FX at the TCAs: Charlie Sheen is coming back, whether you like it or not
FX just had what its executives call its “best year ever,” with the launch of their top first-season comedy (Wilfred) and top first-season drama (American Horror Story) in 2011. They also had highly rated seasons of stalwart hits like Justified and Sons Of Anarchy, and comedy Louie topped a huge number of top 10 lists (including that of America’s most trusted TV review website). There were any number of topics to discuss—the second season of AHS that will have nothing to do with the first, the network’s attempts to move into new arenas like late night, the network’s new deal to air the Charlie Sheen sitcom Anger Management. See if you can guess which one critics and reporters at the last day of the Television Critics Association press tour were most interested in talking about.
Yes, FX president John Landgraf spent much of his executive session explaining why the network is airing the new Sheen sitcom, which takes the title from the Adam Sandler movie of the same name but basically nothing else. Though Landgraf spent a lengthy amount of time attempting to explain how the show works as a weird, pseudo-apology from Sheen to the nation for his behavior—most of his relationships in the show will be with women, and one of the main stories will be about him trying to help his fictional teenage daughter mature into a woman—there were still plenty of questions about how Sheen’s history will impact the series. There was also talk about the show’s odd episode order, which involves the series filming 10 episodes. If those 10 episodes achieve a certain ratings threshold, then a trigger will take hold, and 90 more episodes will be produced over the course of two years. (TBS has used a similar structure for its dirt-cheap Tyler Perry sitcoms, like House Of Payne.) Anger Management will debut its first season in June, when Wilfred and Louie return as well. A new late-night comedy hybrid show from Russell Brand, called Strangely Uplifting, launches in April.
What’s at the base of this is that Sheen-starring Two And A Half Men has been a financial success for FX in reruns. Despite the network’s reputation for quality, envelope-pushing scripted programming (about which more in a bit), plenty of the network’s revenue comes from ads sold during those sitcom repeats. But these reruns can’t run in perpetuity. There’s inevitably a sell-by date on them. Because FX lost out on repeats of Big Bang Theory to TBS and repeats of Modern Family to USA, it decided to go with Anger Management as a relatively cheap way to find a new fit for the network’s sitcom holes. Landgraf seemed as aware of the potential pitfalls of this for the network as anyone (“Everything we do is a roll of the dice. Sometimes it comes up the number you want, sometimes it doesn't,” he said), but it was likely a better option, in a business sense, than trying to grab reruns of The Middle or some other show with just enough episodes to start running a few times a week. (The network has actually been so needful of such a thing that it actually sublicensed How I Met Your Mother from Lifetime for cable syndication.)
All of this comes at a time when the network is about to see its signature comedy cross the 100-episode threshold that will likely make it profitable into the foreseeable future. However, FX and Sony (which produces the show) sold It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia cable repeats to Comedy Central, rather than paying to pick up those repeats itself. This tied into Landgraf’s statement that FX’s original programming is profitable mostly via ancillary revenue sources, rather than from ad sales (which are based solely on the network’s numbers from viewers who watch live or within the first three days on DVR without fast-forwarding the commercials). Things like DVD and syndication are becoming more and more important to the network’s production arm.
Landgraf also made a plea for reporters to talk more about how often shows are watched over all platforms over the course of their first week. He said the C-3 numbers make up only about one-third of any given show’s audience, saying that when online streaming, repeats, on-demand, and DVR views are added on to the original ratings over the course of a week, American Horror Story rises to 8.2 million viewers for every episode, while Wilfred rises to 4.8 million. To be fair, this is something cable networks and low-rated broadcast networks have been saying for a few years now, but the cries are getting louder. (Later in the session, FX publicity head John Solberg said Louie reaches 3 million viewers when every viewing session is accounted for.)
But with all of this business and Charlie Sheen wonkery, FX didn’t really have anything else to announce. The long-in-the-works adaptation of comic series Powers wasn’t picked up in its current pilot form, but writer Chick Eglee has made rewrites to the script, and the network is mulling whether it will shoot those rewrites. Landgraf restated his wish to make the project work, saying he loves to make good adaptations on TV and listing both Justified and HBO’s Game Of Thrones as adaptations that work. (He listed Game as a show that brought something new—fantasy—to the 10 p.m. drama format.) Landgraf mostly avoided questions of what season two of American Horror Story will look like, and he wasn’t even asked about many of the show’s signature hits, like Sons Of Anarchy. For better or worse, it was mostly ratings and Charlie Sheen talk, and while FX’s present and immediate future look bright, the longer-term is a bit hazier.