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FX Elects to Pass on ‘Candidate’

May 5, 2003  •  Post A Comment

FX has pulled the plug on one of its most ambitious projects, political reality show American Candidate. But the show’s creator, R.J. Cutler, insisted Friday that the show will go on anyway.
Mr. Cutler, a dogged documentarian whose Emmy Award-winning series American High landed on PBS after Fox canceled it, told TelevisionWeek that he expects to announce in the coming weeks a new home for American Candidate. He and his Actual Reality Pictures production company will continue pre-production on the show.
The increasing cost of the project was the biggest factor in FX’s decision to nix its two-year endeavor to search for a candidate to run for president of the United States, FX Entertainment President Kevin Reilly said. The nature of producing American Candidate dictates that a large portion of the investment of time and money be made a good year before FX gets a gander at the show’s performance, which is a big risk for a basic cable network in the throes of establishing its original programming presence. And because it’s a one-off concept, it’s a project that even if successful could not be renewed.
“The bottom line is the cost exceeded the level we were prepared for,” Mr. Reilly said. “We knew it would be expensive, but the level of cost escalated far beyond our anticipation.”
The budget deemed necessary to produce the show the way the parties involved hoped apparently was approaching those of some of the most expensive reality projects on television, which are known to have price tags of $800,000 to $1 million per episode. Potential skittishness on the part of advertisers also was a concern. FX and Mr. Cutler’s camp have settled out of the project, based on services rendered to date. Mr. Reilly said there has been no legal wrangling.
“Some projects tell you of their importance and value by the challenges that they present, the things that happen on the road to getting them on the air,” Mr. Cutler said. “My experience certainly has taught me to be daunted by that is to be daunted by television as a whole. … We roll with the punches around here. It’s part of my company’s nature.”
It was in September 2002 that FX first formed a pact with Mr. Cutler, whose credits include The War Room, and fellow Candidate exec producers Tom Lassally (Totally Hidden Video) and Jay Roach, director of the Austin Powers franchise. The project was to play out over two years, culminating with American TV viewers choosing a candidate to run for president of the United States in 2004. FX had committed to 13 episodes to begin airing in early 2004. The Web site companion, www.americancandidate.com, initially was to be launched earlier this year. However, as world events heated up, it was pushed to September, Mr. Cutler said. Word that FX was out came shortly thereafter.
“We took an afternoon off [after FX’s decision came down], we got some Guinness, then we carried on,” Mr. Cutler said. “You don’t want these things to happen, but I don’t think it’s wise not to expect that every once in a while these things will happen.”
The Web site will be a destination for both applicants and viewers. Mr. Cutler expects at least 10,000 potential candidates to submit themselves. Six thousand interested participants already have tracked down the producers, with minimal promotion behind the project.
American Candidate is designed to culminate in April 2004, allowing the show’s winner, whom voters deemed the best “people’s candidate,” to then announce his or her candidacy. The show would then document the campaign. Throughout the 13 episodes leading up to the selection of the winner, the show would follow candidates as they build grass-roots followings across the country and then meet at a central location each week. It’s in part this ambitious location-style shooting that contributed to the big budget.
Not a Studio Show
“As we developed the idea, it became more complex and exciting than the one-liner promise,” Mr. Reilly said. “It’s not a studio show. It’s on the road, with mini-conventions, then a weekly, live national vote. It was ambitious by nature, but when you put a price tag on that, it became prohibitive for a one-time-only event on a cable network.”
“Even though we knew we would never break even based on the CPMs a cable network can pull on the high end, and it’s a controversial show by nature, which always causes some reservations by advertisers, we ultimately realized there would be no way we could monetize it and justify [going forward], since our budgets already are expanded based on our most aggressive original programming slate right now,” he said. “If this was our only bet for the year, maybe.”
FX had not begun selling the show to advertisers, Mr. Reilly said. Original shows already on FX’s docket include The Shield and Lucky as well as the upcoming late-night strip The Orlando Jones Show and drama Nip/Tuck. In addition, telepics and a potential miniseries are in the works as well as a block of nonscripted programming.
Like Mr. Cutler, Mr. Reilly said he is disappointed the project didn’t work out at FX. However, FX and Mr. Cutler remain on excellent terms and continue to collaborate on other projects, including a potential documentary series about competitive surfing.
Mr. Reilly said current socio-political world events had no negative impact on the network’s enthusiasm for American Candidate. Rather, “It could have made it much more interesting.”
Among Mr. Cutler’s other projects are this summer’s The Residents, on TNT, and Going to College, a sort of descendant of American High, on Showtime in the fall. He’s also working on a reality show with Roseanne for ABC and a related project for ABC Family.
American Candidate has a long genealogy in the world of television and deal-making, Mr. Cutler said. He first pitched a form of the idea in 1995 to MTV in the wake of his The War Room and A Perfect Candidate. Mr. Roach and Mr. Lassally approached him in early 2001 to mount a similar project for HBO, which passed on at after some development. In the form closely resembling the current project, the producer has been toiling for some 21/2 years.
Mr. Cutler said the project is as important as ever.
“This show is not a reaction to the George W. Bush presidency, this is a reaction to an electorate that doesn’t vote,” he said. “It’s in reaction to a two-party political system that the voting public responds to with malaise and apathy.”
He hopes the show will be revealing about the American political process, the media’s role in it and what kind of leader Americans are looking for.
“We’ll find what inspires people to get involved, to play a role in their political destiny, which they’re entitled to,” Mr. Cutler said. “Let’s show people that it’s not a joke to run for president. It takes stamina, strength and commitment. Maybe people won’t take those who go through the process quite so lightly.”
Leslie Ryan contributed to this report.