Less than a week after parting company with HBO, the NHL reportedly has found a new home for 24/7, its all-access Winter Classic series.
Problem is, you've probably never heard of the series' new home.
EPIX is a pay cable channel that stacks up against HBO about the same way the Toledo Walleye match up against the Red Wings. Launched in 2009 after several Hollywood studios parted ways with Showtime, EPIX is the sort of premium movie network that subscribers get with an all-inclusive package, rather than one they'd actively seek out.
That's because there's not much in the way of original programming on EPIX. It offers plenty of heavily hyped fare like The Wolf of Wall Street and World War Z, but beyond the occasional boxing or mixed martial arts event and a few comedy specials, it doesn't offer a lot in the way of original programming.
On the surface that seems to make it a lousy partner for the league, but EPIX does have two things going it for that HBO doesn't. First, this network desperately wants to do business with the NHL, and as the league proved with its controversial decision to go with OLN over ESPN back in 2005, being wanted is at the core of its agenda. The NHL doesn't want to be just another property. It wants to matter, to be a top priority. EPIX showed up for discussions with the league with flowers and candy.
The network apparently was also willing to assume the lion's share of production costs. HBO was looking to trim the show's budget before talks broke down, and the league had concerns about maintaining the quality of 24/7: The Road to the Winter Classic ... but not so much that it was willing to make up the difference. Scott Burnside has reported that each episode will be budgeted at around $400,000 apiece, a figure that's on the high end for television documentaries. That means not only will filming get done on someone else's dime, but that it will also get done to the Emmy-winning standards of the previous three series.
All told, EPIX will broadcast four episodes of the untitled Winter Classic show leading up to the Jan. 1 game at Nationals Park between the Capitals and the Blackhawks. That's solid, but here's where the network really showed the love: It will also produce a four-episode series to lead into the Feb. 21 Stadium Series game Levi’s Field between the Sharks and the Kings.
That second series is a meaty hook, and for several reasons. It provides broad exposure for two significant teams, including the defending Stanley Cup champions, who often are overlooked because they're based on the West Coast. With two series, there's a chance to establish a real beachhead for hockey content on EPIX. The second show also lends prestige to the Stadium Series that simply wasn't there with the NHL's own production last season.
This is a smart move for a network that's looking to gain greater carriage through the nation's cable and satellite providers. While EPIX has grown considerably—from 9.5 million to nearly 50 million homes in just three years—it still lags well behind HBO and Showtime. Adding a property that will be viewed as must-see by an avid fan base could help expand its footprint. And, if nothing else, it's in bed with a major league, giving EPIX a chance to prove what it can do for other sports that might end up shopping for a new partner in the future.
And for the fans, there's this: as part of the agreement, all hockey fans in the United States will have access to the finished product. Details for this unprecedented blanket coverage will be revealed at a Sept. 23 press briefing.
There's still room to question the NHL for bunking down with a lower-tier cable network, but history suggests that this deal deserves a chance. The OLN agreement was widely criticized at the time (including with a few harsh words from this corner), but in hindsight the deal was a masterstroke for the NHL. The netlet, after all, has evolved into the NBC Sports Network. Given time, the EPIX partnership just might work.
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