Edgy cabler casts wide net

As the champagne and celebs flowed freely through FX’s premiere party for “Rescue Me” in Gotham last month, the cable net’s topper John Landgraf held forth to a reporter about the relationship between Shakespeare, Updike and the FX slate.

The cerebral, polished Landgraf is running FX these days with a willful disregard for TV’s unwritten rules, resulting in a network that bucks many of the current cable trends.

As the net debuted the fourth season of “Rescue Me” last week and preps for the release of its big summer bet “Damages” next month, Landgraf and his team face arguably the most critical point of their tenure.

Thanks in part to a low-cost production model, FX will air eight original series this year — more than any net has ever aired on basic-cable (and several times the number it aired when Landgraf joined as FX Entertainment prexy in 2004 under Peter Liguori, now head of programming at Fox).

“Every other network takes risks within shows. FX takes risks with the whole network,” says Nick Frenkel of 3 Arts Entertainment, which produces FX’s sitcom “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”

Consistently among primetime’s top 10 basic cable nets in adults 18-49, FX is sticking with daring programming at a time when other cablers have moved to fare more typical of the broadcast networks.

But that only tells part of the story.

Under Landgraf and a male-skewing development team that includes Nick Grad, Matthew Cherniss and Eric Schrier, FX continues to favor big cultural statements — sometimes even over more typically edgy fare.

It’s notable that FX chose to pick up the sweepingly literary “The Riches,” a tale of a family trying to swindle its way into the American dream — Landgraf says he considers it a modern-day “Great Gatsby” — instead of what might be considered a more traditional FX show, “Breaking Bad,” which centers on a sympathetic meth dealer. (AMC is now developing that series.)

What’s more, where most nets find a theme and then package shows as a block, FX continues to consciously avoid series that could play off one another, almost as though to do so would be considered cheating. (The net

almost never skeds shows at 9 o’clock, making a lead-in difficult.)

In many ways, FX is run more like a movie studio than a cable network. Some loose threads might hold projects together, but each show varies so much from the other they may as well be on different slates. There’s a Morgan Spurlock docu series, a zany barstool sitcom, a plastic-surgery drama, a mystery show set in the world of the tabloids.

Programming can be so far-flung that execs admit they have had trouble branding the net. FX is only now beginning to develop a campaign to bring its disparate shows under one flag, after competitors like USA and TNT have had them in place for several years.

Spending less money on each show to place a wider range of bets can make for shrewd shoeleather programming. But it also means the net and Landgraf have less wiggle room.

With the show’s biggest hits now at least in their fourth season, and some newer series failing to find their footing (the Steven Bochco’s Iraq series “Over There” is one recent example), FX needs its younger series to catch on.

That means shows like “Dirt” and “The Riches,” both of which have been picked up for a second season, but which in their first season averaged 2.1 million and 2.2 million viewers, respectively, the lowest debut for any of the five scripted dramas currently on the air.

And it certainly means a show like “Damages,” a slick show with Glenn Close that the net is hoping can become a cornerstone to replace “The Shield.”

Over his history at FX, Landgraf has shown a capacity to grow hits — “Rescue Me” has grown auds by nearly 10% since its first season, and “Nip/Tuck” is up a whopping 19% since it debuted, last year averaging close to four million viewers. (Among Landgraf’s innovations to keep a maturing series fresh is bringing in theatrical celebs. The exec led the push to bring Close to “The Shield” in its third season.)

So far this year, though, FX has had a shaky record. After a first quarter that saw primetime ratings rise 3% in total viewers, May saw a plummet of 25%. “The Shield” has lost about 20% of its viewers in its sixth (and next-to-last) season, which just ended. The “Riches” finale garnered a modest 1.8 million viewers.

What that means for Landgraf is almost as critical as what it means for the net. Given the history of the network’s toppers, one wonders what the exec’s next move will be. (He has already had a five-year stint at NBC and as a producer with Danny DeVito’s Jersey Television.)

FX, of course, has always had an experimental spirit. Under Liguori and former entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly, the net made a move that has become part of cable lore. It bought what was essentially a writing sample from a young scribe looking to land a gig on “Nash Bridges,” then developed it as a low-budget show that could be shot on the cheap in L.A.

The program was “The Shield,” which went on to become one of the biggest hits in the history of cable.

Under Landgraf, however, it has pushed into even more exotic territory, building shows on antiheroes and refining its taste for programming risk. “They don’t judge likability and rooting interest with the standard that pretty much every other network uses,” says Zack Van Amburg, the co-prexy of Sony Television, which has three shows on the air at FX, and is one of many producers to tout FX as one of the most writer-friendly nets on television.

Landgraf has kept production costs low despite the conventional wisdom that one uses money from success to increase budgets.

Most hourlongs at FX stay comfortably under $2 million, and shooting schedules rarely go longer than one week per episode — lower than some shows at its rivals, and a world apart from the luxurious schedules and budgets of the pay nets. (This has helped the net open up the vaults for movies, buying tentpoles like “Spider-Man 3″ and “X-Men: The Last Stand.”)

In response to producers antsy about budget allocations, Landgraf has been known to tell them — only half-jokingly, one suspects — that some of the best art has come out of totalitarian regimes. (In an interview he says that fiscal discipline is the antidote to lazy shoots because it forces smarter creative choices.)

Still, even with the low cost of some of its shows, money can still be an issue for a net like FX. While Landgraf stops short of saying that the slate increase will put any of the net’s eight series on a tighter leash, he acknowledges that “Our resource pool is spread more thinly now.”

Rival nets are a bit more forceful: they respect its abillity to stretch a dollar into ratings and Emmy awards. But they also have begun to question some of the newer series.

“What FX does best is take a franchise concept and go crazy with it, like what ‘Nip/Tuck’ did with a medical drama or ‘The Shield’ did with a cop show,” says one rival programming exec. “With the last round of shows like ‘The Riches’ and ‘Dirt,’ they’re trying to reinvent the wheel.”

Landgraf often touts FX as a basic-cable HBO because of the net’s daring and creative integrity, but the rival exec noted that the new shows are “copying the wrong kind of HBO” — that is, the kind whose shows can afford to be stubbornly different because they don’t need to worry in the same way about ratings or advertisers.

“Damages,” with Close as a sharpie litigator and Ted Danson as a Ken Lay figure is, then, a return to FX’s roots. It’s set against a recognizable legal backdrop, but with amped up music and a cinematic structure.

Over lunch at the Fox commissary, when asked about the key to getting new shows to take off, Landgraf predictably avoids the pat answer, instead raising a theory he’s recently read about. It’s the idea of “cumulative advantage”– that traditional top-down marketing is becoming obsolete and the future will be defined by the taste of millions of consumers being matched to millions of options, with an eye on creativity over selling.

It’s a fittingly iconoclastic view for an exec bending the TV model — and also a view which, when applied to the real world of television, has yet to be proven. Says Frenkel: “FX is giving an amazing stage to some people who wouldn’t fit in at other networks. Whether that benefits them or not in the long run remains to be seen.”

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