The mere existence of Epix is something of a media miracle.
The premium network launched in 2009, to the shock of industry observers, during the depths of the financial crisis after distribution talks between Showtime and Paramount Pictures hit the rocks. Epix immediately faced a wall of skepticism about carriage, about the viability of its suppliers (along with Paramount, they were the nearly bankrupt MGM and pre-Hunger Games Lionsgate), plus the notion of the world needing yet another channel.
Seven years later, the landscape is hardly less crowded, but Epix has surprised doubters by carving out a sustainable niche, racking up 15 million U.S. subscribers from a total reach of 50 million homes. It will be some time, if ever, before Epix nears the subscriber rolls and prestigious profiles of HBO, Showtime and Starz. But the network is emboldened to execute Step 2 in the plan, a familiar evolution in the premium sector: scripted originals.
The network wants in on the originals party, and entering the Peak TV fray will make it once again a decided underdog. But its two fall launches—the serendipitously prescient political comedy Graves and spy thriller Berlin Station—both carry pedigrees in terms of underlying material and production partners, and the push has already gotten the notice of the talent community. Mark Greenberg, Epix president and CEO, says this was always the strategy. Scripted series were “part of our original business plan,” he says. “We need to be owners of content, not renters. We want to be closer to the consumer.”
Post-theatricals still do a lot of heavy lifting at premium networks, comprising nearly 80% of the linear schedule and powering OTT offerings. But originals are what brings buzz, Emmys and talent relationships. That said, Epix’s hopefuls will enter a competition with more than 400 other scripted series. “There’s a lot of great content out there, and breaking through is going to be a challenge,” says Seth Geiger, founder and president of media consultancy SmithGeiger. “We talk a lot about the battle for screen time—it’s brutal right now.”
Born of Conflict
Epix launched in Verizon FiOS households in fall 2009 after the three studios broke off their relationships with Showtime. Carriage deals with Cox, Mediacom, Dish and Charter were signed within six months following the launch.
While the marketing slogan stated “We Get Big Movies,” Epix tried—true to Greenberg’s blueprint—to get an original series up and running. It greenlit Jenji Kohan’s country music drama Tough Trade, only to pull the plug on it in 2010. Laverne McKinnon was the net’s development chief at the time, but left the company in 2011 before any scripted originals hit the air—sending a mixed message to Hollywood about how interested Epix was in developing its own network-maker, its own Sopranos.
Epix took the safer route of special programming, primarily concert and comedy specials featuring the likes of Katy Perry, Pink, Marc Maron and Craig Ferguson. The network also made a play into original documentaries. Hockey docu The Road to theNHL WinterClassic, announced in 2014, was a “test run,” says Greenberg, for a channel still keen to own, not rent.
The net has taken a similarly circumspect approach toward OTT. While rivals have committed resources to bespoke stand-alone offerings, Epix has been more interested in, for example, striking a deal to provide movies to Dish’s Sling TV while keeping all distribution options open.
After gun debate documentary Under the Gun’s strong showing at Sundance earlier this year, Epix acquired the Katie Couric-produced film, which premiered on the channel in May, receiving some admiring reviews but also criticism over its editing. Last week, Epix debuted Serena, about the tennis icon Serena Williams.
In order to crack the code on original series, Epix needed a strong development chief. In early 2015, Greenberg lured Jocelyn Diaz from HBO, naming her executive VP of original programming. He spoke of Diaz enabling Epix “to take this to a new level with original scripted series that resonate with our viewers.”
Besides her time as head of drama development at HBO, Diaz was VP of production at Walt Disney Studios and worked at ABC. She said the prospect of being part of premium cable’s scripted revolution was exceedingly attractive. “They’re unencumbered stories—they don’t have a lot of restrictions,” Diaz told B&C. “The chance to be on the ground floor, to build something—it certainly was not an experience I had before, and it was too great to pass up.”
Geiger says there was little future for Epix with movie titles—even with blockbuster franchises like Transformers or Twilight—up and down its grid. “It’s hard to be a linear movie channel in a world with immediate access to a huge encyclopedia of movie titles,” Geiger says of the array of films available on Netflix, iTunes and other digital platforms. “That’s really anachronistic these days.”
When Epix finally announced the two scripted series a year ago, it had missed its initial target date by at least a few years. Greenberg says a 2014 carriage deal with Time Warner Cable was the key to a firmer distribution foundation, which helped empower the move into originals.
“We want the brand to resonate for the long run,” Greenberg says. “We learned a lot about what goes on in the value-added space.”
