Cutting-edge FX hailed as next HBO

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news corp.'s fx, not so long ago perceived as the final resting place of "X Files" reruns and little else, has become the hip place for envelope-pushing programming once found only on pay TV.

Consider the recent season finale of "Nip/Tuck," where a twisted tale of incest, death, gender-switching and sexual shenanigans drew the largest audience of coveted 18-to-49-year-olds of any original cable show this year. The buzz among influencers is that FX is the new HBO-and advertisers are paying attention.

"FX has the buzz with early adopters," said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, VP-director at Publicis Groupe's Starcom. "That does gain traction among key advertisers who are looking for that consumer profile."

The network is "stepping in for HBO in a way," said Shari Anne Brill, VP-director of programming at Aegis Group's media buying firm Carat USA.

Time Warner's HBO recently lost its long running hit "Sex and the City," and won't see the return of its popular "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Six Feet Under" until sometime next year. "The Sopranos," the pay channel's crown jewel, isn't scheduled until 2006 for what's expected to be its final season.

Some industry watchers said the absence of those shows, and the comparatively vanilla network offerings, has created a void that channels like FX have been strategically trying to fill. Showtime, in a pay cable example, is ramping up its original programming under new entertainment president Bob Greenblatt, with projects involving well-known talent like Richard Pryor, Mike Newell, Mary-Louise Parker, Kirstie Alley and Hank Azaria.

testing boundaries

FX has made a mantra of testing boundaries. Recent episodes of its dramas have shown the main characters in "Nip/Tuck" having three-way sex with a prostitute, the firefighters of "Rescue Me" measuring their manhood, and a gangbanger-on-cop rape scene in "The Shield."

The shows don't subsist on shock value, network executives said, even though "Nip/Tuck" has at least one gory cosmetic-surgery scene per episode and some debauched sex. "We're striving for the core of authenticity, not the edge of acceptability," said Peter Liguori, FX's president-chief executive officer. "To be edgy for its own sake is ultimately unsatisfying, and viewers won't continue to come back."

The "Nip/Tuck" season finale pulled in 5.2 million viewers. While that's a drop in the bucket compared to major broadcast networks, it was enough to shatter FX and cable records. The 3.6 million 18-to-49-year-old viewers made it the top basic cable draw of the year so far in that all-important demographic.

`on the bleeding edge'

FX, which is available in 85 million homes, has tapped into the zeitgeist with its programming choices and has communicated to the right people to stoke word of mouth, said Michael Tchong, a trend analyst at pop-culture watcher Iconoculture, Minneapolis. "They've started with people on the bleeding edge, who have gone on to become evangelists for their programming," Mr. Tchong said.

The creative courageousness, though, has a potential downside. "There is a bit of skittishness because of content ... there are still some middle-of-the-road advertisers who won't want to be on certain FX shows," Ms. Brill said.

The network has made deals with marketers for commercial-free airings of its dramas. Miller Brewing Co. sponsored the series premiere of "Rescue Me," a show about New York firefighters. XM Satellite radio has done the same with "Nip/Tuck."

Marketers such as Chrysler's Jeep, Hyundai Motor America, T-Mobile, Sony Pictures, Levi's, Boston Beer Co.'s Sam Adams and Sony Electronics have shown up recently around the network's dramas.

"The Shield" had a number of high-profile advertiser defections in its first season, causing a financial hit in the millions. The show, which finished its third season earlier this year, has since won an Emmy. Lost advertisers were replaced, and some that initially left returned.

Advertisers and media buyers are allowed to see each episode of the net's dramas, not just the scripts, before deciding on ad placement. That can weed out potential conflict, but it doesn't change FX's attitude. "Not only is there a niche to be filled," Mr. Landgraf said, "but we've only seen the beginning of what we can put on."

Still, "It will be harder for them to grow revenue if they stick with this type of programming, "Ms. Caraccioli-Davis said. "It's kind of a double-edged sword."

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