While speaking at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour, Starz president and CEO Chris Albrecht announced that contrary to reports that the show would end due to the loss of lead Andy Whitfield, the network will be producing a second season of Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

As was previously reported, Whitfield was forced to exit the gladiator series to obtain further treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, despite earlier reports the star was free of the disease he was diagnosed with early last year. Now that it is confirmed Whitfield will not return, a new lead actor will be announced in the weeks to come, as production is slated to begin this April in New Zealand.

According to Albrecht, “We’re very confident about where we are in the casting process of finding a lead actor to step into Spartacus’ sandals, though we’ll never be able to replace Andy Whitfield.” While no definitive front-runner has been announced, in November it was reported that Aiden Turner, Liam McIntyre and Stephen Amell were amongst the favorites for the role. Albrecht continued by saying, “It will be fair to say the person will not be a household name, but he will potentially have a pre-existing fan base.”

Expected to begin airing early 2012, the second season of Spartacus: Blood and Sand exposes Spartacus and his fellow gladiators to new environments and characters. According to producer Rob Tapert, this means fans will see a potentially different take on the character for the actor chosen to take over the role. “‘The season two story no longer takes place in the ludus. It’s a different world and different set of shoes to fill,” says Tapert.

While Whitfield’s diagnosis delayed production of the second season, it did lead to a prequel. Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, a six-episode series set five years before the events of the first season, begins January 21 on Starz.

The question now becomes how will the second season of Spartacus: Blood and Sand fair amongst the cast change, a lengthy delay and increased competition? Programs like Camelot, also on Starz, and HBO‘s Game of Thrones will almost certainly piqué viewers’ interest with similar thematic elements, while having nearly a year longer to build their respective fan base. No doubt these concerns played a large role in the creation of this month’s prequel mini-series.

Spartacus: Blood and Sand is slated to returnin in early 2012, on Starz