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Volume 20 No. 41
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Sports docs become part of the story for pay TV service Epix

John Ourand
Given the number of bidding wars over sports rights, it seems like live sports matter more than ever before. Studio shows and documentaries are nice to have as shoulder programming, but it’s live competitions that bring in the mass audiences TV networks so covet.

Recently, though, executives from Epix have taken a different approach. A premium TV service that launched in the fall of 2009, Epix has found as much value in sports documentaries and series as it does in live sports.

Backed by Hollywood studios Paramount/Viacom, MGM and Lionsgate, the network depends mainly on first-run movies to attract its broad audience. At its launch four years ago, it stated plans to attract sports fans through boxing matches and mixed martial arts events.

But executives say they stumbled into a strategy of pursuing sports documentaries a little more than a year after launch when it contracted IMG and producer Albie Hecht to produce a 60-minute documentary on Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn. It followed that up with another Hecht-produced documentary on the NBA’s Amar’e Stoudemire. Importantly for Epix, both documentaries remained popular well after their linear TV debut. Live events have a short shelf life; people watch them only in real time. But Epix executives realized that sports documentaries have a longer shelf life, and are more popular on broadband and mobile platforms. They believe that making programming available to those platforms is key to reaching a younger audience.

“They have played really well for us — not only on the network and on demand, but on our digital platform,” said Mark Greenberg, a former HBO and Showtime executive who is Epix president and CEO. “That’s where it’s really played over and over again — with a younger audience. You have to remember, we’re on the Xbox and the iPad and the PS3 and the Roku device. What we’re doing is reaching out to the younger audience and bringing them in on storytelling.”

Epix executives would not say how many people are watching its programming. But viewership has been the service’s main problem since launch: most top distributors refuse to carry it, including Comcast, DirecTV, Time Warner Cable and Cablevision. In fact, sources say the service has around 10 million actual linear TV subscribers.
Those low distribution numbers represent another reason why Epix is focused on alternative forms of distribution. It still has not been able to work out deals with most of the biggest distributors.

Epix, which costs consumers about $10 a month, has deals with distributors like Dish Network, Verizon, Charter and Cox. In 2010, it signed a five-year, $1 billion deal with Netflix. Greenberg said the service is profitable thanks to these deals.

“We’re hoping to move a few of those into a better place in the next few months,” he said of negotiations with carriers. “These are really complicated deals. This isn’t like when I started at HBO in 1981. Here’s my content; here’s my price; let’s do a deal. They are technology deals today. It’s much more complicated. Sports will be a much more integral part of what we do.”

Epix believes that making nonlive sports programming available on different devices will help it attract a passionate, younger audience that will convince distributors to cut a deal.

“In the last 24 months, we’ve really gotten more aggressive in the whole space of sports documentaries,” Greenberg said.

In July, it partnered with Ross Greenburg, former head of HBO Sports, to do a documentary on Dwight Howard. Epix also greenlit another Greenburg documentary on the integration of the NFL called “Football’s Forgotten Heroes,” which tells the story of four African-American players who broke the league’s color barrier in 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson made his debut with the MLB Dodgers.

Another former HBO Sports president, Seth Abraham, has signed on to produce a series for Epix with New York Times columnist Bill Rhoden. The series is made up of in-depth interviews with sports stars like Oscar De La Hoya. Rhoden does not appear on camera.

Last week, Epix debuted “The Price of College Sports,” based on a book by Taylor Branch called “The Cartel.” The documentary advocates for college athletes to get paid, and Greenberg hopes it will have an impact on that discussion.

“We’re continuing to expand on our documentary franchise,” Greenberg said. “At some point, we’ll probably get into the series business. We’re constantly looking at live sports programming where we think that’s available. It’s a matter of what’s appropriate for pay TV.”

John Ourand can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.