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Cabler FX puts its best face forward

'Shield,' 'Nip/Tuck' help pave way for bold TV breed

Hip cabler FX didn’t exactly make waves in its charter voyage.

Scheduling a mix of goofy live chatshows and cheesy off-net fare, FX scored some points for originality, but it didn’t make a splash with viewers. The channel later saw its fortunes improve by scheduling a mix of top-notch 20th Century Fox TV fare (“The X-Files,” “NYPD Blue”) — until bored auds began abandoning ship.

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These days, FX has finally found its port of call: As the so-called HBO of basic cable.

“We’re not exactly insulted,” FX prexy-CEO Peter Liguori says of the comparison.

And despite recent setbacks — entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly announced in June he was flying the cabler coop for Peacock pastures — FX is finally finding its footing, armed with ample breathing room afforded by the careful management of Fox Group chair-CEO Peter Chernin.

“There’s input, but not over-input,” says Liguori, who calls Chernin the consummate manager. “The guy is truly left brain/right brain — he talks about creative content, story structure and dialogue in one meeting, and technology and the science of the business in the next.”

The Fox mandate is straightforward enough: The bolder, the better. What started with last year’s wave of Emmy love, courtesy of gritty, bad-cop drama “The Shield,” has paved the way for a steady stream of envelope-pushing original programming — unusual among FX’s ad-supported peers. Net’s new plastic surgery drama “Nip/Tuck,” which boasts nudity, sex and graphic violence, has delivered critically and commercially in cable’s highly competitive Tuesday night.

The decision to do away with a risk-averse, advertiser-friendly strategy has been a boon to the 9-year-old net, now available in 77 million homes. “A lot of networks would hunker down and say, ‘Let’s do a bunch of presentations and make absolutely sure.’ Here, the idea is your air should be alive,” Liguori says.

Of course, boldness breeds bumps.

Voted off the FX isle so far: John Corbett starrer “Lucky” (which made history as the first basic-cable series to nab an Emmy nod for comedy writing). Also, the dismal ratings of latenight’s “The Orlando Jones Show” may send the yakker packing soon.

Missteps, however, are still strides when it comes to brand building, according to Liguori. “You look at ‘The Shield’ and ‘Nip/Tuck,’ and the roster of movies we’ve put out there, but you also look at the things we’ve tried,” he says. “You see that we are reaching for more creatively courageous projects. And granted some of these things are not going to work, some will work better than others, but that chance-taking is part of the overall News Corp. spirit.”