Despite hoopla over its original series, cabler scores best with theatrical films

“Nip/Tuck,” “The Shield” and “Rescue Me” harvest bumper crops of publicity every time they kick off a new season, making FX one of the highest-visibility networks in all of ad-supported cable.

But night in and night out, it’s not original series but theatrical movies that are the engines driving viewers to the network; during fourth-quarter primetime, FX chalked up a gaudy sixth-place finish among people 18 to 49, a 17% jump compared to the same period in 2004.

And Chuck Saftler, executive VP of FX, says he’s preparing to unleash an even better lineup of movies, with this year as the watershed.

Just last week, FX surprised the industry by locking up cable TV rights to “Superman Returns” from Warner Bros. six months in advance of its June 30 theatrical premiere.

“Superman Returns” joins a bulging inventory of titles that FX has purchased in the past couple of years, vaulting the network ahead of such aggressive movie buyers as TNT/TBS and the USA Network. Forthcoming FX titles include “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Spider-Man 2,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” “Batman Begins,” “I, Robot,” “The Aviator,” “The Fantastic Four,” “Flightplan,” “Walk the Line,” “Ray” and “Dodgeball.”

John Landgrafe, president and general manager of FX, says the network is in effect counter-programming cable-network rivals that have laid out big bucks to get their hands on reruns of the massive number of police procedurals that could reach 14 by 2008-09, spread across TNT, USA, A&E, Spike and even Lifetime.

“When a cable network buys any one of these rerun series, it’s committing to an average contractual term of eight years,” Landgrafe says. “The typical movie deal covers only four years.”

Tim Brooks, executive VP of research for Lifetime Networks, “FX’s strategy looks like is a smart one.”

On the one hand, says Brooks, “TNT and USA have lessened their dependence on movies by making ‘Law & Order’ and its two spinoffs an inordinate part of their schedules.”

But one of the dangers of so much reliance on “Law & Order” and “CSI,” whose reruns Spike TV plays every weekday at 7 and 8 p.m., is that “these shows tend to skew older than movies, making them less desirable sales-wise,” according to Brooks.

And that’s why the holy grail at FX is the 18-to-49 viewer. Movies tend to appeal more to younger viewers than series episodes. According to Saftler, “We’ve bought such a wide variety of movies that there are some which are appropriate lead-ins to the female-appeal ‘Nip/Tuck,’ and others that are better suited to bolstering the male-oriented cop show ‘The Shield.’ “

On Jan. 10, FX reaped a bountiful 2.247 million viewers 18 to 49 for the premiere episode of the new season of “The Shield,” thanks in no small part to the 1.42 million 18 to 49s delivered by the lead-in movie, “X2: X-Men United,” in its basic-cable premiere.

There’s no question that FX has embarked on a costly strategy because the network strives to buy about 25 movies a year, four of them blockbusters. A big-hit movie can cost $20 million for one title, and even a midrange grosser that stirs up bidding interest will be able to pocket a license fee in the low eight figures.

But a rerun-series strategy is also expensive. If “CSI: New York” runs for 10 years on CBS at about 24 episodes a year, Spike TV — which paid $1.9 million for each hour — would end up funneling a cool $456 million into the coffers of King World, the distributor.

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