For years, the most popular cable networks built their lineups on the backs of highly-rated off-network broadcast shows, slowly infusing the schedule original programming of their own.
One network has pitched that strategy — which, until recently, has nourished ratings — in the trash.
News Corp.'s FX is betting that a lineup of pure original programming, coupled with top-tier theatrical films, will catapult the network to upper echelon of cable networks reaching advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-olds.
FX's unprecedented lineup of 11 originally-produced, scripted series, launching over the next 12 months, involves a variety of character-based storylines, including an old-fashioned lawman who doles out his own brand of justice in the Midwest (Justified); a struggling comedian who deals with his divorce through a mix of standup routines and sketches (Louis); a former boxing champ who struggles with life outside the ring (Lights Out); and an animated, cocky super-spy who employs curious methods to nab villains (Archer).
And over the next two years, the network will showcase an incredible lineup of more than 100 commercial-television premieres, including the rights to Avatar, now the top movie of all time in worldwide box-office grosses.
Under the direction of president John Landgraf, FX over the past five years has reversed its ratings fortunes by eschewing the typical off-net programming and doubling down on originals and theatricals. So far, the results are promising: FX ended 2009 with double-digit growth in primetime viewers, according to Nielsen. More importantly, it drew 781,000 viewers in primetime among its core audience of 18-to-49-year-olds, behind only cable powerhouses USA Network, TNT, TBS and ESPN. That's an increase of more than 100,000 viewers in the demographic since Landgraf's 2005 arrival.
“We've never had a better year than we had in 2009 by any objective measure, certainly from a ratings standpoint and in terms of the number of programs we had and the number of viewers who watched our shows,” he said.
While FX isn't a stranger to developing scripted content — it was one of the first out of the gate in 2002, with Emmy-winning cop drama The Shield — distributing 11 such shows is remarkable even for the 15-year-old network.
Six of the network's 11 series are returning shows: Nip/Tuck, FX's longest-running series, in its sixth and final season; the venerable New York firefighter-based drama Rescue Me, starring Denis Leary; third-year legal drama Damages, starring two-time Emmy Award winner Glenn Close; biker-themed drama Sons of Anarchy (the network's most-popular series in 2009); offbeat cult comedy series It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia; and freshman comedy series The League.
The five newcomers range from animation to character-driven dramas to comedy. Archer, FX's animated comedy about a unorthodox group of secret U.S. spies, drew 1.8 million total viewers — 1.2 million of them adults 18 to 49 — for its Jan. 15 premiere.
On the docket for later this year are Justified, based on an Elmore Leonard story and featuring Deadwood star Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal in Kentucky who takes no prisoners; and Lights Out, a drama that follows an aging former heavyweight boxing champion struggling to support his family outside the ring.
On the comedy side, April will bring Louis, a half-hour sitcom based on the life of comedian Louis C.K. (who mined this territory earlier with HBO's Lucky Louie); Terriers, a one-hour comedy from The Shield producer Shawn Ryan, follows in the fall. Landgraf said he wants to have as many as six comedies on the air in the near future, adding that a mix of successful comedies and dramas will bode well for the brand's future success.
“I look at FX more in the vein of HBO or Showtime and it's very hard to imagine HBO or Showtime as only a drama or only a comedy network,” Landgraf said of FX's mix. “I think this is where our audiences expect us to be in the long run.”
FX's faith in scripted content to drive the network's ratings fortunes is a gamble, given that most scripted series don't survive past their freshman season, according to Gary Lico, CEO of cable-network research firm CableU.tv.
“This is a business that has an 85% failure rate, which means that if you do 11 scripted series, you figure if three hit you've had a great day,” Lico said. “But FX has had a fairly good track record and they're sticking to their knitting.”
FX has had its share of hits, but it has yet to deliver a series on the total-viewer performance level of TNT's The Closer or USA's Burn Notice, which both drew more than 7 million viewers in 2009. Then again, series like the outlandish, plastic surgery-based Nip/Tuck or The Shield — which often push the boundaries of language, violence and mature subject matter — are not necessarily going to appeal to a general-entertainment audience, but are always top performers in the 18-to-49 demo, according to Landgraf.
Yet in the mid-2000s — after launching The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me — FX struggled to find its next big hit. Such high-profile shows as The Riches, Morgan Spurlock-produced reality show 30 Days, Andre Braugher vehicle Thief and war-themed Over There were cancelled due to poor ratings.
And some of FX's current franchises have struggled early in 2010. The first two episodes of season three of Damages have averaged a paltry 357,000 viewers, well below its average of nearly 1 million viewers in its 2007 freshman run. Nip/Tuck's audience of 18-to-49-year-olds for its sixth season stands at less than 2 million viewers for the first time in the show's history.
But Landgraf is unfazed by the shows' early stumble. The network is known for its patience: witness the nurturing of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. The sitcom started slow in its freshman year, but through smart marketing and promotion on the network has developed into a signature show.
“The network overall has pretty much had an eight-year unbroken track record of [scripted-series] success,” he said. “I think you can safely say that we're pretty good at this and we're going to be able to be successful with it indefinitely.”
FX's series do tap into a younger audience of 18-to-34 and 18-to-49-year-olds, so it's an appealing play for advertisers. Ad revenues have grown to an estimated $373 million in 2009, up from $284 million in 2005, according to Kagan.
To help bolster audiences for its scripted series, the network has made an unprecedented commitment to acquiring first-run rights to a vast library of recent box-office hits. Over the next three to four years, FX will premiere 11 of the top movies of 2009, including Avatar as well as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the Twilight franchise, J.J. Abrams' Star Trek and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
The network has also purchased the rights to the Marvel Comics film franchise, including Iron Man and Hulk, as well as such DreamWorks Animation films as Monsters vs. Aliens.
Landgraf said the network began to pursue a more aggressive movie play in the mid 2000s after generating lackluster ratings performances from off-network series like NYPD Blue, The X-Files and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. “We never had the sustained success with off-net dramas that TNT and USA had,” he admitted.
Plus, said Landgraf, theatricals draw younger viewers than off-network series, which appeal to the 25-to-54-year-old demo.
The movies — which often run for two to three hours, leading into the premiere of an original series — give FX many opportunities to market its originals. Last month, the premiere of Live Free or Die Hard drew 1.1 million adults 18 to 49 as a lead-in for Archer, while exposing a large audience to spots for its other upcoming series.
Not that FX has completely closed the door on off-network acquisitions. Last year, it bought CBS's Two and a Half Men as a lead-in for its original comedies. The Charlie Sheen hit will arrive this fall.
“It will be younger and very compatible with the types of FX original programs that we have,” Landgraf said. “It's coming on this year and it's the strongest off-net series that we've ever had on the network.”