entered Canada or any other territory outside the U.S.
For Bell, the deal brings all three of the top U.S. premium brands — HBO, Starz and Showtime — under their content tent in Canada.
"Clearly, there's a digital play," says Bell Media president Randy Lennox. "Clearly there's a content play, and incidentally, there's reciprocity in the content play. We have some very active programming and content creation here that (Starz) will be a big brother on, if you will."
Terms of the deal were not announced. Negotiations seem to have been strictly between Bell Media and Lionsgate. "I certainly didn't sense that there was anyone else in the room," says Lennox.
What does Starz get out of the deal? A start on global expansion.
Starz president and CEO Chris Albrecht spent 22 years at HBO, where he was credited with developing such "golden age" hits as "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City," "Deadwood," "The Wire" and others.
Interviewed last week during the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, Calif., Albrecht called expansion into the Canadian market the first step in "proving the point that Starz is a really viable brand outside the US."
Albrecht says negotiations heated up during the Toronto International Film Festival last fall. He noted that Starz originals "The Girlfriend Experience" and "American Gods" (for the first season) were shot in Canada.
The success of over-the-top content providers such as Netflix and Amazon, with millions of worldwide subscribers, has opened all eyes in television to a more borderless business model. HBO has made aggressive moves towards taking their brand outside America, especially in on-demand, streaming platforms. Starz wants in on the same international playing field.
"Coming in with a partner like Bell is an amazing way to establish a footprint," says Albrecht. "If we can have Starz-branded content outside the U.S., that's a home run for us. You can end up selling to yourself outside of the U.S. The monetization capabilities for these shows become pretty unique."
The move comes on the heels of several recent blockbuster media consolidations. Disney and Fox are in the middle of working out an announced US$52.4-billion asset acquisition. Late last year, shareholders at U.S. media giants Discovery and Scripps approved a US$14.6-billion merger.
Bell's move to "big up" on the content front comes amidst increasing competition from Netflix and others. As Lennox says, "there are a growing number of competitors in the market. Five years ago there were probably five. I count at least 22 today."
— Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.