In 1999, a headhunter called Chris Carlisle, a marketing veteran of Warner Bros., ABC and NBC, about a position at FX. His awareness was as low as the public's. "What the hell is an FX?" he recalls saying. A year into his tenure, the FX Networks head of marketing and promotion oversaw development of a new on-air look and began stoking awareness with Madison Avenue buyers via an industry campaign asking, "Are you Xperienced?"
The next challenge was to build perception in the wider world. Here, Mr. Carlisle wanted to apply the high-stakes concepts of movie marketing to cable. But he knew the strategy would only work if FX scored some breakout shows. Enter "The Shield" in 2002. Mr. Carlisle recognized the potential of this gritty saga of a rogue cop, and took a page from Hollywood's theatrical playbook. FX put up giant billboards featuring an arresting image of star Michael Chiklis, all bald head and menacing stare (photograph shot by Mr. Carlisle himself), in key corners of Los Angeles and New York. "The road to justice is twisted," it advised would-be viewers.
FX also took the unusual step of creating a 2-minute, 45-second trailer for "The Shield" to play on FX and other cable channels. Kaleidoscope Films created the trailer. Intralink Film Graphic Design, Los Angeles, handles the bulk of FX's creative work, and Fox handles media buying in-house.
The tactics helped propel "The Shield" to become the No. 1 original drama series on basic cable that year, by far the most successful series in FX's history. For "The Shield's" second season, FX hyped the series by inserting a CD-ROM, filled with upcoming scenes, into Time Inc.'s Entertainment Weekly. The ratings held up.
In 2003, FX scored again with "Nip/Tuck," a dark drama about plastic surgeons in Miami. FX put up billboards featuring a traffic-stopping image-a close-up on a glamorous blue eye, framed by stitches. Theme: "Truth is only skin deep." Promo spots feature quick cuts and a pulsing sound track, plus close-ups of shapely backsides, Botox injections and operating room splatter.
"If someone is going to venture out to FX, you need to be ... distinctly alternative," says Mr. Carlisle, 47, now exec VP-marketing and promotion. "Nip/Tuck" scored near the top of the cable ratings, pulling in an average of 3.25 million viewers.
The ad industry is noticing. "In the past two or three years, we have increased our presence on [FX] across most of our clients," says Andrew Donchin, director of national broadcast at Aegis Group's Carat USA, New York.