Critic's Notebook: The Curious Cases and Future Fates of Starz and Epix

Cinematographers Shooting Epic - Intimate Scenes - Counterpart Starz - Publicity-EMBED 2018
Courtesy of Starz

I'm always going to be fascinated by the fates of Starz and Epix, two premium services not named HBO and Showtime that, in the streaming era, fall into the nebulous category of: "Should I Get This?"

A lot of that wonder comes from the fact that, despite being viable, well-financed services (Lionsgate owns Starz and MGM owns Epix) that get talked about with some regularity in the industry and in the pages of THR (obviously), not many people I know subscribe. It used to be "nobody I know" subscribes, but then Starz, under about-to-depart Chris Albrecht, went on a run of valiantly trying to compete with HBO and Showtime in the glitzier and riskier world of original content. From Outlander to Power to Counterpart and various series in between, Starz got big enough to where it became anecdotally mentioned at parties and gatherings when people talked TV with me (yeah, you think that's about as accurate at Netflix ratings but you'd be surprised).

So people started mentioning Starz and how it was part of their cable package, which is, as any exec will tell you, not something to dismiss. But Epix? Not so much. And certainly that had something to do with it getting into the scripted game later than Starz. But even with Berlin Station and then, more prominently, Get Shorty, Epix still wasn't popping up as something people freely admitted they had (not that they were hiding it like a dirty secret; most people had never heard of it but had suddenly heard me raving about Get Shorty and wondering how they could find it).

So, in the big picture of "are these premium channels working out?" the answer varied from "kinda" to "not really," at least in my orbit, but of course the advent of streaming and the coming streaming wars are changing that, and will change it even further. Both companies are gearing up to be players. Lionsgate is getting the Starz app and availability into the U.K. and Canada and both Starz and Epix are increasing their visibility; Starz by being made available as an add-on channel from numerous streaming services (which is arguably the best way for them to get noticed and grow), and on Sunday Epix made a huge announcement at TCA that it was going strong into the OTT business by launching its Epix Now, which at $5.99 will give viewers a chance to find it via Apple TV and the company's iOS devices, plus Google Play for Android, Roku, Amazon Fire TV and more outlets to be announced soon. Previously Playstation Vue and Sling had Epix access, with Roku about to come online, but Sunday's announcement is a much broader venture for Epix and possibly a game-changer for it. In 2019, having a streaming app or Amazon, Hulu + Live TV,  Roku, etc., list you as an additional fee add-on is where growth will reside as curious but confused Americans start this cord-cutting thing in rising numbers; being able to access channels via solo subscription or skinny bundle and not with an existing cable subscription is essential for survival in the future.

The question is whether their streaming strategies will work and whether each will have patience with developing shows (so far they have).

My primary interest in Starz is Counterpart. While Outlander is a hit for some (and it's very good; it's just not a series I've had the inclination to keep up on), Counterpart is absolutely in my wheelhouse, finishing No. 3 — out of 32 — on my Best Series of 2018 list. Get Shorty was 25th for me in 2018, but ninth in 2017 (out of 46 shows). That illustrates how great those series are as they battle other higher-profile series in this Platinum Age of Television.

In many ways, though, they are doing that slightly handcuffed.

You can only see Starz if you pay for it. It doesn't put its offerings on Netflix, for example. If Counterpart doesn't live past season two, after achieving such rare critical heights (particularly in the first season), then it would be easy to argue that maybe it should have had some help. After all, Epix finally allowed the first season of Get Shorty to go on Netflix (and as soon as it did, people on Twitter who had heard so much about it but didn't want to pony up for Epix rejoiced).

And that's really the conundrum of the business model of each of these premium channels. Will exposure on Netflix drive fans of Get Shorty to subscribe to Epix — which is continuing to forge ahead with originals and, like Starz, also has a vast library of theatrical-release movies? Or will Netflix subscribers just wait to see if season two also eventually pops up?

That's the risk, of course — one that's more prominent than the one facing more established premium channels like HBO and Showtime. And it's one that Starz is not taking. You want their stuff, you get their app (or include it in your cable package, of course). What that has meant is that a lot of people I know listen to me raving about Counterpart and then when I tell them it's on Starz they wince. It's worth it, I tell them. So is Get Shorty on Epix.

But that's probably only if you want to watch a bunch of theatrical releases that you're just not getting in your other packages. I mean, Starz has a much deeper bench than Epix at this point and Lionsgate announced Thursday in its earnings announcement that it has 25.1 million subscribers (but didn't break out separate OTT numbers). That's nothing to sneeze at but, depending on your cable provider, not super cheap either (though you can get it for $8.99 as an add-on channel at various places).

The long-term viability of Starz and Epix probably resides in being an affordable subscription and, for lots of people, being an add-on channel somewhere else to keep things simple. Price point will be key in 2019 as Disney+, Apple and WarnerMedia all vie for your post-Netflix, post-Amazon and post-Hulu dollars. And obviously Starz and Epix have to keep churning out scripted fare that resonates with viewers. At this point, it's a critical juncture for both of them. Zeitgeist-busting content is what everybody needs but especially non-Netflix and non-HBO channels. That's what worries me about the future of Counterpart. It's a series that needs to be seen and should add value when it gets access to eyeballs, but who knows. With Starz ahead of Epix on the development front, the latter needs to really create some noise with well-crafted, buzzy content.

And that's the thing, isn't it? Well-crafted, buzzy content is elusive and everybody needs it. Just like CBS All Access and pretty much any other smaller streaming service, you need one absolutely magnetic series to get started and then you try to branch out via genres and new work to lure new subscribers. As it stands, if Counterpart goes to season three, that keeps me interested in Starz because it has enough other series like American Gods or Outlander, etc., to seem valuable, in addition to movies. As much as I love Get Shorty, Epix needs a deeper bench, for me.

The silence in the cocktail party ether might not be scientific, but it can be pretty telling. It's damned hard to get noticed in this business, and will be harder in the coming months. Tracking the fates of these two interestingly positioned premium outlets not named HBO or Showtime will be very intriguing over the next year or two.