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Shield Is FX's Force of One

Maybe it takes an Emmy Award to raise a network. Or, at least, a cable network. After years of missteps, FX is finally earning some applause, mainly because of rogue-cop drama The Shield, which returns for season two Jan. 7 at 10 p.m. ET.

Prime time ratings have made healthy advances, and now it seems the network is making some right moves. Tired acquired series were jettisoned and replaced with theatrical movies in prime. And FX's second scripted original, Lucky, a half-hour dark comedy about a down-on-his-luck gambler played by former Sex and the City star John Corbett, will bow in the spring.

In 2002, prime time ratings were up 14%, to a 0.7, compared with 2001, and delivery to adults 18-49 increased 29%, according to Nielsen Media Research

FX has had some small hits, like Howard Stern's comedy Son of a Beach, but its missteps, such as early live programming and acquiring Ally McBeal and The Practice from corporate cousin Twentieth Television, have been louder thuds.

With The Shield and prime time movies, FX has embraced the proven general-entertainment formula that works for Nielsen leaders like USA Network and TNT.

"In their continuing search for their identity, FX is focusing its programming better now than they have in past seasons," says Kathryn Thomas, associate director for Starcomm Media Entertainment.

And now a bigger feat: the awaited return of The Shield. "It's even a more daunting task" than the first season, admits FX President Peter Liguori. "A show of this caliber is uncharted territory for us."

The Shield wasn't always a slam-dunk proposition. It comes with a hefty price tag of about $1.3 million per episode plus the millions more that FX lavished on marketing and promotion. And in the first season, the show's rough language and often rougher content repelled about 20 timid advertisers. Still, The Shield resulted in a clear win. Season one averaged a strong 2.8 rating with 3.2 million viewers over 13 episodes. And star Michael Chiklis took home the Best Actor Emmy, beating out more-established actors like The West Wing's Martin Sheen and 24's Kiefer Sutherland.

Season two gets the same production and marketing dollars. Creatively, it's the same sometimes dark and dirty show. What's different, Liguori says, is viewers and critics recognize "the quality and distinctiveness of the show."

Around its prized originals, FX now relies on movies. Liguori says movies give FX programmers more flexibility than five nights of acquired shows. "We can schedule strong dramas or action movies leading into The Shield or strong comedies leading into Lucky."

And movies help FX's bottom line. "The juggling act is to be able to afford quality first-run shows," said Starcomm's Thomas.