By Brian Steinberg
FX wants to make sure Charlie Sheen is hot, but not too hot to handle.
With Mr. Sheen starring in the cable outlet’s new "Anger Management" sitcom — and a potential multi-year deal in the balance — executives at the News Corp. network have been out in force telling advertisers that the actor is safe to sponsor.
"You know what everyone has in the back of their mind," said Michael Brochstein, senior VP-ad sales at FX Networks. "Who am I seeing? Am I seeing ‘Two and A Half Men’ comedy, or am I seeing the Charlie Sheen who is a little bit out there? We dealt with it head-on."
Fiat, whose commercials feature Mr. Sheen, has already signed on to be a season-long sponsor of the show, which debuts June 28.
"Anger Management" extends FX’s investment in the Charlie Sheen business. Repeats of "Two and a Half Men," his previous roost, fill a good portion of the network’s schedule. And "Anger Management," a sitcom featuring Mr. Sheen as a one-time baseball hopeful who must learn to tone down his temper after he sabotages his sports career, would extend the network’s dependence on the actor’s ability to draw a broad audience.
The controversy surrounding Mr. Sheen in the recent past is the sort of stuff that makes straitlaced advertisers blanch. He was fired from "Two and A Half Men," a show produced by Warner Bros. and broadcast by CBS, after publicly disparaging showrunner Chuck Lorre.
That abruptly halted the show’s production for the 2010-2011 season, itself enough of a red flag to many marketers. But Mr. Sheen then also went on a wild media tour highlighted by appearances with a porn star and scattered ramblings in radio interviews and web broadcasts.
Howard Stern’s arrival on "America’s Got Talent" presents a somewhat similar situation for NBC, though Mr. Stern has said in several interviews that he intends to keep things tame.
"Anger Management" seems to offer Mr. Sheen a new chapter in a career that’s included sharp highs and lows. Loosely based on the 2003 film of the same name that starred Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson, the first season of "Anger Management" will run 10 episodes. If the show meets certain agreed-upon metrics, FX will pick up an additional 90 episodes and have exclusive rights to air the show until 2014, when older seasons can be sold into syndication.
For FX, the sitcom represents a chance to broaden its appeal. The network is already known for edgy dramas that include "The Shield," "Damages, and "Nip/Tuck," as well as current series such as "Justified" and "Sons of Anarchy." Lately, FX has placed a focus on nontraditional sitcoms such as "Wilfred" and "Archer," which joined the veteran comedy "It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia."
But many of these series carry a TV-MA rating and feature content that a viewer would never see on CBS or ABC. "Anger Management," on the other hand, will have a TV-14 rating and is aimed at the same type of audience that enjoys broad comedies on the order of CBS’s "How I Met Your Mother" or "Two and a Half Men," Mr. Brochstein said. FX originals typically air at 10 p.m., an hour at which most young people have gone to sleep. But "Anger Management" will appear at 9 p.m., another first for the network.
To get advertisers onboard, FX was prepared to show a rough cut of the "Anger Management" pilot at its meetings with media buyers, Mr. Brochstein said. They ended up screening parts of or all of it 60 times, he estimated. "My client wants to know that this is a good environment," was a sentiment he said he heard at various agencies. By the time the screenings were complete, most executives saw humor rather than red flags.
FX had other challenges in securing advertiser support. "Anger Management" was not part of the programming it sold in last year’s upfront, which meant the June premiere and subsequent episodes had to be sold in "scatter," or much closer to air date, usually at a premium to prices established earlier in the year. "We had a job to do this year — sell this in scatter and create awareness" at the same time, said Mr. Brochstein.
The debut will have plenty of attractions surrounding it. FX intends to run a 12-hour marathon of "Two and A Half Men" episodes featuring Mr. Sheen in advance of the 9 p.m. debut of "Anger Management." During the marathon, Mr. Sheen will appear in video segments and offer comments on the episodes. A second new half-hour of "Anger" follows at 9:30 p.m., with the season premieres of FX original comedies "Wilfred"and "Louie" to start at 10 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., respectively. A new FX late-night talk show, "Brand X," featuring comic actor Russell Brand, will be on at 11 p.m.
Movie studios have proven to be early strong supporters of the series, with 20th Century Fox, Lionsgate and Sony all singing up as advertisers, said Mr. Brochstein. Sony is expected to release a retooled "Spider Man" this summer, while Lionsgate is releasing "The Expendables 2."
Lionsgate produces "Anger Management," while 20th Century Fox is, like FX, owned by News Corp. There’s no word on whether Warner Bros., which when we last checked seemed to hold Mr. Sheen in low regard, will find "Anger Management" a worthwhile promotional perch for its films.