FX gets a makeover

When FOX executives decided to launch FX in 1994, the plan for the new cable network was to go after women and go after them during daytime hours.

The network began with a handful of original talk and variety shows, the majority of which originated from New York. The shows were almost all live, and everything was ostensibly skewed to a female demographic. The idea, FOX executives now say, was fresh, and it offered real value to cable operators.

But the original FX plan was flawed because prime time programming was almost an afterthought-something that didn't bode well in terms of advertising dollars. Madison Avenue was not paying high premiums for daytime programming and still is not even today-at least not for failed daytime programming on basic cable. The key was prime time, and FX didn't offer much. So FOX executives opted to invest in the network's evening hours and acquired the syndication rights to two series: NYPD Blue and The X-Files.

The multimillion-dollar investments in the two series from co-owned production studio Twentieth Century FOX Television gave FX an instant prime time lineup and a much-needed national ratings boost in 1997. FX stripped the two series five days a week in prime time and started to build the network around the two properties.

It also launched three original series in the summer of 1998: Bobcat's Big Ass Show, Penn and Teller's Sin City Spectacular and a comedy series with Hollywood-based troupe the Groundlings. All three series were thrown on the air that summer, and all three were cancelled one year later.

Newly appointed FX President Peter Liguori killed the three series soon after joining the network and, just a few months ago, launched his first real slate of original programming. The network is still leaning on reruns of NYPD Blue and The X-Files in prime time but has gained the national media spotlight with Howard Stern's comedy series Son of the Beach and with a number of big acquisitions and investments.

The network is suddenly getting the attention of parent company News Corp., and its programming budget is set to almost double in 2001 to $175 million. The median age has come down from 44 years old to 37 over the past two years, and the network now ranks No. 9 in adults 18-49 in total-day ratings and eighth overall with men 18-34 among all basic cable channels, according to Nielsen Media Research. And the cable channel that once had only a few outlets for distribution is set to end this year with 53 million cable homes-up from 35 million in 1998.

"FX is really in a transition period right now," says new FOX Cable Channels President Jeff Shell. "FX used to be this fledgling network that was in need of distribution and carriage. Now it's sort of in the big leagues of cable networks, and the question now is less about distribution and more about the programming."

FX is set to replace its two prime time off-network syndicated series in 2001 with three fresh syndicated dramas from Twentieth Century FOX: Buffy, The Vampire Slayer; Ally McBeal; and The Practice. They will join the network next August, when, FX executives say, they will be stripped Monday through Friday in prime time.

The network is also adding NASCAR racing in February, sharing part of a cable network deal with co-owned FOX Broadcasting Co., Turner Sports and NBC. FX is expected to air a weekly NASCAR Busch series race and carry a few NASCAR Winston Cup events during the first half of the 2001 season. The FX, FOX, Turner and NBC eight-year package for NASCAR was a $2.4 billion deal. FOX and FX's portion is said to be roughly $1.2 billion. FX already has a weekly Major League Baseball game on Saturday nights and last year launched the Toughman Championships, which have given FX stronger weekend ratings.

FX has also stepped up its efforts on the film side, in both acquisitions and original productions. In March, network executives announced two new film-package acquisitions from Buena Vista and Warner Bros., packages that include the basic cable window rights to The Insider, Any Given Sunday, The Green Mile, Summer of Sam and Deuce Bigalow. They've also acquired the rights to films like The Blair Witch Project, There's Something About Mary and Boogie Nights, among others.

In terms of original-film production, FX is developing a half dozen features that will be used as quarterly specials in the years to come. The first FX original, Deliberate Intent, began filming earlier this year in Toronto and stars Timothy Hutton, James McDaniel and Ron Rifkin. Last month, Andrew McCarthy was cast as the lead for the network's planned supernatural film Shadows. FX is spending between $4 million and $6 million on each film, Liguori says.

In 2001, FX will add 10 million customers. The network signed a deal with Time Warner Cable that will finally bring FX to New York City, as well to other cities that have gone without the network. Time Warner New York's 1 million-plus cable homes will start receiving FX in 2001.

