Two well-reviewed television shows are premiering in the next two days. Just make sure you have STARZ and Cinemax, two networks trying to keep up with the Joneses of the premium cable world.
The Steven Soderbergh-directed, Clive Owen-starring The Knick, about early 20th Century surgeons, will air starting Friday on Cinemax. On Saturday, STARZ will premiere Outlander, a time-travel romance based on Diana Gabaldon's series of novels. Both series have gotten solid reviews: The Knick currently has a Metacritic score of 73; Outlander's is 71.
But Cinemax and STARZ are no HBO or even Showtime when it comes to prestige level, even though HBO owns Cinemax. Though Cinemax has action dramas like Strike Back and Banshee, which have their pleasures, The Knick, a heady prestige drama with an auteur's touch and a big movie star in the lead, is a different breed. Earlier this year Entertainment Weekly's Darren Franich wrote that Cinemax was "very carefully defining a specific gutter-pulp tone, one bloody gunfight and vaguely necessary sex scene and errant F-bomb at a time." The Knick, however, is artsier with its Cliff Martinez score and auteur's eye. "I couldn't have asked for a better show to put Cinemax out there in a new and fresh way," HBO and Cinemax programming head Michael Lombardo told USA Today. "It's the first show on Cinemax that absolutely could live on HBO."
Starz meanwhile has a recent hit in Power, which more than doubled viewership between its premiere and finale, Variety's Rick Kissell reported, and is popular among African-American audiences. And, like Cinemax, STARZ has what Variety's Laura Prudhom called a "a solid foundation of action-packed, male-focused fare" like the Michael Bay-produced Black Sails. Outlander, meanwhile, has a built in audience thanks to Gabaldon's books, and is more specifically targeted at women, thanks to a central heroine. CEO Chris Albrecht told Prudhom: “The female audience has been such an important part of the success of television, not just in primetime television or premium television but in daytime television; in children’s television. When women become attached to something like this, it’s pretty hard to pry them away from it. I think they are a much more loyal, less fickle audience than lots of other demographic segments.”
STARZ put the full pilot of Outlander online ahead of its premiere—a successful move. Deadline's Dominic Patten called the viewership "the biggest response the cable channel has gotten for such a off-broadcast preview effort." But to watch the following episodes of the show you have to subscribe to the network. The same goes for The Knick. According to spokespeople for both there is simply no way around it. (Both have on Demand and online platforms.) "We are pay-TV service and therefore, all subsequent episodes will air on the STARZ network exclusively, they will not be showing up on alternate platforms for free the next day," STARZ spokesperson Theano Apostolou told The Wire in an email. "Our fellow pay-TV services like HBO and Showtime don’t do that either."
Piracy, of course, is always an option for devoted fans who aren't willing to pay, and while an HBO spokesperson simply said that the content is protected, Apostolou mentioned the potential boost associated with people seeking out a show in an illegal manner. "As for piracy concerns, it’s a reality of the internet age and is somewhat unavoidable, regardless of the safeguards all content providers put in place," she wrote. "That said, we’ve seen others, like HBO, tout the Game of Thrones illegal download numbers, so it does have some benefit generating word of mouth or a bigger buzz factor among a broader (potential) audience." Lombard has said that piracy of HBO's fantasy hit is a "compliment."
But while STARZ might not have the cadre of cable dramas of, say, Showtime—which has 24 Emmy nominations this year to STARZ's 11—it has almost as many subscribers, according to data from SNL Kagan. As of March 2014 Showtime had around 22.8 million subscribers. STARZ had 22.9 million. That means the notion that a STARZ show is somehow less accessible than Showtime show is only an illusion. Cinemax, meanwhile, is farther behind when it comes to subscriber base, despite its HBO connection. The network only has 14.4 million subscribers, compared to HBO's 29.4 million.
Both networks still at least feel like underdogs in the original programming game at least when it comes to the zeitgeist-y shows that we gab about on Twitter and during Emmy season. Perhaps The Knick and Outlander could change that.