No sign of aging

FX's 'Nip/Tuck' still draws aud in 4th year

Unlike most hits that lose steam in their second and third years, FX’s “Nip/Tuck” is climbing into its fourth year as cable king.

dult-themed plastic surgery sudser has reigned over the 18-49 heap for the past three years. Now more than ever, A-listers from film and television are taking notice of the show’s booming popularity with young audiences.

Brooke Shields, Rosie O’Donnell and Peter Dinklage are among the well-known faces gleefully playing against type, and the star wattage is helping “Nip/Tuck” top its own benchmarks despite taking on firstrun broadcast competish.

But people who work on the skein, and critics too, attribute its success to an enduringly unique premise.

“Nip/Tuck” is unlike any other hybrid on TV — part adult drama, part daytime serial — set against the backdrop of a plastic surgery practice in Miami. Leads Dylan Walsh, Julian McMahon and Joely Richardson are at once soap operatically incestuous and emotionally devastating.

The successful mix of authentic and outrageous — captured in the show’s tagline “TV’s most deeply superficially show” — fills a special place on the dial.

“There’s a big vast middle that wants safe comfort food, but there is a growing segment that wants something original,” says FX Network prexy/g.m. John Landgraf, pointing to fall shows like “Heroes” and “Ugly Betty” as examples of similarly distinctive series. “Shows that felt remotely derivative didn’t even get sampled.”

” ‘Nip/Tuck’ isn’t ‘The Wire.’ It’s macabre and sexy and relishing its place in pop culture,” Landgraf says.

To hear it from creator-exec producer Ryan Murphy, the show is a satire of the world “where everyone is looking for a quick fix to give their lives meaning — and, of course, it never happens.” And for all its glossy packaging, “I think that theme of need is what resonates with people.”

But beyond that, Murphy can’t quite explain the growth. He knows fourth-season upticks are virtually unheard of in television. The show’s loyal fans even stuck with the series through a potentially shark-jumping third season in which a serial killer plotline took over the character-driven drama.

“I had to eat a lot of crow,” he freely admits. Still, a hearty 5.7 million tuned into the third-season finale.

With the assistance of network execs at FX and the show’s fans — Murphy says he has an ongoing dialogue with the latter via Internet message boards — the writers are back on track, and the current season has been lauded by critics as a return to form.

“Ultimately, these guys are latter day ‘gods,’ with their power over beauty,” Landgraf says, alluding to the marketing campaign depicting the surgeons putting together a modern-day woman in the image of Venus de Milo. “We wanted to embrace the fun in that without losing the emotional core.”

The formula adds up: Its fourth season to-date has averaged 2.9 million adults 18-49, outperforming its previous run and standing as the clear leader among cable series.

The demo perf eclipses its competitors’ by a significant margin: “The Closer” by 600,000, “Psych” and “South Park” by 700,000. When an episode’s three subsequent airings are factored in, each episode draws an average 5.6 million adults 18-49. That tally is higher than everything on the CW and several of the new fall shows on other nets.

Because building an audience after three seasons is rare, “Nip/Tuck” is much more of a commodity than reality headline-grabbers like VH1 star Flavor Flav. The rapper set ratings records when nearly 5 million adults under 50 tuned into the finale of his dating show “Flavor of Love” last week, but industryites say the smarter, scripted chops of a “Nip/Tuck” will win out every time when it comes to cable’s core constituencies: affiliates and advertisers.

Horizon Media senior VP Brad Adgate says that while the number of scripted dramas on cable grows each year, they’re still overwhelmed by the gads of cheaper reality shows that populate niche channels. That ratio makes critically acclaimed cable skeins like “Nip/Tuck,” “The Shield,” “The Closer” and “Monk” far more desirable.

“Dramas are still worth more to advertisers,” Adgate says. The consistent growth of “Nip/Tuck” is a tribute to the show’s unique premise, he adds. “There’s nothing else on television like it. After four years, it still stands out in a crowd.”

Starcom VP of research Tom Weeks puts it another way: “The backbone of the TV business is storytelling, so while advertisers judge shows on a case-by-case basis, scripted series will always carry more cachet.”

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