Verizon to carry Epix movie channel

Pact is new network's first distribution deal

Epix, the pay TV venture backed by Viacom, MGM and Lionsgate, unveiled its first carriage agreement on Tuesday, but big questions remain about the service’s viability as a cable/satellite offering.

Epix has cut a deal with Verizon’s FiOS telco-delivered TV service, which would make the feevee channel available to FiOS’ subscriber base of about 2.5 million.

Viacom chief exec Philippe Dauman and Epix prexy Mark Greenberg said Tuesday that Epix was far along in discussions with other major cable and satellite providers. Indeed, Epix is known to have had some discussions with satcaster DirecTV.

But earlier this month, execs with two of the biggest MSOs, Comcast and Cablevision, went on record with Bloomberg News saying they had no interest in carrying the channel. Comcast chief operating officer Stephen Burke told Bloomberg that cable subscribers already have plenty of options for movies.

Epix, which was formed in April 2008 after Viacom hit a wall in renegotiating Paramount’s pay TV pact with Showtime, is set to bow in early October.

Pay TV services were once seen as highly attractive to cable ops because the latter received a generous slice of the subscription revenue. But in the era of digital tiers, operators are concerned about overcrowding and the ability of Epix to command fees from subscribers who may already be forking over monthly fees for HBO, Showtime and/or Starz.

On the other hand, Epix will be the exclusive pay TV home of recent pics from its three partners. Titles available at launch will include “Iron Man,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Cloverfield” and the Lionsgate-distribbed Tyler Perry pics. All told, Epix will have access to a 15,000-title film library from its three major partners.

Greenberg said the channel is in talks to license material from outside content providers. It also has original programming in the works from its studio owners, including a drama series about the country music biz, from Lionsgate TV and “Weeds” creator-exec producer Jenji Kohan.

Epix’s linear channel will be augmented by an extensive subscription VOD service, with 300 hours of programming, and a broadband service that will make Epix titles available for viewing online by subscribers on a password-protected basis.

Greenberg added that Epix’s Internet and on-demand platform will be stocked with significant DVD-like extras, such as script notes, outtake and audition reels, trivia questions and games.

Because Epix is a late entrant in the pay TV field, the pressure is on to “deliver a consumer experience that is better” than that of its competitors, Greenberg said, adding that the on-demand and online services will allow subscribers to select titles to program their own “virtual channels.”

Dauman talked up Epix’s first distribution deal during Viacom’s second-quarter earnings conference call. He noted that the deal with Verizon gives them “a lot of flexibility to package Epix in many different ways,” including bundling it in tiers with other channels or phone and high-speed broadband services.

Verizon intends to heavily push the on-demand and broadband elements, and they are developing an Epix application for mobile phones through Verizon’s V Cast service, Dauman said.

Pressed about carriage prospects on the conference call, Dauman responded, “We are very comfortable that we’ll have meaningful distribution as we roll it out. And our conservative business plan calls for us to get to breakeven in relatively short order.”