"There is a lot of momentum here. There is no doubt about that," says Liguori, who previously ran the marketing division at Fox/Liberty Networks, a division that also included oversight of FX's marketing. "We have had some successes, and we are certainly pushing the programming forward here, but there is still a lot to do."

FX is now producing 71/2 hours of original programming each week, most of that from the nightly series The X Show. Liguori launched the late-night, one-hour series last year and has renewed it through April 2001. The show is described as "a show for men and the women who put up with them."

Howard Stern's first foray into scripted television launched this spring on FX with much fanfare, surprisingly strong reviews and the network's best ratings ever for an original series. Son of the Beach averaged a 2.3 household rating for its March debut and has consistently averaged over a 1.0 rating since then. The other two new spring series, The New Movie Show With Chris Gore and weekly beauty pageant Your Favorite Girl Next Door, haven't attracted the strongest ratings and may not make it back for another season.

"Is all of our programming perfect?" asks Liguori. "No, it's not. Are all of our ratings No. 1 in the key demo and attracting millions of viewers? No, they are not. But we are moving the network in the right direction, and, when you couple it with all of our acquisitions like Ally McBeal and movies like The Green Mile, we're really going some place."

It would seem that with shows that feature scantily clad women in bathing suits, a late-night talk show addressing male issues and sports like NASCAR and Toughman, FX's target audience would surely be young men. Not true, according to Liguori and others at FOX. The push is for a 50-50 balance of men and women and the much-desired adults 18-49 demographic.

"It's absolutely, 100% adults 18-49," says Liguori of the network's desired audience. "What we have done is try to balance the schedule. When you look at our prime time demos, it's a 50-50 audience. Off-network series like NYPD Blue and The X-Files, along with shows like Ally McBeal and The Practice, skew heavily towards women. So what we have done with baseball, NASCAR and Toughman is try and make a conscious effort to bring men to the network, too."

The network's ratings of adults 18-49 have gone up over the past year. Liguori says the number of impressions in the demographic have gone up 45% in prime time and FX is currently averaging 271,000 adults 18-49 compared with last season's 187,000. And Liguori says he's going to have fun keeping up those ratings during the 2000-01 season as the network waits for the infusion of Buffy, Ally and The Practice in August 2001.

"This year is going to be a challenge, make no bones about it," he says. "What we are going to do is make sure we are as aggressive as possible with original programming, with movies and some acquisitions."

A key part of FX's strategy for next year is the presentation of the network's suddenly growing film library. Prime time on Sunday nights will continue to be "Major Movie Sundays," with films like Starship Troopers, The X-Files Movie and other major films making their basic cable debuts. A new area for the network next season will be "Generation FX Films," which may wind up on Monday nights, encompassing titles like Rounders, Boogie Nights, Election, Jackie Brown and Bulworth-all films the network acquired within the past six months.

Last month, FX added the Chris Carter (The X-Files) series Harsh Realm to its lineup and picked up the off-network rights to the Jay Mohr comedy Action. Both series were canceled early this season at Fox and have found renewed life at FX.

FX has also ordered seven more episodes of Son of the Beach, which will air this summer. Network executives are hopeful that the Stern-produced series will maintain its momentum so that it can come back during the 2000-01 season.

In development, FX has a handful of projects, including the Studios USA series Jack Cash, a reality series that goes behind the scenes of everyday jobs called Work Force, and a possible football drama. The football feature, The Pit, is currently being developed at FX as a two-hour film and may be turned into a series "if all goes right," says Liguori.

Daytime at FX currently consists of an afternoon movie and reruns of shows like Beverly Hills 90210, Picket Fences and M*A*S*H. NYPD Blue may be joining the daytime ranks next year as well. Network executives say the emphasis right now is on prime time and moving up in the ratings. Liguori says he is not looking to overtake USA or TNT/TBS in the next year or so, but he wants to build FX's brand awareness and strengthen original production on both the film and series side.

"TNT and TBS have built tremendous film libraries. USA did the same thing and added WWF. We don't want to be the fourth man in on that strategy," Liguori says. "We are taking a little bit of a different tack, in that we are going after acquired series, we are going after programming that will fit our brand and raise our brands to new heights. What we have to do is be on the same mental menu that viewers of those networks had 15 years ago. We want people to say, It's 9 p.m., I want to check out what's on FX."