Really special FX

With top American action drama like The Shield and The Wire, FX289 is winning fans among men bored with lad-lite cable channels, says Ben Raworth

On the well-worn patch of formulaic wasteland that is cable and satellite viewing aimed specifically at men, a minor revolution has slowly been taking shape over the past few months. FX289, the new Fox-owned UK satellite channel, is offering top-rate drama and comedy, and not a babe or motor in sight. FX is fast becoming an essential destination for those in the know, and with a winter line-up that puts most terrestrial stations to shame, the channel could well have more than cult appeal by the spring.

On the well-worn patch of formulaic wasteland that is cable and satellite viewing aimed specifically at men, a minor revolution has slowly been taking shape over the past few months. FX289, the new Fox-owned UK satellite channel, is offering top-rate drama and comedy, and not a babe or motor in sight. FX is fast becoming an essential destination for those in the know, and with a winter line-up that puts most terrestrial stations to shame, the channel could well have more than cult appeal by the spring.

What was the thinking behind a launch into a mature market with more than 400 channels already available? Jason Thorp, vice-president of broadcasting and marketing for FX, says the niche for FX was apparent as soon as they started looking closely at the scheduling of the other men's channels. "When we launched in January 2004 as an entertainment proposition aimed at men," he says, "the cable and satellite universe was criminally under-served in terms of quality entertainment for men - that is, drama and comedy. Simply put, what men's channels there were, were not showing good programmes."

Coming to the market late meant FX knew it had to have a strong proposition in order to make any impact. Oddly, creating this strong proposition became easier once the core idea of quality was established: the paucity of any kind of decent programming on other men's stations meant that FX could, in effect, become a trailblazer for quality, edgy drama and good, original comedy in an already mature market. FX's approach is simple: create a small, niche channel and build a reputation to begin to attract viewers.

"The UK was a logical step for Fox International," Thorp says. "For our programme choice we wanted small entertainment brands with a really strong pedigree. We want to be a channel for 25- 44-year-old men who are poorly served by what is out there at the moment. What men's channels there are seem to be based entirely on very dated lad culture."

FX sees itself reaching out to an audience which, if its research is anything to go by, wants and appreciates good- quality viewing.

"Our strategy is basically about quality and talkability," Thorp claims. "FX should become a destination viewing point for a certain group of men. We want men to have it at the top of their viewing list."

FX finds itself in what could turn out to be the envious position of being a "challenger brand". Where other stations have committed themselves to the predictable, tired formula of lad-lite, FX can take chances and test the market. "We think our viewers will allow us to take risks," Thorp says. "If the channel has a reputation for excellence and innovation, our viewers will expect us to push things and go out on a limb once in a while."

The programming is spot on. All the programmes are American, but of a standard which suggests FX is earnest when it claims it wants to attract the kind of men who appreciate quality. Picking a strong crop from Showtime, Comedy Central and HBO, FX's schedule cornerstones could easily become must-see TV for their target audience. Huff, a comedy drama about a psychiatrist in crisis, has already received rave reviews in the States. Reno 911, a comedy centred on a Nevada police department, manages to be original, funny and well-acted. FX also has the UK premiere of HBO's The Wire, a superb police drama already described by The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune as simply "the best show on TV". Preview tapes of all three confirm the hype: this is television at its very best.

To attract viewers to its new programming, FX has studded its winter schedule with established stars. The Shield (the third series of this superlative cop drama screens later this season), Family Guy, King of the Hill, X-Files and NYPD Blue are all laced through the schedule. "We are setting out our stall with the programmes we are showing," Thorp says.

Being a "challenger brand" also means that FX can transmit programmes which channels with broader appeal have to leave untouched, such as the critically acclaimed Carnivale (a supernatural drama set during the 1930s Great Depression) and the hard-hitting American football drama Playmakers. "We are not about creating a destination which attracts vast numbers," Thorp admits with refreshing candour. "But those that do come along will really appreciate what we are doing. Sky One would not be able to touch Carnivale. We are happy to take a risk.

"We are up and running, and the January schedule is very, very strong. The next step is to improve distribution and reach people, then let them make their own minds up."

The much-derided 25-44-year-old group of men FX is aiming at will, if given a chance to see the station, like a lot of it. FX could have the talkability it is after sooner than it thinks.

Ben Raworth is deputy editor of 'Loaded'

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