By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A period drama set in the Scottish Highlands, with a sassy female lead caught in a star-crossed time-travel romance may prove to be a turning point in the evolution of premium cable network Starz, as it faces an uphill climb against its well-heeled rivals.
As basic cable and premium networks such as Twenty-First Century Fox Inc's FX Networks, Time Warner Cable Inc's HBO, CBS Corp's Showtime and Netflix Inc's online streaming service ramp up original programming to lure viewers, Starz is gaining a footing with the genre-bending "Outlander."
A romance based on books by Diana Gabaldon, "Outlander" is Starz's key product in drawing female viewers and part of its strategy aimed at developing niche audiences.
It follows Claire, a married nurse in 1940s Britain who finds herself transported back to 1700s Scotland during a second honeymoon trip to the Highlands.
"We're focused on not trying to be everything for everybody, but trying to have a couple of things that are really important to every demographic group that we have," said Starz chief executive Chris Albrecht.
Starz made "Outlander" available on its on-demand platforms a week ahead of its Aug. 9 premiere, drawing 5 million total viewers to date, the largest multi-platform audience in the network's history. The show has averaged nearly 3 million viewers tuning in to new episodes on the Starz flagship channel each weekend since, and its second season has been greenlit.
Demand for period dramas was fueled by Emmy-winners such as HBO's fantasy series "Game of Thrones" and PBS Masterpiece's "Downton Abbey."
"There's an appetite for audiences who are willing to go to places that take them out of their day-to-day reality and into another world," said "Outlander" creator Ron Moore.
In "Outlander," as Claire attempts to return to her own time, she must rely on her wits to survive among male-dominated Scottish clans, although she finds herself falling for Jamie, a rugged young warrior.
"It's quite unusual that we have a strong female character at the center of the show," said actress Caitriona Balfe, who plays Claire. "She's an every woman."
Starz, founded in 1991 as the Encore Movie Group, has evolved into multiple premium cable channels airing movies and original programming, reaching 23 million homes.
The network previously gained attention for original shows such as historical gladiator series "Spartacus" and regal saga "The White Queen."
In the past year, Starz debuted historical fantasy "Da Vinci's Demons" and pirate tale "Black Sails," both of which skew towards young males, Albrecht said, while gritty New York drama "Power" serves African-American viewers.
The 2015 slate also targets key demographics, with comedy "Blunt Talk" from "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane starring Patrick Stewart, ballet drama "Flesh and Bone" and basketball series "Survivor's Remorse."
"As shows grow and stay on a few seasons, they'll expand to demographics that didn't think they would appreciate it. There are going to be more men watching 'Outlander,'" Albrecht added.
(story corrects total viewership to 5 million and clarifies televised viewership in paragraph 6; removes 'network' from paragraph 11, and corrects 'baseball' to 'basketball' in para 14)
(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Eric Kelsey and Gunna Dickson)