New York-In late February Howard Stern, the self-proclaimed "king of all media," held court at the Plaza Hotel here, fielding questions about his new FX series, Son of the Beach, from a room jam-packed with reporters.
At the press conference, FX president Peter Liguori gave Stern a brief introduction, then wisely stepped back to let radio's bad boy do his thing. Stern opened up his remarks about Beach by poking fun at the cable network, saying, "Like you, I have never heard of FX. I thought I was doing this for Fox [Broadcasting Co.]."
Stern then went on to laud the channel for giving him the creative freedom he demanded for Beach, the scripted comedy he was producing.
All in all, the event was a triumph in attracting publicity for FX, which has struggled during the past few years, with some false starts, to both create a distinct brand and to develop original programming reflecting that brand.
Now the network-buoyed by strong distribution growth, ratings increases and fare like Beach-seems to be making progress in crafting an identity.
"We have gotten over the first hurdle," Liguori said. "When I look at all of our research, from a consumer end of things. clearly, we are progressing. When I gauge the reaction from our key advertisers, there is no doubt they are recognizing what FX is about.FX is the up-and-comer. It is the network of momentum, a place where younger, savvier viewers can come to see creatively courageous programming."
FX still has its critics-those who peg it as "a rerun channel" or accuse it of being a "clone" of Comedy Central, with raunchy programming aimed at testosterone-charged young males.
Predictably, FX doesn't agree with its detractors. First of all, officials denied that they are strictly targeting young men. And overall, FX argued that its strategy is working, and that the proof is in the numbers. They include not only ratings increases, but also success in attracting the kinds of younger men and women viewers Liguori covets.
In fact, FX has been able to lower the median age of its viewer to 39 years old from 44 during the past two years.
Continuing its original-programming expansion, FX has four pilots in the works, including its first scripted dramas. One or two of these pilots are expected to wind up on-air as series this year. The network's first made-for-TV movie, Deliberate Intent, is also slated to premiere in late summer.
In addition, FX has invested in a slew of "Generation FX films" for broadcast-window and cable premieres that fit its brand, according to Liguori, including The Blair Witch Project, Boogie Nights and The Insider.
Next year, the cable channel looks forward not only to National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing events-which Liguori called "a new jewel for this network" to go along with sports such as Major League Baseball-but also off-network series such as Ally McBeal, The Practice and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They will join reruns of The X-Files and NYPD Blue on FX.
Even with all of those irons in the fire, Liguori acknowledged that FX-which is now in roughly 48 million households-has a way to go on the programming front.
FX's ultimate goal is to become branded as a general-entertainment network that attracts a desired "psychographic," or category of viewers not defined strictly by age or sex, but by mind-set. The viewers Liguori wants aren't satisfied with the typical sitcom or women-in-jeopardy movie.
Said Liguori: "I don't think we are there yet, but I clearly think we are making strides. The numbers are proving it: The growth from the cable operators, the growth in audience and the growth in advertising is very solid proof that we are on our way."
Although it hasn't gotten the numbers that a hit like Comedy's South Park generated at its peak, Beach has still been FX's highest-rated show, at a 1.6, according to Nielsen Media Research. During its six-week run, it ranked No. 6 in households among original series on basic cable.
A goofy lifeguard-show spoof that insists it's not a parody of Baywatch, Beach is a success in that it reflects the irreverent attitude the network is aiming for. Beach has generally won kudos from TV critics, many of whom admitted they found the proudly non-politically correct series to be a guilty pleasure.
"Beach is a half-hour walk through a minefield of offensive jokes and toilet humor," wrote John Maynard of The Washington Post. "But the end result is a hilarious spoof of the lifeguard series."
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The critics aren't the only ones taking notice. Cable One Inc. distributes FX on 60 percent to 70 percent of its systems.
"We carry a fair amount of FX," vice president of strategic marketing Jerry McKenna said. "We watch ratings closely. We've seen some positive uptick. They're looking for a younger, hip audience, and it seems to be having a positive effect."
Said one media-buying executive, "FX is starting to get some identity."
FX has already ordered seven new episodes of Beach. The new batch will premiere in late summer.
While the show was generally well received, not every TV critic liked it or thought it made a big difference for FX.
"I don't hate Son of the Beach," said John Levesque, TV critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "It would be funnier if it were smarter. But I think it'll take a lot more original programming before FX pops up on my radar screen as something other than a place to watch reruns."
In the first quarter-which was a ratings slaughterhouse for many cable networks-FX's primetime rating was up 14 percent, to a 0.8 household number. Comedy, in comparison, posted a 0.7 primetime rating in the first quarter.
Regarding primetime, Liguori was happy about the fact that FX's 18-to-49 demographic was up 21 percent, but he isn't a sheer ratings fanatic. "I always put ratings last," he said. "I do not think ratings are the yardstick by which a midsized basic-cable network should be judged."
Since its launch in 1994, FX has had several management teams, all of whom have had different strategies in terms of original programming.
