At the beginning of the ’00s, basic cable networks were known for nothing more that twenty four hour news and syndicated broadcast television. Some networks had a few original shows, but nothing that really went passed the throw away slots. And certainly nothing that would ever win any Emmys and gain critical acclaim. The only place on cable you could go for ground breaking drama was HBO. That was it. At least until 2002 when a little known cable broadcaster known as FX came along.
In 2002 the network launched the first of a radically bold, and never before seen move in basic cable. Hard hitting, edgy original programming. This began with what would become one of the most critically acclaimed crime dramas in television history, The Shield, but it didn’t stop there. In 2003 the network launched the massive hit Nip/Tuck. A year later would see the turn to a more emotional drama with the hit Rescue Me. And then in 2005 FX went comedic with the hit show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Things laid dormant at FX with a few programs reaching minor success, but that changed in 2008 with the networks biggest hit to date, Sons of Anarchy. Sons would go on to carry the network for the next two years, allowing FX to test new ground with shows like Louie and The League, as well as launching the hit Justified, bringing us to the current television season.
At the start of the season, the now well established network launched a detective show called Terriers. From Ted Griffin and The Shield creator Shawn Ryan. The show focused on two down on their luck guys who start their own private detective agency to help pay the bills. Critically the show was a massive hit. But when it came to the ratings, the show was a bomb… a massive one. The poor ratings led to the shows cancellation at the end of the first season. Some went on to blame the marketing team and some to blame the time slot. But no matter who you ask, the blame could of only been put on one entity, FX. Not the writers of Terriers. Not the majority of America that didn’t tune it, the blame is FX’s and solely FX’s according to the people who begged for a second season.
In the second half of the broadcasting year the network launched another new show, a boxing program called Lights Out. But something strange happened. As it turns out, Lights Out ended up following in the same pattern as Terriers. Critical acclaim across the board, but a ratings sink hole. But how can that be? The show WAS what FX built itself to be. A network FOR the male 18-25 sports crowd. And yet, it still failed in the ratings.
This got me thinking. FX has had plenty of unsuccessful shows before. Lucky, Black. White., The Riches, Dirt, 30 Days, Thief and Starved. All of these shows either never made passed season one, or only made it to season two. But something was different about Terriers and Lights Out. Beyond the fact that the failure of the two shows came in a one-two punch over the course of the television season, this was really the first time FX really saw a fan backlash to a cancellation decision. And a massive one at that. Twitter, Facebook, TV websites, movie blogs, movie podcasts, TV podcasts, all of them were trying to find a reason why FX would cancel two “clearly superior” shows to anything else on television.
And while one could spend hours, if not days defending or railing against the decision made by the network, it actually raises a much larger issue. Has FX peaked? The answer is a complex one.
It’s not that FX should stop servicing the demographic that has made them the juggernaut that they are, but they should start tapping into a new audience. Maybe one that is a little older. Remember, the people that were eighteen when all of this started are twenty-seven now. Some of them probably have families. Some of them probably have wives or long term girlfriends. The point is that they aren’t the kids they used to be. Their tastes have probably matured. So the demo that put FX on the map, probably has no interest in Terriers or Lights Out. Not the kind of interest they probably have for the programming on a more family friendly network like USA or TNT.
I’m sure plenty of you are screaming at your computer screens right now saying “but there are NEW 18-25 year olds who are stepping in and replacing the ones that left.” This is true. But this new crop of 18-25 year olds doesn’t watch television the way the old batch did. The new gang illegally downloads their TV, they DVR it, they wait for Netflix, they basically will do anything to avoid the very overly-ridiculed commercials that make the programming possible.
So there are two ways to fix this problem. Option one is to get television networks to start judging viewership differently. And well, that simply won’t happen. Option two is for FX to start looking at programming options that don’t fit their current mold. Want proof? Just look at the number one cable network on television, USA.
USA, ever since they began their push towards well crafted original programming in the mid ’00s, has been able to strike a well planned balance between audiences. They deliver on programming for the 18-25 males with things such as Burn Notice and Monday Night Raw. They attack the 18-25 female crowd with shows like Royal Pains and Fairly Legal. And they also combine those two demographics with shows like White Collar and Covert Affairs. But here’s the trick that USA has mastered. They don’t just attack the young crowd. They hit up the thirty and up crowd with proven procedural format shows like Law & Order: Criminal Intent and In Plain Sight. This is the reason USA has been able to stay at number one for so long: diversity.
Now, am I saying that FX needs to give its programming schedule a shot of estrogen? No. But, I am saying that they need to start looking passed the audience they have. And while they should still continue to cater to those “hardcore fans,” they need to start pulling in some causal viewers so that they will become “hardcore fans.” The network needs to find a new way of thinking. A new way of programming. A new way to survive. After this season, and with some of the hit programs entering their middle ages, or ending in some cases (Rescue Me), the time to start experimenting is now. Put simply, FX is the network that pushed the envelope on basic cable programming. But now it’s time for them to break the glass ceiling they built for themselves back almost a decade ago.
To listen to the latest episode of Merrill’s TV Podcast, The Idiot Boxers with Kevin Carr, head over to Fat Guys at the Movies.