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Comcast replacing Starz with Epix in some packages, could drop channel completely

Curtis James Jackson, the rapper and actor better known as 50 Cent, is really, really upset with Comcast.

Over the last few weeks, Jackson has been telling his 10 million followers on Twitter that his hit show POWER could be blacked out for many viewers because a unique arrangement between the cable giant and premium network Starz is changing.

“I can’t even sleep,” he wrote on October 19. “POWER is not airing, Comcast is dropping Starz.”

The tweet was dramatic — and only partially true: Starz is still technically available to Comcast customers, but many of them will soon be asked to pay an additional fee to continue watching the network.

Starz, owned by film studio Lionsgate, is a premium network similar to HBO, Cinemax or Showtime: For around $10 a month, cable and satellite customers are given first-run movies and some original programming without ads or censorship.

Unlike the other premium networks, some cable companies have bundled Starz and its sister network Encore in top tier non-programming packages, essentially giving the channel away to customers who are willing to pay top dollar for general entertainment.

Those days are coming to an end for Comcast customers: Starting December 10, the cable giant will replace several Starz channels with Epix, a multiplex movie network programmed by MGM Studios.

Going forward, Comcast says customers who want to keep Starz will be asked to pay $12 a month to access the network on an a-la-carte basis. Comcast’s deal with Lionsgate lapses at the end of the year, and the cable company says it is possible the Starz channels will be removed entirely on January 1, 2020.

The move has at least two lawmakers upset over the perception that Comcast is moving toward a model that charges customers for a channel that used to be included in some packages.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) last month, Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., California) said the move could “limit choices for may thousands of consumers” in both states and “millions more across the country.”

Earlier this week, the Baltimore City Council voted unanimously to send its own complaints to the DOJ, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) after council members concluded the planned Starz move by Comcast violated a local franchise agreement with city officials in which Comcast promised to offer more diversity in its service offerings.

“We are in a majority black city. POWER is a black show produced by a majority black cast,” Baltimore Council Member Shannon Sneed told the New York Post.

The DOJ was already considering a probe of Comcast over its handling of Starz, though the agency has not formally launched an investigation, according to an earlier Washington Post report.

Comcast argues offering Starz as a standalone subscription is common throughout the industry. They aren’t wrong: Until recently, the biggest pay TV company offering Starz as part of a top-tier programming package was Comcast.

The channel is also available to customers who don’t subscribe to a pay TV service, including Comcast’s internet-only customers. Apple, Roku and Amazon offer Starz programming for $9 a month in each of its streaming services, as do YouTube TV, Hulu with Live TV and others at the same price point. Lionsgate offers Starz direct to consumers for the same $9 a month charged by other Internet TV services.

But none of those systems have the reach of Comcast: Analysts say one-third of Starz’s 25 million subscribers tune in via Comcast. Few of those subscribers purchase Starz a-la-carte from Comcast, meaning most watch because it’s included in their package.

Both sides have until December 31 to hammer out a deal. If a deal isn’t reached, Comcast customers will have to go online to get Starz, which may be cheaper in the long run anyway.

Regardless of whether a deal is reached, POWER fans will only have their show for so long: The series ends at the conclusion of the current season.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 10 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.
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