'Lights Out' Still PacksPunch With Sponsors

Following weak premiere, FX hopes for a comeback with new boxing-themed drama
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Advertisers were solidly in FX’s corner last week when the network launched its latest original drama, LightsOut, even if viewers were slow to come out for round one.

Twenty-six different advertisers bought spots in the show’s first episode—big news to FX executives who remember how hard it was to round up sponsors for the network’s first batch of groundbreaking originals, including The Shield and Nip/Tuck, because of their edgy content.

Compared to those shows, Lights Out was an easy sell. “It’s a family drama and it’s Rocky,” says Brent Poer, senior VP and managing director of media agency MediaVest’s Los Angeles office. “Who doesn’t want a family drama, and who doesn’t think that kind of comeback and win story is uplifting and something you can sign up for?”

But the Lights Out premiere attracted 1.5 million total viewers, and 793,000 in the 18 to 49 demo, a lackluster number for FX on a night when the return of The Game on BET attracted 7.6 million viewers. And Lights Out fell far short of the FX premieres of Justified last year and Sons of Anarchy in 2008. Lights Out drew more men than women, but FX executives hope that the women will follow, as they have in making Sons into a hit.

“Of course we would have liked higher numbers,” says an FX spokesman, noting the strong competition in the 10 p.m. time slot. The network will keep promoting the show, highlighting glowing quotes from reviewers, and it will be waiting for the DVR numbers to come in.

Many ad buyers heard FX’s message, even if viewers didn’t. Michael Brochstein, senior VP for ad sales at FX, said the series is close to sold out for the season, with an unusually large number of advertisers appearing in the premiere.

“We were able to spread it out because we had tremendous interest in the show,” Brochstein says, adding he’s also seeing strong demand for the upcoming returns of originals Justified and Archer. Even if Lights Out’s numbers don’t improve, FX benefits because it sold spots at a premium price and, like other cable networks, has plenty of inventory available to provide makegoods if necessary.

FX drove sponsor interest with screenings of the show at lunches and cocktail parties all over the country. “We tried to get as many people exposed to it as possible,” Brochstein says.

Lights Out’s premiere advertisers came from a broad range of categories and included Verizon, Michelob Ultra, Subway, GMC, Miller Genuine Draft, Burger King, DirecTV, Microsoft, Logitech, Geico, Taco Bell, Sprint, EA Sports, Home Depot, Blackberry, Capital One, Nationwide, plus a bunch of movies including The Fighter. Also appropriate was an HBO spot promoting the upcoming Devon Alexander– Tim Bradley boxing match.

“Remember the days a long time ago when it used to be a lot of booze, a lot of autos and movies? Well not so anymore. We’re all over the place,” Brochstein said.

With a boxing show, there will be opportunities to sell more than spots. There could be ring posts, gloves and other equipment to sponsor. “Wouldn’t that be nice,” Brochstein says. “When you have a year-two show, we’ll be able to fool around with it a bit more. Everyone’s just holding their breath now.”

FX is part of a cable segment that has been driving earnings for parent company News Corp. FX executives say the network’s ad revenue is up more than 20% this year. But among general entertainment cable networks, FX’s revenue is small compared to its chief rivals, according to figures from SNL Kagan.

Kagan says FX generated $437.5 million in ad revenue in 2010. Leader USA generated $968.1 million, followed by TNT with $825 million and TBS with $775.6 million.

One way FX could gain on USA and Turner is by developing programs that are more advertiser- friendly, like the shows that generate huge ratings for USA. Yet that could damage the strong brand image FX’s management team has worked so hard to develop.

Still, MediaVest’s Poer sees no harm to FX in taking that approach. “They of course have a history of going out there and doing things that got them a lot of attention with audiences as well as the advertising community. However, their real message wasn’t just that it was about edge, it was about quality,” Poer notes. “If you try to shock everyone over and over again, they become less inclined to fall for that trick. So I think this is about them balancing that act out.”

The approach failed with FX’s previous offering, the relatively tame series Terriers, which despite being named to several Top 10 lists by critics was canceled after averaging just 509,000 viewers 18-to-49 in its first season. Terriers’ performance had some FX executives sounding cautious before the Lights Out premiere.

Poer doesn’t expect Lights Out to have the same problem Terriers had. “I don’t think that people knew what [Terriers] was. Lights Out is a very clearly communicated show: It’s a family drama set in a fighting world and it’s got a Rocky-esque bent to it.”

E-mail comments to jlafayette@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @jlafayette

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