I wasn't surprised when the new FX series Dirt opened big last week, averaging 3.7 million viewers. The Courteney Cox vehicle about the editrix of a sleazy gossip mag, her schizoid ace-paparazzi pal and the sex-and-drug–addled stars they live to humiliate was in the same edgy wheelhouse as FX stalwarts The Shield, Rescue Me and Nip/Tuck. It's yet more proof that the basic-cable network is HBO with commercials.
Back in 2002, when The Shield premiered, naysayers predicted FX would fail by wading into programming waters that were strictly the province of premium cable. Maybe HBO could reinvigorate itself with original, transgressive stuff like Oz and The Sopranos, they said. But an ad-supported network couldn't build a brand on basic cable with a violent, morally ambiguous cop drama, no matter how well-produced.
The show, of course, was a hit, as were most of the FX series that followed. Just as HBO series The Wire, Sex and the City and Six Feet Under raised the bar for its pay-cable competitor Showtime, currently in the midst of a creative upswing, FX has changed the game for networks beholden to Madison Avenue.
Not everyone is pushing boundaries of taste and convention the way it does, but FX's success has been an essential catalyst for the resurgence of drama on TV in much the same way MTV and Comedy Central have laid the groundwork for innovation in reality and comedy.
It's unlikely that the current flowering of scripted series on cable—from the conventional on USA, TNT and TBS to the more original on IFC and Sci Fi—would've happened if FX hadn't rolled the dice.
The FX effect has been felt at the broadcast networks, too. Fox, the home of hit doc drama House, is run by Peter Liguori, who put the FX blueprint in place. NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly worked hand-in-glove with Liguori, developing FX's first generation of hit dramas, before helping the Peacock return to its blue-chip roots with shows like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. No doubt, ABC's comeback in the drama arena in recent years owes something to the example set by FX.
And there's no question FX knows how to market, spending between $8 million and $10 million to open its marquee dramas. Beyond TV spots and traditional ad buys in daily newspapers, FX touted Dirt in the very publications the series satirizes, from Star and National Enquirer to US Weekly and In Touch.
Celebrity-obsessed Websites like Gawker, PopSugar and PerezHilton.com were also used in the campaign.
Sure, you can spend money smartly to get viewers to sample, but folks won't stick around if a series doesn't have the goods. Dirt does. Despite a shaky start, the show begins to jell by Episode 3.
But even if Dirt should fade, FX won't lose its standing as an It network. The darkly funny sitcom Lucky, the Iraq war drama Over There and the short-run series Thief may have resonated more with critics than with viewers, but all were noble ventures that upheld the FX brand.
Under current boss John Landgraf, production and ratings have remained strong on FX's veteran series. And the network has series slated to premiere this year, including The Riches, with British comic Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver as married con artists, and a high-concept legal drama (described as Wall Street meets The Firm) starring Shield alumnus Glenn Close.
All promise to deliver to what viewers have come to expect from FX. And that's a good thing.
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