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An HBO kind of respect

Jul 8, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Earning respect has always been an uphill battle for the basic cable networks. But outstanding showings by FX’s “The Shield” and MTV’s “The Osbournes” in Electronic Media’s Spring/Summer 2002 Critics Poll suggest an end to the perception of cable networks as purveyors of low-cost, low-brow original scripted series fare or a dumping ground for leftover broadcast network series.
For FX, critical recognition for “The Shield” comes at a time when network President Peter Liguori, a former marketing executive with HBO, is looking to reshape the network as “basic cable’s answer to HBO,” as one Fox Cable Networks executive put it. Mr. Liguori and FX head of programming Kevin Reilly are constructing a new model, putting on a high-gloss, risque scripted series while mindful of maintaining production costs and attracting advertisers-the latter’s not being a concern for no-boundaries, subscriber-only premium cable networks HBO and Showtime.
“HBO has won a lot of awards because they deserve it, but why should they have a lock on this sort of thing?” said Mr. Reilly, president of FX Entertainment.
“If we earn the tag of being the `free HBO,’ there is still a viewer market and advertisers for that, and it’s something we’re proud to have `The Shield’ or `Sins of the Father’ associated with,” he said. “For some networks it has been considered `nice’ to be on the Critics Poll, but it is a godsend for us. To have this kind of push from the critics on `The Shield’ has really made a big difference, and we savor their acknowledgement.”
“The Shield” writer and executive producer Shawn Ryan-previously a midlevel series writer/producer on “Angel” and “Nash Bridges”-faced closed doors at the big broadcast networks when he was pitching the show and its gritty story line.
“When I wrote the pilot, I did not expect anybody [at the broadcast networks] to [bite], because I was just a midlevel writer and I was not someone the networks were comfortable [with] in taking on this kind of subject matter,” Mr. Ryan recalled. “I also mistakenly thought HBO was the one place in town that could do a show like this. FX, fortunately, proved to me there are other places and that HBO does not have a monopoly on doing this sort of thing. Peter Liguori and Kevin Reilly said they were not afraid of giving me creative freedom and freedom from standards and practices issues, and they’ve been good to their word.”
Mr. Reilly said he and Mr. Liguori recognize the differences in the business and programming models of HBO and FX, which has a much larger subscriber base and the ability to tap into the dual revenue streams of subscriber fees to cable systems and advertising sales. But at the same time, FX’s role as an emerging 8-year-old basic cable network has it mindful of the costs of series production; HBO’s open checkbook and penchant for high-gloss productions are things producers typically gush about.
Still, Mr. Grant and Mr. Ryan were able to attract some production veterans, including longtime network producer-director Scott Brazil (“Hill Street Blues,” “Gideon’s Crossing”) to serve as executive producer and Rohn Schmidt (“Men of War”) as director of photography. But the biggest ingredients came from the talent arena, with Michael Chiklis (“The Commish”) and CCH Pounder (“The X-Files,” “Millennium” “L.A. Law”) headlining the cast.
Keeping it close to home
To accomplish Mr. Ryan’s vision of producing “The Shield” on location in Los Angeles instead of taking flight to Canada like other U.S. productions, FX’s sister unit Fox Television Studios and Columbia TriStar Television provided necessary co-venture production, distribution and financing auspices for the show. David Grant, president of Fox Television Studios, and Mr. Reilly estimate “The Shield” is produced on a $1.3 million-per-episode budget-about 30 percent to 40 percent of the typical budget of $1.8 million to $2.2 million for most dramas produced for the broadcast networks.
“We work with the unions, and there are lower scales when its comes to basic cable series, but there was a great spirit of collaboration in terms of making the economics work from the talent and craft unions,” Mr. Grant said. “There were not huge compromises [to be made on pay], and it is something that the broadcast networks could learn in disciplining their budgets.”
It also helped, Mr. Grant said, that Columbia TriStar’s international sales arm has sold “The Shield” in more than 40 overseas territories-including Channel 5 in the United Kingdom-to guarantee a much-needed secondary revenue stream to the show.
FX is benefiting from “The Shield’s” critical recognition in terms of luring other name producers and star talent to do series projects.
Already, FX has wrapped production on “Lucky,” a new dark comedy from Rob Reiner’s Castle Rock Entertainment featuring former “Sex and the City” regular John Corbett as a gambler who wins $1 million in the World Series of Poker-only to lose it later in a variety of card-shark games in Las Vegas. Mr. Reilly also said he has been getting “endlessly pitched,” including the consideration of a new comedy series from “Mad About You” star Paul Reiser.
“`The Shield’ gave us another level of credibility,” said Mr. Reilly, whose network has gained some critical kudos for Howard Stern’s offbeat, 3-year-old “Son of the Beach” comedy. “Just in the last couple of months, I’ve taken meetings with talent who’ve said they would only have taken deals before with no one other than HBO. Well, that’s changed. The difference is that were hungrier now that we’ve tasted success.”