Epix is getting into the scripted business right at the peak of “Peak TV.” But for channel president and CEO Mark Greenberg, the move into original series is the culmination of a plan first put into place nine years ago.
From the beginning, he told IndieWire, “Part of the game plan was original series.” But first, the premium service, a joint venture between Viacom, Lionsgate and MGM, had to reach critical mass. A deal with Time Warner Cable two years ago upped Epix’s availability to 50 million homes, giving the channel reason to expand its brand.
Under programming head Jocelyn Diaz (who joined in 2015), Epix is kicking off its scripted lineup this fall with the spy thriller “Berlin Station” and the political satire “Graves.” A TV adaptation of “Get Shorty” will follow in 2017. Epix also continues to air specials and documentaries, including the new series “America Divided,” a discussion about inequality in the U.S. from Norman Lear, Shonda Rhimes and Common.
“We’re feeling this is the right time for our coming out party,” Greenberg told IndieWire, on the eve of Epix’s first presentation at the Television Critics Association press tour. “When we got our Time Warner deal then we knew we had turned the ability, we felt like we had enough households to create buzz… We’re now at that place where we’re available in half of the country, and that gave us permission to go into this in a real way.”
Epix launched in 2009, a year after Paramount, Lionsgate and MGM couldn’t come to terms with Showtime on a new film output deal. The network toyed with scripted series early on, developing the Jenji Kohan drama “Tough Trade,” which didn’t go to series. Since then, Epix has focused on concert and comedy specials, as well as sports (including an NHL documentary series).
“Movies will still be an important component because it’s a value equation,” Greenberg said. “That being said, originals help define you. It’s what the press wants to talk about, it’s what Wall Street wants to talk about.”
SNL Kagan research director Deana Myers agreed: “Adding originals is a long-term strategy which I believe will draw the audience,” she said. “Movies remain very important for premium networks as well, but originals enhance the brand and can draw viewers back each week. There is also the benefit of revenues from secondary revenue streams if the network takes ownership in the show.”
“Berlin Station” centers on a CIA operative in Germany who’s trying to find a mysterious Julian Assange-like character who is causing havoc by exposing American secrets. “Graves,” which stars Nick Nolte as a former president who has an epiphany and looks to right his wrongs, tackles issues like illegal immigration.
“[Diaz] read hundreds and scripts and took tons of meetings, and we were very measured about where we land,” Greenberg said. “We wanted to make sure that out of the gate we were making what we felt were meaningful shows.”
Greenberg said the network appeared to luck out that both of its new scripted series (plus “America Divided”) feel timely given the current political landscape.
“I wish I could tell you we had a crystal ball,” he said. “You do try to find things that are hopefully going to be in the zeitgeist to what’s going on in the world and maybe provide some relevance to what’s going on.”
For Epix’s first three scripted series, the channel stayed in-house: “Berlin Station” comes from Paramount TV, while “Graves” is from Lionsgate and MGM is behind “Get Shorty.”
Greenberg said Epix won’t just air shows from its parent companies, but he decided “to leverage the three studio owners because I think they can help us get access to better scripts, better talent and better writers. That has proven to be the case. At the starting position, that was a great place for us to draw on the value and market position of our partners. Hopefully this will define us coming out of the gate of who we are.”
Epix will first see how these inaugural shows perform before deciding how and when to ramp up production. Eventually, Greenberg hopes to premiere “a couple of shows per quarter.”
Several channels have managed to successfully launch a scripted series component in recent years – but Epix faces an additional challenge: A small subscriber base (10.5 million), far below rivals HBO, Starz and Showtime.
To get the word out, Greenberg said the network also plans a “multi-million dollar” marketing campaign for the new shows, while also relying heavily on social media. Epix launched a 360-interactive website for “Berlin Station” and is also looking into virtual reality marketing tools.
According to Greenberg, Epix has been profitable since its first year in operation, and still sees an opportunity to expand its availability beyond the current 50 million homes.
Meanwhile, Greenberg confirmed that the Katie Couric documentary “Under the Gun,” which chronicles efforts to elevate the national discussion on gun safety, would return to Epix late next month. The doc came under fire over certain edits in an interview with a gun rights group. After its initial airing on Epix, “Under the Gun” moved to other pay windows.
“We’re the right platform for that, it’s the right doc, I’m still very proud of it,” Greenberg said. “It comes back on the air in a few weeks. We’ll promote the hell out of it again. I think it’s as relevant today. If we can help facilitate that conversation (on gun safety) and get it to a better place for all of us, I’ll be very happy we made a bigger contribution to life.”
As for Epix’s relationship with Lionsgate, which has sealed a $4.4 billion deal to acquire Starz, Greenberg said his channel still has another five years left on its output deal with the studio. “It’s a little premature for us to speculate on what’s going to happen,” he said. “I think in the near-term it’s business as usual.”