Edgy Fare Drives FX

A plastic surgeon on Nip/Tuck
has graphic sex with an anatomically correct latex doll. A fireman on Rescue Me
has a Viagra- and handcuff-laced ménage à trois. In both scenes, the camera lingers before cutting away.

It's not HBO, it's FX.

Offering some of the grittiest, most sexually explicit series on television, FX, once an also-ran, is now a top-10 cable network. Original shows such as the over-the-top plastic-surgery soap Nip/ Tuck, the taut firehouse drama Rescue Me
and the manic cops-as-robbers The Shield
are at the heart of the network's success.

FX President Peter Liguori acknowledges that his stable of provocative series helps drive ratings but contends the most explicit elements aren't just tacked on as a titillation-of-the-week. They emerge from the drama of the shows. He bolsters his argument by pointing to the critical praise heaped on all three marquee titles.
"We are doing challenging programming," Liguori says. "We wouldn't be having these debates if we were just doing an episode of Judging Amy."

He probably wouldn't be having the same success, either.

For the summer, FX's total prime time audience was up 33% to 1.3 million viewers. During the same period, viewing among adults 18-49 increased 44%; among 18-34s, 53%. Nip/Tuck
was the No. 1 cable show among adults 18-49 recently.

But ratings don't always translate into ad revenue. Nip/Tuck, with its explicit sex and graphic operating-room scenes (bloody eye sockets were featured in a recent episode), can prove a tough sell.

Doug Seay, senior vice president for Publicis & Hal Riney, says he loves Nip/Tuck
but won't put clients into it due to its sexual fare. "There is nothing worse than having high ratings but content that big mainstream advertisers avoid," he says, adding, "It hinders FX as a viable network. When you take away good shows that are unique, it hurts your ability to sell out your entire inventory."

And the usual suspects are complaining, too. Parents Television Council (PTC), for example, is pushing its members to hound any company that advertises on Nip/Tuck. Despite admitting that it exaggerated claims in past anti-violence campaigns, PTC is still effective in filling advertisers' e-mail with complaints.

Ligouri isn't worried, noting that Nip/ Tuck, Rescue Me
and The Shield
sell out. Especially edgy episodes are pre-screened for media buyers; no one is surprised by what they buy. "Advertisers seeking some higher-end customers with sophisticated tastes know our audience is buying their product," he says, citing satellite radio company XM Radio as an example.

Others attracted to FX's provocative lineup include America Online and Mitsubishi Motors. In addition, irony notwithstanding, Miller Beer is a primary sponsor of Rescue Me, a series that chronicles the post-9/11 travails of an alcoholic New York City fireman played by Denis Leary. The deal also includes product placement. When the hard-partying firefighters want to kick back, it's Miller time.

Some blue-chip advertisers, however, believe FX's raw fare pushes the boundaries too far. The Los Angeles Times
recently noted that Gateway, Cingular and Ben & Jerry's ice cream, among others, have dropped Nip/Tuck. Cingular acknowledges that the show is on its do-not-buy list, although its agency mistakenly bought time on local cable systems in New York City and Syracuse, N.Y.

As to the future, both Nip/Tuck
and Rescue Me
finish their seasons next month, so the network's ratings growth could slow. To compensate, FX picked up cable syndication rights to gross-out reality hit Fear Factor,
a proven success this summer. FX grabbed cable rights for the show last winter for about $300,000 per episode. That's cheap for an hour-long show off a broadcast network, but Fear
was considered a risk. Reality shows generally do poorly in reruns, so producers have rarely attempted to syndicate them to cable networks or stations.

Still, Fear Factor
has proved an exception to that rule (see related story, page 2). When it airs in prime time on Friday nights, it's not a huge success in terms of total viewers, but it skews young, improving FX's overall demos. The show has also done well in its daily runs at 7 p.m. ET and in various late-night slots.

In addition, the network owns rights to a strong library of theatrical movies. Turner Broadcasting research chief Jack Wakshlag attributes about 60% of FX's recent ratings gains to the movie package and Fear Factor.

Rescue Me
and Nip/Tuck
have been renewed, and The Shield
is expected to return in first quarter 2005. Yet even Liguori admits he needs more original hits, while exploring comedies and reality, to sustain his network's growth. And he's up for the challenge: "It's daunting and exciting all in one."