The single-camera, half-hour Graves and hour-long Berlin Station debut in October. Graves, from Lionsgate, features Nick Nolte as a former U.S. president who is seeking to make amends for his feckless performance in the Oval Office. Sela Ward plays the former first lady, who is compelled to run for the Senate. “It’s Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton all rolled into one family,” quips Greenberg. “Maybe we got a little lucky with this show.”
While it’s technically a comedy, Diaz believes Graves will touch on timely sociopolitical issues. “It comes at an opportune time,” she says. “We have a chance to be part of the national conversation.”
Diaz describes Berlin Station, from Paramount and Anonymous Content, as “modernday spy genre” along the lines of John LeCarre’s novels. Bradford Winters (The Americans, Oz) is running the show. Centered on a leak within a CIA base of operations, Berlin Station is shot on location in Germany. “It’s a truly theatrical-quality production,” says Greenberg, who adds that Epix is experimenting with virtual reality components for the series.
Sunday is obviously the prestige night for elite cable’s brand-defining series. Epix has not yet announced which night the shows will air, though Greenberg says it’s likely to be Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Moreover, there’s a “strong possibility” Graves and Berlin Station will occupy the same night.
Both will enjoy multimillion dollar marketing budgets, Greenberg adds. Down the road is Get Shorty. Based on the Elmore Leonard novel that spawned a 1995 feature film, Shorty will start shooting in the fall. Diaz likens the project to FX’s Fargo, where a fresh set of characters have but a tangential connection to the original intellectual property.
Epix’s development process is somewhat unique. Instead of shooting capital-draining pilots, the upstart channel goes straight to series, requesting five seasons’ worth of scripts from executive producers. Like any premium cable channel—or any broadcast, cable or digital network making originals, for that matter—Epix is looking for strong voices. “It should be as distinctive as possible,” Diaz says.
Ben Tappan, Epix VP of scripted programming, summed up the challenge of developing and launching shows in the peak TV era earlier this month during a panel on scripted content at the Banff World Media Festival. “You can’t just be good anymore,” he said. “You have to be extraordinary.”
The Epix shows have comparable budgets to most anything in premium cable, shy of Game of Thrones, asserts Diaz. With the series premieres just months away, she is equal parts excited and anxious. “It’s certainly daunting and a little scary,” Diaz says. “But you just have to close your eyes and jump in the pool.”
Cost of Entry
Epix aims to swim with the sharks. In 2016, Netflix will spend $5 billion on programming, with SVOD competitors Amazon at $1.7 billion and Hulu $1.5 billion, according to RBC Capital Markets. HBO will spend about $1.8 billion on programming this year, forecasted Morgan Stanley, while Showtime and Starz are upping their costs while battling HBO for Emmys and subscribers.
Along with the scripted stuff, Epix is staying true to its documentary roots. In September, it will debut four-part docuseries America Divided, executive produced by the somewhat unlikely holy trinity of Norman Lear, Shonda Rhimes and Common. The series touches on equality in education, labor, criminal justice and other departments, with Lear on air for a segment on housing.
Epix looks to compete on all platforms, and has implemented a TV Everywhere strategy since well before it was commonplace. A day before the linear channel launched, Epix’s on-demand streaming service, which requires subscriber authentication at Epix.com, debuted. It was also a pioneer in getting its stream running through Roku, Xbox and PlayStation 3, the latter early in 2013. Last fall, Epix began allowing authenticated subs to download movies to their Kindle Fire, iOS and Android devices for viewing when they are offline. It also shifted 2,000 of its movie titles from Netflix to Hulu just before Hulu announced a skinny bundle plan.
“We’ve had a digital strategy from the get-go,” says Greenberg. “We’ve been very committed to that.”
It’s the scripted series that will either elevate or relegate the brand. The risks are huge, but so is the upside for a project done just right. “I feel like it’s a great path for them,” says Rajiv Menon, research executive at media branding outfit TruthCo. “We’ve seen it work for Cinemax and Starz, and I think it’s a huge opportunity for Epix.” And it only takes one hit to define a cable brand—one Mad Men, one Shield, one Sopranos.
Epix remains every bit the scrappy upstart. The company has fewer than 100 employees, according to Greenberg—a far cry from HBO’s 2,300 situated around the world. Epix looked at 250 original scripts before settling on the three series in the works, he says.
Getting overloaded viewers to find and embrace the shows will take more than just quality control. “Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good,” Greenberg says. “We hope we’re lucky and good.”
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