NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- With its second-quarter earnings set to be released on Wednesday, Starz (STRZA) is looking deliver a report that will push investor enthusiasm higher and build upon what has been a year of big gains for the premium TV network.
Starz's shares have surged 51% since the start of the year to $44.77. New, original series such as the time-travel fantasy Outlander and the business drama Power, which is executive produced by musician Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, have helped elevate Starz's profile among viewers and critics.
And with roughly 23.7 million subscribers, Englewood, Colo.-based Starz has moved into the No. 2 slot among premium TV networks, surpassing CBS's (CBS - Get Report) Showtime in late 2014, according to data compiled by SNL Kagan.
"Starz has an original programming strategy that appears to be working well," said Evercore ISI analyst David Joyce, who estimates that Starz added about 100,000 new subscribers during the second quarter.
But among such highlights, the company's results come at what may be a crucial time for the network given that its partnership with Disney (DIS - Get Report) is due to terminate at year's end. That partnership has given Starz access to a large library of films. Beginning in 2016, Netflix (NFLX - Get Report) will take over the exclusive U.S. pay-TV rights to Disney movies, including the rights to films from Pixar and the Marvel superhero franchises.
To bridge the gap, Starz may be headed to a merger with Lions Gate Entertainment (LGF) given the closer alliance forged when Liberty Media (LMCA) Chairman John Malone sold a 4.5% stake in Starz to Lions Gate in exchange for a 3.4% position in the movie and television studio. The maneuver was widely viewed as a precursor to tying up Starz with the Epix network, which is part owned by Lionsgate.
"The studio content from the Epix partners could help fill the near-term programming void for Starz once Disney leaves," said Ben Mogil, media analyst with Stifel. Mogil added that such a move would also ease the pressure on Starz to quickly find new, original programs to complete its programming lineup.
After entering the original programming arena with shows such as Magic City, set in Miami just before and after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, and the political drama Boss, which starred Kelsey Grammar as a corrupt mayor of Chicago, Starz found its stride over the last year and half with shows such as Outlander, Power and the pirate-themed drama Black Sails.
According to data from Nielsen, Outlander averaged 1 million viewers for each of the 16 episodes in its debut season, which ended on May 30. Starz has also re-upped Outlander for a second season. Power averaged 650,000 viewers for each of the eight episodes in its first season. Power began its 10-episode second season on June 6, and was quickly renewed for third season. Black Sails averaged 600,000 viewers a night for the 10 episodes of its second season, which concluded on March 28, and was renewed for a third season before its second season began airing.
Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters estimate Starz will report a second-quarter profit of 67 cents a share on $443.6 million in revenue. During the year-ago period, Starz earned 62 cents a share on sales of $410.1 million.