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Presidential powers

Success of cop drama 'Shield' allowed FX topper to do it his way

OFF THE RECORD
When Peter Liguori is away from the office, here are a few of his favorite things:
Baseball moment: “The 1969 Amazin’ Mets winning the World Series.”
Restaurant: Rao’s in New York. (“This plug still won’t get me a table.”)
Weekend activity: “Cooking Sunday dinner with my family.”
Movie: “Cinema Paradiso”
Musician: Thomas Newman
Non-FX show: “24”

Ask anyone in the TV business about FX’s record-setting speed to success, and they’ll point to unflinching police serial “The Shield.”

The show won a Golden Globe for drama and Emmy accolades for lead actor Michael Chiklis, whose portrayal of pugnacious Detective Vic Mackey, head of a reckless Los Angeles strike team, sent audiences expecting “The Commish” reeling.

The series paved the way for equally provocative dramas “Nip/Tuck” and “Rescue Me” — a trio that maintains the kind of solid 18-49 demo concentration envied by larger cablers.

But “Shield” is a show that never would have gotten off the ground had it not been for the efforts of Peter Liguori. He’s the man who didn’t get the top marketing job when he applied to the FX the first time around. But like Mackey, the FX’s president-CEO is unyielding when in pursuit.

Liguori is a diehard New York Mets fan and devoted dad of two, so when FX had only Howard Stern’s raunchy comedy “Son of the Beach” to crow about, he knew a thing or two about patience. The exec admits it took some convincing to get his bosses at News Corp. onboard with a strategy to go after the HBO niche.

“It wasn’t an insignificant amount I was asking for (to produce ‘The Shield’). Back then $1 million per episode wasn’t cheap,” Liguori reflects. “We’d already premiered our first original movie, ‘Deliberate Intent,’ and then it became a waiting game for the right show to come along.”

Eventually then-News Corp. TV chiefs Peter Chernin and Tony Ball agreed to the idea of going after high-end audiences. After all, News Corp. had bet on the Bad Boys of TV positioning of fourth broadcast web to bow Fox.

“Peter is in an enviable position. He’s been given the opportunity to create something with his stamp all over it,” Chernin says. “Five years ago, no one knew what FX was. In my opinion, he’s the best cable programmer in the business. And it’s rare to have both that extraordinary success and a certain level of ownership of it.”

Says Liguori: “The great thing about Peter and (current Fox Networks Group prexy-CEO Tony Vinciquerra) is that once they sign off on a strategy, they say to go after it with fervor.”

Execs knew if anyone could sell the gritty cop drama, it was Liguori. He may not have gotten that first marketing gig, but when he did join News Corp. in 1996, he displayed the skills of a savvy salesman. After helping launch Fox Sports Net he was soon bumped up to head up marketing for all of Fox’s cable nets. Prior to his Fox tenure, he spent nine years doing marketing for HBO in the paybox’s homevid division.

“The thing about Peter is that he’s very good strategically, almost in a scientific way, but he’s also got great creative instincts,” Chernin says. “That caught my attention early on because it’s rare to find a marketer who excels at both the business and artistic sides of things.”

Liguori proved he had impeccable taste, outfitting FX with some of the industry’s rising stars. He hired Kevin Reilly, now entertainment prexy at NBC, away from Brad Grey TV, knowing his work on “The Sopranos,” “ER” and “Homicide” would be invaluable to a network that wanted to be in the business of premium programming.

He later recruited Chris Carlisle, current Fox chief of marketing, from Warner Bros. to engineer a marketing plan for the cabler as it attempted to redefine itself.

That discerning judgment led him to “The Shield” creator-exec producer Shawn Ryan, a man whose previous biggest claim to fame was CBS’ decidedly unedgy hour “Nash Bridges.”

ICM TV lit topper Matt Solo recalls waiting anxiously for Liguori to see the pilot.

“It was one of the first projects (former programming chief Kevin Reilly) developed and offered up. We knew it was pretty fierce, and we were very nervous,” he says. “So, it goes without saying that I will forever thank Peter for trusting in Shawn’s vision and having the stones to order it. What else can I say? He’s a terrific combination of energy, intelligence and optimism — and it’s really infectious.”

Liguori took it upon himself to sell “Shield” directly to the folks who’d be investing in it. Having worked for mega-ad agencies Saatchi & Saatchi and Ogilvy & Mather, he knew advertisers would run scared from a creative but fairly violent show. So he tried the old-fashioned salesman route and offered advertisers a chance to sample the product in its entirety.

“I gathered several media buyers that represented about 80% of all media dollars spent in television, and Lou LaTorre (head of ad sales for Fox Cable Networks Group) and I held a small screening of the show in the New York News Corp. building. We wanted to have a dialogue with the advertisers before they made up their minds,” Liguori says. “It was our attempt to be honest and respectful and it allowed us, as their potential partners, to illustrate how the series could work for some of, but certainly not all, their clients.”

Today, advertisers couldn’t buy time on “The Shield” if they wanted to. The show’s fourth season, now co-starring Glenn Close in her first regular series role, is completely sold out.

Laura Caraccioli-Davis, senior VP-director of entertainment for media buying firm Starcom, says the hands-on approach Liguori’s team uses is a winning strategy with clients.

“They’re very direct. We often get drafts of scripts in advance, not to give creative input, but to see that the content gels with the advertisers,” she says. “That kind of directness is valued on this side of the business.”

Russ Krasnoff, president of programming and production at Sony Pictures Television, says he’s seen situations at other networks who’ve wanted similar risk-taking shows “but when push came to shove, they always shrink away. Peter says we’re going to do it and he means it.”

What distinguishes Liguori, Krasnoff continues, is that he’s “singularly focused. It’s one thing to lay out a bold strategy, it’s quite another to follow through with it.

“At FX, they don’t hold back,” Krasnoff adds. “I remember when the first few episodes of ‘The Shield’ came on and there were some advertiser defections. Most executives would have asked the producer to soften the show, or would have canceled it. Peter assured everyone that he’d find the right advertisers for it, and did.”

Everyone came calling after “The Shield.” “Nip/Tuck,” a sudser centered on a pair of Miami-based plastic surgeons, rolled out soon after, followed by Denis Leary’s post-9/11 firefighter hour “Rescue Me.”

Entertainment prexy John Landgraf, the former head of Jersey TV who arrived at FX a little over a year ago, says Liguori’s best asset is his fearlessness. “I’ve always had his support. When I arrived and said I think we can succeed in comedy — which no basic cable network has done — and I think we need some reality, he let me go to see if I could do it.

“Now we’re working with Rob McElhenney, who’s never written anything before, (on rookie laffer) ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,’ and Morgan Spurlock, Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney and Steven Bochco. The freedom is incredible.”

Unlike other networks, cable or otherwise, Liguori and FX don’t shy away from their failures. “Lucky,” a comedic half-hour about a gambler, lasted just a season but scored basic cable’s first-ever comedy writing Emmy nomination. “Todd TV” and “The Orlando Jones Show” also tanked, with auds and crix.

“We aren’t ashamed of those shows,” Landgraf says.

“We’re very proud of ‘Lucky.’ And with ‘Todd TV,’ what can I say? It was an experiment and it was risky,” Liguori says. “It didn’t work, but it shows that we aren’t afraid to go where none have gone before.”

For his part, Liguori says the best part of his job is keeping FX’s tight-knit staff of 50 motivated and excited about their work. “No week is typical. I love it when someone comes bursting into my office because they’re excited to show me a new script or a print ad for a show. Those are the good days for me.”

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