The network kicked off with a diet of live morning shows, originating from a Manhattan apartment used as a studio, recalled Ray Solley, an agent at William Morris who specializes in cable deals and had worked on several series for FX.
Then FX added original primetime fare such as Penn & Teller's Sin City Spectacular, The Groundlings, Bobcat's Big Ass Show and The Dick and Paula Celebrity Special. Those series were canceled because they were either off-brand or failed to find an audience, Liguori said.
Now, Solley noted, there is the edgier fare such as the successful Toughman World Championship Series, The X Show and Beach.
"They are going as far as you can go on basic cable, attracting the male demo," Solley said. "And now, an FX show has to bring with it built-in marquee value in terms of a star-based name or marketing drive."
Liguori contended that FX has scheduled programming "with a bit more male appeal" in order to make its audience skew more evenly balanced among men and women 18 to 49. Last year, the network was more female in total-day: 56 percent. Now, it's 51 percent women and 49 percent men. But in primetime, the audience is 54 percent male.
In addition to Beach-the audience for which is roughly one-third women-this past March, FX also debuted new original series The New Movie Show with Chris Gore and The Girl Next Door. Gore was spun out of a segment on The X Show.
GORE BREAKS OUT
"We were getting a lot of e-mails on Chris Gore off The X Show," said Lisa Berger, executive vice president of creative affairs for Fox Television Studios. "We felt he was one of the first breakouts of the show."
Fox TV Studios-which creates programming for News Corp.'s cable channels, as well as other outlets-does The X Show, Beach and Gore for FX.
Gore, a hipster movie-review series, is averaging a 0.4 to a 0.5, while Girl, described as "a completely honest look at beauty pageants," has grown from a 0.5 to a 0.7.
Late night's The X Show averages a 0.5, sometimes spiking at a 0.9. While Liguori said X Show "will never do monster numbers" in that time period, he added, "It has legs" and value to advertisers and cable operators.
According to Liguori, FX knows what it wants from original series now.
"An FX show should have a clear point of view and voice that basically supports our branding to have creatively courageous programming," he said. "It should clearly be something that appeals to a savvier mind-set, the psychographic I referred to. It's not just taking a tried-and-true format and giving it a little tweak. It is going to break through and break some new territory. And we want to make sure it appeals to our core 18-to-49 demo."
That's the goal with the four pilots FX has in the works. Two are scripted one-hour dramas, The Pit and Shadows, as well as two half-hour series-a game show and a reality-based show.
The Pit is about a pro football team, but Liguori said the sport is just a backdrop for all kinds of dramatic family and relationship issues.
Shadows stars Andrew McCarthy-in what Liguori called a "Sixth Sense-ian kind of show"-as an architect who helps ghosts to solve the mysteries of who killed them so they can pass over to the afterlife.
FX is avoiding the familiar settings of many broadcast series-the medical and legal worlds. "In order to make it in the world of drama, you have got to present a new paradigm," Liguori said.
In a similar way, FX is also trying to take a more innovative approach to its original movies. "We want to present topics that resonate, that are lightning rods for debate," Liguori said. "We are not going to any typical women-in-distress, disease-of-the-week kinds of movies."
The strategy is to take on controversial topics that may be fodder for newspaper editorials, and not just the entertainment pages. FX's first made-for-TV movie, Deliberate Intent, fits that bill, according to Liguori.
Produced by Fox TV Studios and based on a true story, Deliberate Intent features Timothy Hutton as a renowned First Amendment lawyer who files suit against the publisher of a handbook that was a manual for hit men and became a guide for a killer who committed a triple murder.
FX-which eventually wants to produce four original movies per year-did a deal in March with Robert Cooper, the ex-president of Home Box Office's HBO Pictures and a former DreamWorks SKG executive.
Cooper-whose resume includes Barbarians at the Gate and And the Band Played On-will be doing at least three movies for FX over the next three years.
Solley described FX's pact with Cooper as a coup. "They're going to go to the next platform, the next level," the agent said.
A FOX VEHICLE
The cable network also recently picked up two series, Harsh Realm and Action, which the Fox broadcast network canceled after airing only a few episodes. FX plans to air never-before-seen installments of both.
"FX will always be a vehicle for News Corp. to further distribute some of the Fox programming," said Chris Geraci, senior vice president and national TV buyer at BBDO Worldwide. "But I'm still glad FX is investing in originals. It shows that they're investing their revenue in something positive."
Liguori doesn't see FX as just another outlet for Fox fare. "It is the goal of our company to be the best network it possibly can be," he said. "It is not the goal of our company to just be a synergy machine."
Still, the "synergy" issue is tricky and sticky. Both producer Steven Bochco, creator of NYPD Blue, and actor David Duchovny of The X-Files have filed suit against 20th Century Fox, alleging that their two shows' reruns were licensed to FX at below-market rates because FX and 20th Century Fox are sister companies.