NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Five years ago, John Landgraf, president-general manager of FX Network, asked a random TV viewer if he watched FX regularly. "Isn't that a rerun network?" the viewer replied. Mr. Landgraf then asked if he'd heard of the drama "The Shield," and the viewer said he thought it aired on CBS.
A new FX branding campaign, launching next Tuesday during "Nip/Tuck," will hopefully clear up for devoted and casual viewers alike what the FX brand stands for five years after its initial hits "The Shield" and "Nip/Tuck" paved the way for its edgy, risk-taking approach on ad-supported cable.
'There Is No Box'
The series of branding spots will revolve around the theme "There Is No Box." That phrase applies not only to the network's approach to programming but also its logo, which will do away with the rectangle surrounding the capital "FX" letters.
In the ads, a series of clips from FX's current programming slate are accompanied by various "There is no..." phrases, including "reliable sidekick" for the partner who gets shot on "The Shield" and "laugh track" for sitcom "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." But Brad Adgate, senior VP-research for Horizon Media, said the slogan made him think of other branding opportunities.
"To me, it seemed like [they were saying], 'OK, we're moving content online or onto handheld devices.' It's getting away from the TV box and not just programming that's thinking outside the box."
The spots will get key pod placement across all of News Corp.'s TV and digital properties, including Fox, Fox Sports and MySpace. But the biggest exposure for the campaign, valued by Mr. Landgraf in the "tens of millions," will come during January's Super Bowl, when FX will have the "post-gun position," or the first commercial in the last ad break before the post-game show. That time slot represents key real estate to FX, having averaged a 35.6 rating (or 80 million viewers) in the last three Super Bowls.
The need for a clear brand identity in the crowded TV marketplace has been Mr. Landgraf's primary challenge since coming to the network from his days as a producer for NBC, and later Danny DeVito's Jersey Films. The early success of "The Shield" and "Nip/Tuck" has helped the network welcome new dramas such as "Dirt" and "The Riches" this year, often pushing the limits of the TV-MA rating.
Mr. Landgraf and his team tested the brand strength of FX's programming earlier this year when they held an anonymous screening of the Glenn Close drama "Damages" and asked participants to select which network they thought the show would air on. Eighty-one percent of respondents said FX, while 60% said HBO. That gap between FX and its closest competitor in the edgy-entertainment market speaks a lot about the void that HBO has allowed others to fill, now that "The Sopranos" sleeps with the fishes and new dramas "Tell Me You Love Me" and "John From Cincinnati" have failed in terms of ratings or even buzz value.
"They would love to be compared to HBO. Who wouldn't?" Mr. Adgate said. "They do have a lot of gritty shows, and while they certainly can't get away with what HBO can get away with, they have tried and certainly some advertisers have pulled back a little bit because of the content. But, for the most part, they haven't had to make an overhaul in their programming strategies."
Showtime benefits too
Indeed, even Showtime has been able to benefit from HBO's newfound ratings softness, with sitcom "Weeds" and serial-killer drama "Dexter" setting record ratings for the network this year. "Dexter" may even get some broadcast play on Showtime sibling CBS this winter if the writers strike continues to prevent the broadcast networks from producing new episodes.
Speaking of the writers strike, the uncertain ending has also left FX's scheduling in limbo. Only "Nip/Tuck" is currently airing new episodes, which will run through the end of February, to be followed at a later date by "The Shield," which has a full 13-episode season in the can. Less certain are the second seasons of "Dirt" and "The Riches," which both filmed seven episodes before the strike kicked off.