Can The Shield fix FX?
Off-net dramas haven't helped, and News Corp. frets over network's malaise
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/10/2002 7:00:00 PM
A year ago, with FX mired in a lingering ratings swamp, network President Peter Liguori predicted that a much-hyped slate of high-profile series would electrify the network.
Now, five months after the evening schedule of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Ally McBeal and The Practice debuted, the move has been a clear disappointment. Ratings for Ally are anemic, and The Practice is not doing much better. Buffy's a modest draw but hardly a smash. To get the network out from under the expensive license fees, FX's corporate cousin Twentieth Television has shopped Ally and FX's current 5 p.m. show The X-Files to other cable networks. So far, no takers.
The off-net series were supposed to build the audience for FX's upcoming original productions. The first big splash comes this week with The Shield, a gritty hour-long drama focusing on corrupt cops in a fictional Los Angeles district. But the new series apparently will have to do for itself what all those expensive off-net shows didn't do for it: Find an audience.
Bowing Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET, The Shield costs $1.3 million for each of the 13 episodes, plus a few additional million for marketing and promotion. It's FX's first shot at bringing edgy HBO-style fare—complete with foul language, nudity and violence—to basic cable. Liguori believes The Shield's content is "organic" and not gratuitous. And it's just the start: He wants three more series and four movies per year.
But corporate patience for the ever-changing channel is waning. Insiders say News Corp. President and COO Peter Chernin is growing wary of FX's tab for expensive originals that come up short in the ratings.
FX's latest original movie, Sins of the Father, scored a respectable 2.9 debut rating Jan. 6, but no doubt Chernin must have been frustrated. FX spent $9 million on production and marketing of the movie. Yet on the same night, TNT scored a 3.1 rating for its third play that weekend of The Mummy, a title TNT picked up for around $3 million, or a third of the cost of an original movie. So why should FX spend lavishly on originals? "News Corp. is a place that wants results," admits third-year chief Liguori. "If I were in Peter's shoes, I would ask the same questions."
A News Corp. spokesperson said that "investing in originals like The Shield are worth the risk."
FX execs try to gloss over the glaring failure of Buffy, Ally and The Practice after ponying up $675,000 per episode. They point to increases in the female demo as bringing a better gender balance to prime. "Clearly, it has not lived up to what we hoped," Liguori said, "but we're making the best of it."
But anemic ratings—Ally averages about a 0.4 after moving to 11 p.m., The Practice earns about a 0.5, and Buffy scores a modest 1.0—have resulted in an estimated
$20 million to $30 million in lost revenue.
FX initially sold the shows at ratings between 1.4 and 1.9. When the Nielsen numbers fell well short, FX scrambled to give advertisers make-goods and upgrades.
Now FX is focused on originals to deliver ratings and repute. Besides frat-boy favorite Son of theBeach, FX struggled to find a project that had a chance until The Shield. Plans for dark comedy Bad News, Mr. Swanson were scuttled after two pilots were made. Two other comedy pilots were nixed. A moderately popular series, Tough Man, is in jeopardy of being dropped.
FX expected to be playing with the big boys like USA and TNT by now. Prime time ratings hover about 0.8, although distribution has grown to 75 million. FX is one of cable's fastest-growing networks. Some of the growth is thanks to Fox Sports Net, which helped when it was negotiating carriage: Pick up FX or lose popular regional sports services, it told cable operators.
NASCAR auto racing, which FX shares with Fox for five months of the season, is working. Last year, FX aired three Winston Cup events, averaging a 3.3 rating, and 12 Busch series races, which pulled an average 1.6. The first Busch series race this year earned a 2.0 rating.
The Shield has been warmly received by critics, but some advertisers have recoiled. "We ask them, 'If you could buy a spot in the Sopranos or Sex and the City, would you do it?'" said Senior VP of Entertainment Kevin Reilly.
"It could do a huge rating," says Carat USA Director of National Broadcast Andrew Donchin, "but, if the content is offensive or off-course, it wouldn't make a difference to some clients."
FX execs say more than 50% of the inventory for the premiere is sold and big-name advertisers are well-represented. But a huge sum of money was left on the table because, during last year's upfront, advertisers were sold a lower rating than FX had been projecting. FX accidentally sold the premiere as a 1.1 and subsequent episodes as 0.6, a full point lower than planned.
Even the show's name has caused trouble. Originally The Barn, it was changed to Rampart, insiders say, to create buzz and controversy. But the Los Angeles Police Department objected—the title and premise were reminiscent of the city's Rampart-district police scandal of the mid-1990s—and it was renamed again. FX executives assert that research showed The Shield was a more recognizable name anyway.
Still, some advertisers are leery of negative association with the show. A few—like GM, John Deere and Capitol One— pulled out after seeing the first few episodes. OMD USA Director of National Broadcast Chris Geraci says some advertisers, like movie studios and liquor companies, can tolerate risky content and should be on board early. If the response is positive, buyers say some clients will be willing to test the show.
FX has more acquired series down the road. That 70s Show and King of the Hill arrive in 2004 or 2005. ABC's Dharma and Greg, originally intended for what was then called Fox Family, will now go to FX.
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