FX goes beyond the basics

Despite threat of indecency legislation cabler adds more edgy fare to slate

It’s not a secret anymore: FX is trying to be basic cable’s HBO.

Cabler last week picked up original dramas from Steven Bochco and Gavin Polone. Projects — a war drama set in modern-day Iraq and a heist skein starring Andre Braugher — give FX five original hour-longs.

That’s more than any other ad-supported cable network.

With the threat of indecency legislation looming over cable, FX, known for its gritty portrayals of contemporary urban life, is venturing into dangerous territory.

Media buyers call it a double-edged sword: “They’ve got the shows people are buzzing about, but they can’t get skittish advertisers to buy in,” says Laura Caraccioli-Davis, senior VP and director for media buying firm Starcom.

But that’s OK with entertainment prexy John Landgraf.

In the year he’s been onboard, Landgraf has won the blessing of News Corp. prexy Peter Chernin and Fox Cable Networks topper Tony Vinciquerra to program FX as if it were a premium destination.

He says major advertisers long ago warmed up to that positioning.

“The new season of ‘The Shield’ is sold out. You can’t buy time on the show anymore,” he offers, proof that FX has found a place for edgier fare. And they’re broadening the palette.

Glenn Close embarks on her first series regular gig in “The Shield” next week.

On tap for the summer are a pair of half-hour comedies — rarely successful on cable — aimed squarely at FX’s sophisticated adult aud. And queuing up in the pipeline is a provocative doc series from Sundance winner Morgan Spurlock and an ambitious 10-hour interpretation of the Ten Commandments from George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh.

With critical recognition and a rep for risk-taking t, FX has gotten the big names to forego their usual rates, and has everyone else lining up to work with them. Now that they’ve invested in dramas, comedies and reality, Landgraf hopes to levy those originals for broadcast-sized ad rates.

“We want to dominate. We want to be a leader of original programmer in all of television, broadcast, cable and premium,” he says.

Kagan Research estimates that FX spent $275 million on programming last year but received $485 million from advertisers and affiliates.

FX shows boast some of the highest 18-49 numbers on basic cable, with concentrations not even the larger general entertainment cablers can claim.

“People who watch FX, more than likely, have a number of desirable attributes. They’re young. They’re early adapters. They’re trend-setters. But they’re also characteristically hard to reach,” a media analyst says.

But with its premium cabler tone and positioning comes a price. As it stands now, cable nets account for just 30% of TV ad dollars.

“They’ve got all this critical acclaim and the stories they’re telling are fantastic. But in taking up that HBO niche, they’ve probably closed some advertising categories that bring in major dollars,” she says. “If they can’t generate enough revenue with all this new programming, my concern is how they will be able to sustain the business model they’ve set up.”

But Landgraf says he’s taken care to be fiscally prudent. Heist hour “Thief” will get just a six-episode run for its first cycle. And both frosh comedies — one about friends with eating disorders and the other about friends who own a bar — are low-budget with just seven-seg commitments.

“I knew to pursue all over those challenges and opportunities we had to find a way to do things less expensively,” he says. “Should we renew these shows, it’ll likely be for longer stretches.”

It’s risky, but Starcom’s Caraccioli-Davis says FX could benefit from a large number of shows. Because their concentration of young men is so high, ad categories that rely on those men — movies, beer, videogames — can’t afford not to buy FX.

“Those advertisers have more leeway and are less sensitive to content,” she says, but adds softer categories such as packaged goods eventually become necessary to reach bigger bucks.

But FX execs say all in due time.

Landgraf claims their originals command some of the highest-priced spots in cable, though media buyers say they don’t approach shows on the Big Six just yet.

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