It's upfront time...that annual event where the major broadcast and cable networks go all out trying to convince advertisers their slates will give them the best return on its investment. While the entire upfront is catered to the business world, both analysts and viewers also can learn a lot about the where television is headed starting this fall.
The cable networks typically go before the broadcast networks and this week it was the chance for FX (a subsidiary of Fox (NASDAQ:FOXA) to take the spotlight. Over the 2013-14 TV season the network has changed its pattern -- instead of one channel, it's spun off a second one (FXX), with mixed results.
The idea of FXX was to drill down and target male viewers in the 18-34 demo while still catering to the mass market on FX. It was never a bad strategy but launching a new channel isn't easy. The biggest challenge is making sure audiences are aware it exists.
In order to do that FX moved a few of its more successful series over to its newest sibling, starting with network mainstay It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. The League, Legit, and Wilfred are among the others either pulling double-duty or moving exclusively to FXX in the next few months.
One key aspect of the network's 2014-15 strategy revolves around reruns ... just not of your typical show. This August, FXX will play its biggest card when The Simpsons makes its long-anticipated cable debut. The Simpsons is one of the most interesting cases in the history of syndication. Under the show's original deal with Fox, it was worked into the contract that the show would not be allowed to be sold into syndication until after it had completed its run.
Nobody expected the show to still be going strong a quarter century later, so the parties eventually worked out a revised deal. $750 million later and FX Networks surprisingly ended up winning the rights and in August it will launch with a record-breaking 12-day marathon on the spin-off channel. How's that for a house warming?
Still FXX isn't the main aspect of FX's business model -- the flagship network is the more widely viewed of the two. While FX has its share of comedies, the net's bread and butter are its groundbreaking dramas, which have included The Shield, Nip/Tuck, and Rescue Me. Recently that core has shifted and is top-lined by Sons of Anarchy, Justified, and American Horror Story, with the first two soon entering their final seasons.
Many analysts and advertisers have noted concern that those two big chips are coming off the table and the net's remaining marquee dramas may not be able to support the weight of the channel. However based on comments by FX CEO John Landgraf, those concerns may be alleviated as the network's plans for that transition are solid.
While FX will lose two of its big programs, the show's final seasons promise to be as captivating as their first, while executives will still have a trio of established series to play with over the new season. In addition to American Horror Story (which returns in the fall with its Freak Show installment co-starring Michael Chiklis), FX also has the critically acclaimed pair of The Americans and The Bridge.
Those shows air on Wednesday nights and usually follow each other throughout the year -- Americans in the winter/spring, Bridge in the summer, and Horror in the fall. The trick will be filling in that Tuesday hole usually filled by Sons and Justified.
So how does the network's rookie slate look? On paper it's impressive. FX is looking to expand the anthology mini-series format it helped shepherd in with the debut of Fargo (starring Billy Bob Thorton and Martin Freeman), plus it has Guillermo del Toro's The Strain and Tyrant, which comes from Homeland's Gideon Raff, Howard Gordon, and Craig Wright. That's a potent combo.
Each of those series is buzzy in its own way and look to effortlessly slide into FX's traditional model. Of course that doesn't mean FX is abandoning comedy. Along with new episodes of smash hit Louie starring Emmy winner Louie C.K., FX will bow Married starring Nat Faxon and Judy Greer as two long-married best friends, and You're The Worst, which spotlights the opposite ... two self-destructive singles who fall for each other.
If that wasn't enough, 2015 will he headlined by the return of Billy Crystal to series TV with The Comedians (co-starring Josh Gad) and a new Tracy Morgan-fronted series on FXX. It's Always Sunny will also return for season 10 this September, with two additional seasons being ordered this week. Audiences should have interest in all these shows and in some cases the programs look to have more of a draw than anything on broadcast.
FX is one of a handful of networks looking at 2014 and 2015 as transition years, but based on its development cycle and dependable bench of established programs, executives could have an easier time with the switch. For now, its outlook really does look...well, sunny.