FX hopes for big effect of new buys

Channel hoping to gain competish ratings

NEW YORK — Talk about ferocious competition.

FX has just deployed a trio of high-visibility rerun series — “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Ally McBeal” and “The Practice” — as premium-priced engines revved up to drive the channel forcefully into the general-entertainment arena now dominated by USA, TBS and TNT.

“News Corp. has invested heavily in this network,” says Peter Liguori, president of FX. He had to pay strapping prices for the three off-network shows even though they all come out of FX sister company Twentieth TV.

At $675,000 an episode for “Ally” and “Practice,” and $650,000 an hour for “Buffy,” according to various estimates, FX could end up spending a total of more than $250 million for all three shows, depending on how many original episodes each of them generates.

No guarantees

But even reruns of presold commodities like these three are no guarantee of the kind of Nielsen success FX is banking on. All three have some kinship to the serial dramas that stretch subplots and themes across multiple editions, making the shows potentially less compelling to viewers tuning in without having seen — or remembered — the setup episodes.

The first three days of Nielsen primetime ratings during the three shows’ premiere week (Sept. 24-26) on FX offers mostly downbeat news, highlighted by an eye-openingly poor performance from “Practice” at 9, which was 12% below the rating of last year’s inhabitant of the time period, “The X-Files,” which FX has stripped continuously since August 1997.

“Ally,” although it attracted more households at 8 than “Practice,” also has to be considered a disappointment. Only “Buffy,” at 7, delivered promising numbers for the three days.

FX is hoping that history doesn’t repeat itself. The network’s last big programming splash occurred in August 1997 when it premiered two other high-octane Twentieth series, “The X-Files” and “NYPD Blue.”

After chalking up gratifyingly high numbers in the first few weeks and throwing a scare into USA and the Turner networks, the two shows started to drop in the ratings, finally leveling off at about a 1.2 for “X-Files” and a 0.9 or so for “NYPD” — respectable, but no threat to the big boys.

Suiting up

Not so coincidentally, the reason FX had to pay through both nostrils for “Buffy,” “Ally” and “The Practice” is that Fox was shell-shocked from headline-generating lawsuits filed by the profit participants in “X-Files” and “NYPD Blue.”

The litigants claimed that sweetheart deals had undercounted the shows’ true marketplace value. One of the settlements forced Twentieth to remove “NYPD Blue” from FX and resell it in a shared window to TNT and Court TV.

About the debut of “Ally” and “The Practice,” Liguori says he’s not reaching for the Prozac yet. “This is a marathon, not a sprint,” he says. Drawing conclusions from the first three days of a multiyear scheduling plan, he continues, “is like taking one frame as representative of a 4½-hour film.”

Liguori says the plus for “Ally” is thatFX owns the show’s reruns exclusively; unlike “Buffy” and “The Practice,” there are no simultaneous runs on the TV stations all over the country that have bought one or two weekend plays of the shows.

Surviving upfront woes

FX’s full-blown schedule allowed it to survive the worst upfront advertising marketplace in more than a decade. The network still had to give discounts of just under 20%, but some of its competitors were down year to year by as much as 30%.

FX figures to pocket $124 million in net ad revenue for 2001, according to Kagan World Media, and another $146.4 million in 2002.

Jacked-up revenues will allow Liguori to compete even more aggressively down the road against USA, TBS and TNT. FX has bought the cable-rerun rights to Carsey-Werner-Mandabach’s “That ’70s Show” (available 2005) and Twentieth TV’s “King of the Hill” (available 2004) and plans to pay whatever it takes to get the cable window to reruns of Twentieth’s “Malcolm in the Middle” (for 2006 availability).

The network has committed to two more original series for 2002: “Ramparts,” a gritty drama about L.A. cops, and “Bad News, Mr. Swanson,” an offbeat comedy. FX spends upwards of $4 million apiece on the four original movies it commissions each year.

Some strong theatricals will flow to FX in the next few years, including “Planet of the Apes,” “X-Men” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

But right now the industry is directing all of its attention at “Buffy,” “Ally” and “The Practice.”

As Bob Flood, senior VP and director of national television for Optimedia, puts it: “FX will make, or break, itself on those three shows.”

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