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Why Management Stability Has Been the Key to FX’s Success

FX is known for its edge and unpredictability. But one of the secrets to the brand’s success over the past 25 years has been management stability.

Under the leadership of FX Networks and FX Prods. chairman John Landgraf, the company has coalesced into a tight-knit group of seasoned pros in programming, marketing, production, research, business affairs, distribution and the myriad other disciplines that drive a linear cable network. Key Landgraf lieutenants — including entertainment president Eric Schrier, original programming president Nick Grad, marketing chief Stephanie Gibbons, program strategy president Chuck Saftler and communications chief John Solberg — have tenures of 15 years or more. All but Gibbons have been with FX since before Landgraf arrived in 2004. When Landgraf was promoted the following year to president, it marked his first experience at the top of a sizable organization.

“I thought I needed to be smart and know everything,” Landgraf recalls. In short order he learned a crucial lesson.

“I realized I wasn’t being paid to know everything. I was being paid to assemble a team that knew everything,” he says. “I wasn’t being paid to answer questions. I was being paid to ask them. I saw that I was incredibly blessed to have a team where any two of us put together were smarter than we could ever be on our own.”

Saftler ranks as FX’s longest-serving employee. He signed on in November 1993, joining what was then a handful of people scrambling to launch an ambitious programming effort under the direction of FX’s first leader, Anne Sweeney, who came from Nickelodeon and would go on to a long career at Disney. Mark Sonnenberg was recruited from Los Angeles TV station KTLA to serve as FX’s first head of programming.

The curtain rose June 1, 1994, on a channel that promised to deliver “TV Made Fresh Daily.” FX was available in nearly 20 million cable homes — a record for a channel debut at the time. That was a byproduct of the new leverage that Fox and other broadcast TV station owners had with cable operators after the implementation of the FCC’s retransmission consent rule.

But Fox’s move into the general entertainment arena in cable created friction with local TV station affiliates of the Fox broadcast network, which was barely 8 years old in 1994. Sensitivity to those concerns kept FX — or “fX,” as the logo was styled back then — from having any direct Fox-related branding or iconography in its early years.

The inaugural programming strategy for FX revolved largely around live shows that emanated from an apartment in New York’s Flatiron District. (The control room was on the ground floor, while FX staffers worked in offices a few floors above the apartment studio.) The centerpiece was “Breakfast Time,” modeled after the U.K.’s “The Big Breakfast” franchise.

One of the distinctions of “Breakfast Time,” which was hosted by Tom Bergeron and Laurie Hibberd, was the presence of Bob the Puppet, a large Muppet-style creature (voiced by Al Rosenberg) who would chime in at the table with Hibberd and Bergeron. He was often perched over the shoulder of guests as they sat on a couch. After the show was on the air about a year, Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg affectionately declared it to be “masterfully choreographed chaos” and “two hours of grand nonsense.”

The first FX lineup included a program that, as a cross between eBay and “Antiques Roadshow,” was ahead of its time: “Personal fX” invited viewers to bring in antiques and other curios to a team of appraisers, who would discuss the items and offer them up for sale in real time, with viewers invited to make bids by phone. “It was a fascinating time,” Saftler says. “It was interesting to watch the network, person by person, brick by brick, really start to grow.”

But the live programming strategy proved costly. “Breakfast Time” was canceled in March 1996. Sweeney left FX for Disney in February of that year and was succeeded by Sonnenberg.

By the summer of 1997, FX had shifted to a primetime schedule built around reruns of “NYPD Blue” and “The X-Files,” which were two of TV’s hottest dramas. Acquiring rights to recent theatrical movies also became an important component of FX’s offering, as it is today.

The success of the off-network strategy provided the financial foundation for FX to move into original scripted programming. Peter Liguori had been working on marketing for the network (and other Fox outlets) when he was tapped to replace Sonnenberg as president in 1998. Liguori quickly sketched out the vision for FX to strive to become the basic cable version of HBO via envelope-pushing shows that couldn’t be done on broadcast TV. NBC and Brillstein-Grey Entertainment alum Kevin Reilly signed on as programming chief in 2000.

FX’s first scripted effort was the “Baywatch” parody “Son of the Beach,” which ran from 2000 to 2002. The channel had considerably more impact with its second series.

The gritty police drama “The Shield,” inspired in part by months of headlines about renegade cops in the Los Angeles Police Dept., was hailed as a breakthrough for TV. Behind the scenes, “Shield” set the tone for FX to gamble on untested showrunners, as series creator Shawn Ryan was at the time. It was also a trailblazer for basic cable when star Michael Chiklis won the lead drama actor Emmy for the show’s first season in 2002. The following year, future super-producer Ryan Murphy began his long association with FX with the debut of “Nip/Tuck,” a potboiler revolving around rival plastic surgeons in Miami.

Landgraf came into the picture in January 2004 when he was recruited as head of programming, after Reilly departed for NBC. By the time he was promoted to president and general manager in May 2005, after Liguori was tapped to run the Fox broadcast network, Landgraf was part of a continuum that has cultivated not only one of TV’s most high-wattage network brands but also a workplace culture that is FX’s not-so-secret weapon.

“The way the leadership of this company has changed has never been a case where somebody left and the next day someone new shows up and had no sense of the culture or the people,” says Saftler, noting that each leader that followed Sweeney was promoted from within. “It’s exemplified the best practices of how to be a boss. It allowed us to push the boundaries and test the elasticity of what FX could become.”

Landgraf has instilled a spirit of collaboration across the organization that is reflected in the strength and distinctiveness of the programs.

“Something can come in the door as X person’s show that they found and shepherded,” says Grad. “At some point, it becomes our show. Everyone connects with it and gets behind it, and then we all work on it. Everyone feels really proud of the shows we do here.”

Saftler was drawn to Fox’s start-up cable venture back in 1993 because of Rupert Murdoch’s track record as a media entrepreneur. He was not disappointed.

“The network has constantly evolved,” Saftler says. “It’s been nothing but entrepreneurial every step of the way. It’s never felt like the same job on any given day. That’s part of the joy of being here as long as we’ve all been here.”

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