“I would dare say the single toughest thing to do in television is to brand a general entertainment network.”
So says Peter Liguori, the president of FX Networks, which includes both Fox’s general-entertainment ad-supported cable network FX and the Fox Movie Channel.
In the world of broadcast television, goes the general consensus, only The WB and perhaps Fox Broadcasting constitute identifiable brands. In the cable world, there are many apparent niche brands, such as Comedy Central, the Cartoon Network, the Sci-Fi Channel, the Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, the Food Network, Animal Planet, Court TV and the History Channel.
But when it comes to general-entertainment, ad-supported cable networks, attracting a loyal audience becomes a more complex proposition. The result: cable’s general-entertainment brand wars, as several not-too-dissimilar networks jockey for position in the battle for psychic bandwidth. This is how Mr. Liguori assesses his competition in those brand wars:
“USA is currently a bit of the populist [with such shows as] `JAG’ `Nash Bridges,’ `Walker, Texas Ranger.’ When you look at TNT, they are trying to position themselves as a network for [25- to 54-year-old] drama lovers. … TBS is the regular-guy network. They do a good job with the male action movies [and] they have the [Atlanta] Braves. … TNN is starting to get some traction [with] a pop strategy, purchasing `VIP’ and getting a show like `CSI’ down the line.”
Mr. Liguori spent 10 years at HBO before moving in 1996 to the Fox Cable Networks Group, where part of his mission as senior vice president of marketing was to brand the nascent regional Fox Sports networks. At that time, he said, FX, which had been selling itself under the promotional rubric of “TV Made Fresh Daily,” had “nothing to sell” in prime time and was in need of a “strict direction.”
The first moves the network made under Mr. Liguori’s predecessor were the off-network purchases of “NYPD Blue” and “The X-Files.” “Prime time was birthed, but the network was still known as a rerun network,” Mr. Liguori said. “That hurt us on a couple of fronts.”
One front was distribution, which began to lag after an initial period of explosive growth; the other was direction. In 1998, when Mr. Liguori assumed his present position, he began to address those problems. “It was clear what I was to do,” he said. “I had to brand the network, I had to give it a direction, I had to market to that direction, I had to program to that direction.”
Mr. Liguori said he worked to make a heavily female-skewing network more attractive to both men and women. Just under a year ago, he brought in Kevin Reilly, the former president of Brad Grey Television, as FX’s entertainment president.
Mr. Reilly began his Hollywood career at NBC under the aegis of ’80s wunderkind programmer Brandon Tartikoff. After six years at the Peacock Network he moved to a very different kind of aviary, Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, a management company turned mini studio. There Mr. Reilly worked on “Just Shoot Me,” “NewsRadio,” “The Steve Harvey Show” and the pilot episode of a series by a veteran writer whose scripts, Mr. Reilly recalls, “you couldn’t give … away for 25 cents.” That writer was David Chase, and the pilot was for a show called “The Sopranos.”
At FX, Mr. Reilly said, his mandate “is to come in and be a link to the creative community, to get FX to be a destination for original programming, with a strategy that is more left of center, not necessarily going for the biggest audience but for a more specific audience that is looking for something that is more tonally challenging, more offbeat.”
Mr. Liguori, who said he considers FX “the network of momentum,” admits its target demo is, naturally, those coveted 18- to 49-year-olds. But, he said, “You can’t go to the creative community with that. Sometimes you can’t go to advertisers with that. What’s really the key to programming and marketing a network right now is going after psychographics.”
“Psychographics” is a buzzword that describes both an audience’s self-evaluation and its state of mind. “The psychographics of this network are people who want to be a little more courageous with their programming choices, who really don’t want the tried-and-true,” Mr. Liguori said. “They applaud you for an effort that pushes the limits a little bit.”
When it comes to recent acquisitions, the shows that appeal to FX’s psychographic and exemplify the brand are “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “The Practice” and “Ally McBeal”-all “critical darlings,” Mr. Liguori said. Current shows on the air that best express the brand are Howard Stern’s “Son of the Beach,” an “equal-opportunity offender,” Mr. Liguori said, and “Toughman,” FX’s boxing-bruisers answer to wrestling. As for Mr. Reilly’s development slate, the new show most likely to resonate with the target psychographic is “Bad News, Mr. Swanson,” a comedy about a man who finds out he’s dying. “What network would put a show on the air whose lead character from episode one is dying from a terminal illness?” Mr. Liguori asked rhetorically.
“In a strange way, NASCAR really embodies this brand,” Mr. Liguori added, referring to the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, now in its debut season on FX. “NASCAR’s the up-and-comer, NASCAR’s got a swagger to it, NASCAR’s a little bit of the rebel and NASCAR’s got a tremendous momentum.”
Mr. Liguori expects FX to be in 65 million homes by the end of this year, programming his brand to his target psychographic. In the end, it will be simple to measure his degree of success-not only by FX’s penetration but by its ratings and relative rank-and even by the degree of critical buzz its shows create. For the first quarter of this year, FX ranked 17th in adults 18 to 49 (in full-week prime time) among all basic cable ad-supported networks, up 30 percent from its numbers in the same quarter last year.