FX Proclaims the End of Edgy

Not really, but the FX network’s newest presentation, according to Broadcasting and Cable, emphasizes its attempt to create shows with “broad,” “mainstream” appeal, more in the vein of other basic cable competitors like USA and TNT. This is a turnaround from the brand they tried successfully to create over the past few years, when they basically invented the concept that a basic-cable network could compete head-to-head with HBO and come up with “edgy” shows: The Shield, It’s Always Sunny, Damages (though at this point that’s less “edgy” than “insanely silly”). In fact, one of their upcoming light USA-style dramas, the private-eye show Terriers, is produced by The Shield‘s Shawn Ryan, who is competing for the Busiest Man in TV title; he was recently working on Terriers, a new pilot, and episodes of Lie To Me in three different cities at once.

The success of Justified may have turned it into the template for what FX seeks to do: sort of do USA type of light dramas, but with an FX sheen of edginess to keep shows from being (as an executive puts it in the article) all the way on the “right side” of the entertainment spectrum with The Closer and White Collar.  Still, the obvious inferrence here is that despite the popularity of Sons of Anarchy and other successful FX dramas, the network has concluded that a basic-cable operation can’t sustain a lineup that’s dark and edgy across the board.

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This may demonstrate that the HBO model doesn’t fully transfer to basic cable (we’ll see how long AMC can keep it up), or it may simply demonstrate that all of cable is going “lighter” in its own way. HBO, after all, has lightened up too, just in a different way from USA; its flagship show, True Blood, is trashier and campier than the more high-minded shows of the network’s past, and its upcoming projects include more genre material that can attract younger viewers (like Game of Thrones). They’re still doing dark material, but with a layer of fantasy that makes it less obviously dark.

So this could be the flip side of the trend I’ve pointed to before, where light fare has trouble taking hold on broadcast networks. At the same time that broadcast networks are getting darker, cable is getting lighter. Obviously there will still be some shows that are too dark for ABC/CBS/NBC and will find a home on cable instead, but cable is also increasingly the home for shows that are too light for broadcast — and what’s more, cable seems to need light entertainment in order to survive. Which puts networks like FX in a tricky position: their status as a known brand depends on being tough and gritty, but they need to do more light genre entertainment in order to attract more viewers and advertisers.

Update: AMC, I forgot to mention, is also going for an HBO-style combination of edgy/violent with genre material, further cementing their status as basic cable’s most reliable HBO imitator.

Update 2: A lot of FX’s new strategy may have to do with Damages, a very expensive show that has never delivered the kind of numbers or even (after the first season) prestige that the network would have hoped for. The head of FX just confirmed that the show’s production company is in talks with DirectTV to save it, Friday Night Lights-style, by defraying some of FX’s costs; if that doesn’t happen, it’s probably gone.

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