Big names in small spaces: Stars back shows on obscure networks

A period piece starring Daniel Radcliffe as a doctor during the Russian Revolution. A multimillion-dollar fantasy epic adapted from a popular book series. An artists’ collaboration led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. A Steven Soderbergh medical drama with Clive Owen.

If these sound like the lineup of a blockbuster movie season, think smaller. A lot smaller.

They’re all TV shows, all airing on channels you’ve either never heard of or don’t associate with inventive original programming. “A Young Doctor’s Notebook” is on Ovation, “Outlander” on Starz, “HitRecord on TV” on Pivot, “The Knick” on Cinemax.

Such is the state of television’s exploding boundaries that buzzworthy, big-budget shows can land on these fringe channels. After all, does it really matter these days where and when something airs? With DVRs, on-demand platforms and online viewing, isn’t the why more important? Why should I watch this show over another in my busy TV schedule? Why will I keep watching it? Why didn’t we know all these big-name stars were having so much fun on channels we’d never think to flip to?

Not only does Radcliffe star in the British dark comedy “A Young Doctor’s Notebook,” about a young doctor’s life in a remote Russian village in the early 1900s, he does so alongside Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”). And they’ve got two seasons under their belts.

If you had no idea, you’re not alone. In America, “Notebook” airs on a channel called Ovation, launched in 1996 to hardly any TV providers and expanded in the mid 2000s to only slightly more. The channel now has full national coverage, meaning it’s available in a lot more homes. But it’s no ABC. Or, for that matter, even ABC Family.

Funny thing is, “Notebook” isn’t a show you’d expect to find on a channel that otherwise airs reruns of “Antiques Roadshow.” It’s a solid, if out-there, black comedy featuring two well-known, impressively game actors having a ball. Based on autobiographical short stories by Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, the show is about two characters: a doctor played by Hamm, who tells stories from his youth as the younger version of the doctor, played by Radcliffe, essentially acts things out. Season 2 aired in America on Ovation beginning in August.

Meanwhile, over on Cinemax, a channel most people still associate with softcore porn, acclaimed filmmaker Soderbergh’s latest project “The Knick” is in the middle of its first season. The period medical drama stars Owen as a surgeon during the turn of the 20th century. Sure, there’s lots of skin thanks to the show’s ever-present and ever-blood-stained surgery table, but the similarities to the channel’s, uh, after-hours programming end there. This is an original scripted television show, from a respected auteur who’s directing every episode.

And the ratings aren’t bad: In its first weekend, the show had 1.7 million viewers. That’s a great number for Cinemax and even a good number for HBO, Cinemax’s sister network, whose summer show “The Leftovers” premiered to about 2 million.

Starz is another channel poised to leap in popularity with one of the biggest shows it has ever had: “Outlander,” which wrapped the first half of its debut season Saturday. The historical sci-fi romance based on Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling books and produced by “Battlestar Galactica” creator Ronald D. Moore is a boon for the premium cable channel that fills its schedule mostly with runs of major movies. “Outlander” debuted to more than 3 million people in August across different platforms in one of Starz’s strongest premieres ever.

“The Knick” and “Outlander” aren’t the first original series Cinemax and Starz have produced. Cinemax has had pulpy fare like “Banshee,” while Starz is airing pirate drama “Black Sails.” But none of those came with a built-in book audience, and certainly none have been helmed by a Hollywood director of Soderbergh’s pedigree.

Even less known than Cinemax and Starz is Pivot, a new network that, according to its website, aims to serve “passionate millennials (ages 18 to 34) with a diverse slate of talent and a mix of original series.”

But they’re already out of the gate with at least one buzzy series: Gordon-Levitt has taken his considerable talents to television in a variety show on Pivot. An extension of his global online artist community hitRECord, the show, “HitRecord on TV,” wrapped its first season in March. (Season 2 is out in spring 2015.)

What do these breakout series mean for the lesser-known channels? Well, more talent, for one. Keep an eye on “Flesh and Bone,” created and run by former “Breaking Bad” writer Moira Walley-Beckett, set to begin on Starz in 2015. And “The Knick” has already been picked up for Season 2 by Cinemax.

For us, it also means even more shows to put on the TV schedule.