FX struggles as latest launches lost their edge

Cabler's new crop has trouble finding auds

After an enviable run of hits, FX is discovering a truth that all programmers face: Come up to bat enough times, and you’re going to start striking out.

The situation is hardly dire for the network, with hits “The Shield,” “Nip/Tick” and “Rescue Me” returning for at least one more season. But the tide has shifted in the past two years as FX president-general manager John Landgraf watched the ratings erosion of launch after launch.

The cabler’s most expensive bets — the heavily marketed Iraq war-set gamble “Over There” and Andre Braugher starrer “Thief” — won’t be back. Nor will one-shot event “Black.White.,” a series that started strong but lost a staggering 77% of its 18- to 49-year-old viewers over the course of its six-episode run. (Morgan Spurlock’s social experiment reality show “30 Days” has been renewed thanks to a more consistent performance.)

Channel’s first comedy block, anchored by low-budget efforts “Starved” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” never got off the ground, though executives are giving critically acclaimed “Sunny” another shot this summer (with the addition of Danny DeVito as a regular cast member).

All this has heightened the stakes for FX as execs contemplate their next original offerings. Over the coming weeks, they’ll choose which of two potential dramas will go to series. Both are anchored around FX’s well-honed brand of middle-aged urban types in personal crisis, but explore new — and perhaps more commercial ground — for the basic cabler so often compared to premium network HBO.

Potential skeins are “Lowlife,” starring Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver as co-heads of a family of grifters, and “Dirt” about a powerful celebrity tabloid editor played by Courtney Cox. Choice will be critical for the network, which hasn’t put on a successful scripted series since the debut of 2004’s Denis Leary firefighter drama “Rescue Me.”

FX is up against the same marketing noise and increased programming competition that all general entertainment cable networks face. But picking shows that walk the line between edgy and commercial, indeed the hallmark of an FX series, has become a more perilous affair.

(Even adult programming kingpin HBO isn’t immune to the dilemma, having struck out with “The Comeback” and achieved only modest success with recent one-hours “Rome” and “Big Love.”)

With its distribution virtually maxed out, sticking to the adult themes could get tougher for the News Corp.-owned cabler as bottom-line demands loom. And multimillion-dollar dramas last only one season, so they don’t come cheap.

Regarding “Over There” and “Thief,” Landgraf says, “Our audience told us that these weren’t shows they had a passion for, especially when compared to our three hits.”

In choosing the new shows, topper says the strategy will continue to be finding the best shows regardless of theme. But he acknowledges that both “Dirt” and “Lowlife” expand upon FX’s core audience of young men. “Dirt” is anchored by a female lead while “Lowlife” is essentially a family drama — both firsts for the network.

“One of the things I wanted to do over time is produce shows that weren’t only for men,” he says. “On the other hand, we just try to pick up the best shows we have.”

Few debate the creative merits of FX’s shows — the network will salute both canceled and returning series in this year’s Emmy campaign — but by all accounts “Over There” and “Thief” drew more mixed reviews than the channel’s other dramas.

Experimenting a little outside its wheelhouse is now key, Landgraf says. “Both pilots accomplish different things. Technically, we can pick up both,” greenlighting a full season of one show and a shorter order for the other.

But launching is even more of a challenge. “We can’t provide lead-ins,” Landgraf admits. “It would be brilliant to have ‘Nip/Tuck’ launch a new drama for us, but the content of our shows makes it impossible to air even the repeats before 10.”

His higher-ups insist there’s no pressure to lighten up the often gritty nature of FX’s hits. But money’s being spent to reverse the downward trend of show launches.

Fox Networks Group prexy-CEO Tony Vinciquerra has OK’d an aggressive buying strategy for blockbuster films that would provide a bigger platform leading into new series launches.

FX has ponied up big bucks for first network windows to “Batman Begins,” “Spider-Man 2,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” “The Aviator,” “Ray,” “I, Robot” and “DodgeBall.” (Sister network Fox will give “Sunny” a three-week run starting June 11 in the plum post-“Family Guy” timeslot.) Most of those films will join the sked mid-2007.

Vinciquerra and Landgraf have also considered developing less-risque shows for the 9 p.m. hour, which would provide original anchors for the 10 p.m. shows, but they have no plans to do so in the immediate future.

“We haven’t ruled it out, but it would be very difficult at this point to put on an original show at 9. It’s not what FX has been developing for,” Vinciquerra says.

Brad Adgate, senior VP at Horizon Media, says it would be a mistake for FX to take a lighter tact to its originals strategy.

“They need to stay the course,” he says, pointing out that the broadcasters had just showcased a number of edgy dramas during May’s upfront presentations. “There is room for improvement because they don’t yet deliver the massive numbers of TNT or USA, but FX is identified in the TV marketplace for these types of programs. It’s way too competitive to try and change their game at this point.”

And no one sneezes at three hit shows, all of which are tops in the prized 18-49 demographic. “Most cable networks would kill to have three appointment shows on their air,” Adgate adds.

The bar at FX is set high. If anything, Landgraf says “Thief” may have been too commercial and “Over There” may have been too narrow.

“Niche isn’t where we want to be,” he says. “We’re determined to be both broad and quality. It’s not going to get any easier.”

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