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An ‘Unsung Genius’ With a Read on the Future

Whether it’s acquiring blockbuster movies two years before they will air, or an off-network sitcom he won’t get for four years, Chuck Saftler’s work requires uncanny reads on the future.

“The checks you write are in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” says Saftler’s boss John Landgraf, FX Networks president and general manager. “And you’re making bets that don’t come to fruition for a long time.”

Landgraf, who calls Saftler an “unsung genius,” says that in a business where so many decisions are made “fearfully” and “defensively” about “the flavor of the month,” Saftler, FX Networks executive VP and general manager of Fox Movie Channel, “pays attention to how people consume television and why.”

Saftler joined FX before the network debuted more than 18 years ago, and he started demonstrating a knack for forecasting what the entertainment business would look like well before that.

He grew up in Brockton, Mass., a blue-collar boxing town known, as he says, for producing Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler—not TV executives. But after an internship as a college PR rep for Columbia Pictures during his last two years at Boston University, he was hooked on entertainment. The first actor he encountered was Jeff Bridges, on the Starman campaign: “I was a 19-, 20-year-old kid from Brockton. It was awesome,” Saftler says. “and I guess the kind of thing that leads to wanting to come follow the dream.”

He decided to pursue entertainment in L.A. over New York because of the better weather and because, in 1985, he could already see the business was centralizing in Hollywood. Shortly after graduating from college, he drove across the country with everything he had in an AMC Concord while his beloved Boston Celtics played the L.A. Lakers in the NBA Finals.

Saftler is a huge hometown sports fan. Boston sports mementos are displayed throughout his office, along with signed Bruce Springsteen albums and family photos. He and his wife, Colleen, have been to more than 100 Springsteen shows. “You can see my big passions here,” Saftler says in an interview in his office overlooking the Fox lot. An avid tech and gadget consumer, he keeps his iPad close, too.

Saftler has claimed plenty of wins throughout his career (an Emmy for original programming on FMC also sits in his office). But two of the biggest bets in his tenure at FX are right now having tremendous impact, with the network off to its best calendar-year start in ratings in eight years. The acquisition of off-network comedy Two and a Half Men, which debuted on FX on Labor Day 2010, and the licensing of what’s now a deep library of theatrical titles has helped drive FX’s primetime up 20% in adults 18-to-49 for Jan./Feb. 2011 over its 2010 average for the same period, to 903,000 viewers. FX is also up 23% in total viewers over last year’s average, to 1.66 million.

Saftler is stripping Men Mon.-Fri., stacking it Thursdays as a lead-in to FX’s original comedies and stacking it on Saturday nights as well. Regardless of any impact Men star Charlie Sheen’s recent controversy may have on the run of the show on FX, Saftler says it’s performing exactly how he expected it to, based on ratings trends of all the comedies that “meaningfully performed in the last decade on cable.” He’s using an age-old programming trick, he says—that a show’s best lead-in is itself. Viewers get sucked in.

One of the things he figured out early in his career is that to make creative ideas work, “you have to understand how the audience behaves, thinks, acts,” Saftler says. After his first job in the business, in KTLA Los Angeles’ traffic department, he targeted a post in research at the station before moving on to a gig at Columbia Pictures Television (now Sony), where he got a “deep and immersive lesson” on syndication.

He still calls on what he learned at Columbia. And that goes for when his former colleagues pitch him.

John Weiser, president of U.S. distribution for Sony Pictures TV, worked with Saftler at Columbia. He says the FX exec is good at reading trends. “Chuck has a complete and dynamic understanding of the marketplace,” Weiser says. “He is very tough to negotiate with because he’s so knowledgeable. But he’s always fair.”

Weiser, who like Landgraf considers Saftler a friend, adds: “And Chuck never pays us enough.”

Saftler says he learned his approach to business working in his youth for the family business, a fabric store. “You put in the hours you have to put in,” he says. “It’s going to be hard work. But you can find joys in the workplace with the people you work with.”

Saftler is known for maintaining an upbeat attitude no matter what’s happening in the industry, and Landgraf attributes that to his clearly having “his head screwed on straight. He’s got his values, he knows what’s important in life.”

Saftler, whose son is autistic, is on the national board of Autism Speaks and gains a lot of perspective from his work there, learning, fund-raising and helping other families. “That’s a very rewarding way to deal with an interesting challenge and blessing that’s been given to my family,” he says.

“Everybody’s got something they’ve got to deal with,” he adds. “If you can face it as your reality, you can approach it strategically from the standpoint of what you realistically need to do with the issue you’re facing. And that applies to anything. It applies to work, it applies to your personal life, it applies to everything. So our reality isn’t tough, our reality is our reality. If you start there, then everything else is moving forward.”

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