Why Premium Cable Network Epix Is Leaping Into the Crowded Scripted Series Field

It's looking for its version of Mad Men

Headshot of Jason Lynch

Peak TV—as many as 450 scripted series will air this year—is about to get even more crowded, thanks to Epix.

The premium cable network, which launched in 2009 and is jointly owned by Paramount, Lionsgate and MGM, is debuting its first pair of scripted series on Sunday: Spy drama Berlin Station, about a CIA agent trying to find out who leaked information to a whistleblower, and political comedy Graves, starring Nick Nolte as a former U.S. President who decides to reclaim his political legacy 25 years later.

Epix president and CEO Mark Greenberg spoke with Adweek about why his network needed to try its hand at scripted TV, the impact of co-owner Lionsgate acquiring one of Epix's competitors, and whether his scripted shows will end up on Hulu and Amazon alongside Epix's theatrical titles.

Adweek: Why was it important for Epix to branch out into scripted?

Greenberg: We get great value to our consumers by the movies that we get from Paramount, Lionsgate and MGM and then Roadside Attractions and [Samuel] Goldwyn supplement. But I think you really do need original series to define your brand.

How did you decide what to search for?

You have to say, what's your filter for that brand? And authenticity is an important part of it. So when we looked at Berlin Station, it's really easy to do a spy thriller that blows them up every other week right. It's 24 all over again. But our decision on that show was we think the storytelling was a little bit smarter. For our brand, for our audience, that will reflect our attitude to what we do. And if you take that and you take Graves, which is an opportunity to take on a lot of social issues in an entertaining way, those are brand definers. 

Are you debuting both a drama and a comedy at the same time so you're not pegged as being just one thing or the other?

You've seen that out of other networks. They seem to be the same kind of iteration with a different window dressing. And even what we did with [upcoming series] Get Shorty, which is sort of a hybrid of the two. We really wanted to make sure that we can create range. But Get Shorty was one that we liked the best and we think for all the right reasons. For us, that's going to be the method to which we go into. It isn't like we're looking for a procedural. We will find what we think are great shows and I think the filters based on our audience of what we need to deliver. I think in this environment today, when you have a more authentic voice in anything you do, you're better off. 

Your shows will debut on Sunday, which is the same night all the other premium cable shows debut. Is that because Sunday is considered TV's prestige night?

One of our competitors [Starz] used to be on a different night and they moved to Sunday. Why?  Because if you can't play prime time, don't play. We have an amazing conviction to what's there. We'll take [docuseries] American Divided which will premiere on Friday nights, but we will rebroadcast a second play of that on Sundays at 8 p.m., [after] 60 Minutes, 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. I think that might get some audience flow that helps build Berlin Station—compelling, gritty, interesting—going to Graves at 10 p.m. 

Stephanie Kulbach for Epix/Paramount

Given what a divisive figure Rudy Giuliani has become in this election, especially in recent weeks, was there any thought given to removing his cameo in Graves, which now has a much different connotation than it did when it was filmed?

While the cameo appearances of Rudy Giuliani, Michael Steele, Barney Frank and others introduce fun notes of reality into the story, recent events have not led us to consider changes in the show or to remove any segments. We do continue to be amazed, however, at how life is imitating art in today's political climate, surpassing even some of the most outrageous themes of our fictional former President and his family.

You did a streaming output deal with Netflix a year into your run, and now have deals with Hulu and Amazon to stream your theatrical content. Would you consider expanding your streaming deal and putting your original series on Hulu and Amazon as well?

Maybe. We're still [feeling], let's get the launch out and see how that works. Our original deals never contemplated that.

Lionsgate, which is a part owner, has acquired Starz. Does that change anything for Epix now that Lionsgate owns a competing premium cable network?

For the moment, we're in a good place with them. We have their theatrical output until the end of the decade. That's a long way away. We're in business with them on original series, and that will continue. We have other things in development with them. They still have a 31 percent equity interest to see this thing be successful. I think we have a lot of unanswered questions, and that's out of my pay grade level. I don't see anything changing materially in the near term. And then as we go on we'll evolve. But we're talking about extending their output agreements, despite the fact that they had this. So for us, it's business as usual.

Whenever a network branches into scripted, it's not an overnight success. So what's your barometer for success in the first year with scripted shows?

It's sort of this reservoir of goodwill: Are we getting good reviews? Are we getting people watching? Are we getting people who are talking about the show? So if you look at what Mad Men did for AMC, it that helped begin the process for them. It never delivered great ratings, but it did hit the zeitgeist of people in the marketplace, then Breaking Bad comes on the heels of that. We know one show isn't going to make this, but we want to make sure we start out with what we hope is our version of Mad Men. We hope we get a little better rating than they did, but if it doesn't, it still creates value. 

You have a lot of shows in premium TV that are on our competitors that are not highly rated either, but have a patina to that. So that's why I come back to the reservoir of goodwill. That's somewhat subjective. There are shows that just don't play out, and you'll know that. As that [Supreme Court Justice] once said, "Pornography, I know it when I see it." And I think success, for us, we'll know it when we see it.

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV/Media Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.
Publish date: October 13, 2016 https://dev.adweek.com/tv-video/why-premium-cable-network-epix-leaping-crowded-scripted-series-field-173993/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT