…that the landscape of cable television, and arguably the world of streaming TV, changed forever. For a change, I had a direct role in it.
THE SHIELD, a one-hour drama centering around a morally ambiguous Los Angeles police detective, Vic Mackey, and his colleagues at the fictional Farmington precinct, premiered on FX on March 12, 2002. When it premiered on that Tuesday night, it achieved a then-record 4.8 million viewers that night alone, the most-viewed hour of original scripted content in the medium’s history, and more than double the previous audience for any program of any kind in the network’s seven and three-quarter year history.
The creative road to how it got there is being chronicled by Entertainment Weekly in its current issue (surprise, they did publish a print version!), which quotes the producers, talent and my superiors who had the courage, the insight and yes, the balls to make perhaps the most unapologetic look at law enforcement in television history at that point.https://ew.com/tv/the-shield-oral-history/ I strongly encourage you to read it, both if you are a fan of the show or simply a fan of honest storytelling. I can only add my small role in it for those of you who care, but an experience that was perhaps the zenith of my professional career.
When Peter Liguori rescued me with the opportunity to join FX in late 1999, he admitted that the network, at the time not even being carried in New York City on TIme Warner’s cable system, was not the biggest fish in the pond. But Liguori had been part of an HBO team that marketed THE SOPRANOS, a show that transformed the landscape off pay television by humanizing a mafiaso through a lens that showed a loving father, abusive husband and emotionally abused son all in the same package. Liguori expressed his desire to find a show that could make the same impact for basic cable. Much in the manner that Brandon Tartikoff famously scribbled the words “MTV Cops” in a meeting with Michael Mann that eventually begat MIAMI VICE, Liguori’s two-word mantra was “Free HBO”.
The first task I was assigned was to define exactly how far an envelope we could push. We tested several candidates for this concept that were ordered during 2000 and 2001 using the control factors of those who subscribed to premium cable, those that subscribed and were already SOPRANOS viewers and basic cable viewers who were fans of more traditional police-centric shows like LAW AND ORDER. THE SHIELD was then called THE BARN, the nickname for the precinct that is revolved around. We also considered several other shows, including a narcotics-themed candidate called DOPE and a pro football-themed show that eventually became PLAYMAKERS, an ESPN original series that nearly severed the network’s partnership with the NFL.
We asked them not only what they thought of the shows, but what they thought of the language and storylines. What stood out about THE BARN was unlike the other shows they thought foul language was authentic rather than gratuitous and that after seeing it the pilot exceeded their initial expectations. They thought THE BARN was going to be a show about ranchhands. They offered that they would not have been likely to watch the show from the title since it didn’t explain what the show was about. Liguori, the marketing guy, immediately charged us with finding a new title.
Because the show drew comparisons to a 1997 corruption scandal involving cops from the Rampart division where numerous acts of misconduct, including unprovoked shootings, unprovoked beatings, planting of false evidence, stealing and dealing narcotics, bank robbery, perjury, and the covering up of evidence of these activities were documented. many executives, including then-FOX Cable Networks president (and now Comcast czar) Jeff Shell, championed RAMPART as the replacement title. We placed RAMPART as one of many title options in another round of screenings of the pilot to new audiences, along with THE BARN as a control and many others that resulted from an internal brainstorming session, including THE SHIELD. The audiences were more enthusiastic about during the pilot this go-round, but they were adamant that since we were breaking new creative ground we should make it as easy as possible for them to find it, particularly on a network like FX that they had barely heard of at the time, let alone watched. When several respondents who loved the pilot said they were invested in the characters’ relentless defense of the standards of the police shield, even above some laws, THE SHIELD emerged as our best choice. Jeff, to his credit, gave my research an endorsement and consented to changing his mind.
With a show and a title, we were then ready to face the ultimate decision-maker, FOX chairman Peter Chernin. I had some history and some street cred with Peter C. from my earlier stint at FOX, so I was invited to the greenlight meetings. The proposal Liguori was making to alter the entire business plan of FX was dramatic. He essentially was taking the entire budget for several lower-cost series and movies that provided tonnage to attempt to grow the network’s struggling distribution and put them all into one basket. Nervous about the impending meeting with Chernin, Peter called me into to a consigliere meeting and asked for another round of testing for the pilot, with THE SHIELD as the definitive title and asked me what I thought would sell Chernin. I said “He’s a believer in dial scores as a barometer, not a specific number but a trajectory. He wants to see if the show builds and if people want to see more”. So we went to yet another group of cities. In Denver, we hit a mountain bigger than the landscape that surrounded it.
When we screened the now-iconic final scene of the pilot where Chiklis’ Vic Mackey guns down his partner, played by the somewhat familiar Reed Diamond, the dials literally flatlined. The final average for the group was below testing norms and even below those of several prior screenings’ we had previously conducted. Liguori and Kevin Reilly, our creative head at the time, were panicked. When we huddled the next morning ,they demanded to know if the recruits were accurate, if the VCR we played it back on was up to standard, if the dials were working properly, etc. I said, “Guys, I was IN the room. I saw their faces FROZEN. They were captivated. ” And then I remembered–because we were in a smaller facility, we had a camera shooting the dial respondents turning their dials while they were watching the show in advance of the smaller focus group we would conduct in the same room afterwards. I said “What if I could show you the respondents’ faces in real time simultaneous playback with the dial trace (essentially the EKG of a test group). Evoking memories of the movie JFK, Liguori said, “OK, Garrison, go for it”.
We set up three monitors in the conference room with a tape of the room in the left one, the episode in the center one and the dial trace in the right one. We cued up the respective moments where the final scene began. Chernin had heard through back channels of the mediocre test scores we had received and was in a confrontative mood that day. Liguori then turned the room over to me and said “We are aware that the raw numbers weren’t up to snuff and Steve wants to offer a possible reason. ”
Chernin watched pensively as I did my best impression of the Zabruder film explanation Garrison offers up in the film. My conclusion was “they weren’t rejecting the show, it was indeed something they had never seen before. Our respondents simply couldn’t react at that moment. This is just like many FOX network pilots –the familiar gets higher test scores, but the unfamiliar can be breakthroughs.”. Liguori winked at me. Reilly twitched nervously. Chernin took a breath.
“I think all of you are fucking nuts. But if you believe this much in this, go for it. Nice work.”. Rarely was I prouder of my team and my talents.
When we huddled as a team during the post-mortem Liguori tried to rally us. “Look, guys, one of two things is gonna happen. We’re gonna make history or we’re all gonna be unemployed”.
Well, you know the rest.
I was in the office before dawn on March 13th awaiting the real-time delivery of reports from overnight local markets which were typically inconsequential for a network like FX With so much at stake, we had a need to know as early as possible if we needed to update our resumes. Not only did we show up, we beat almost every other cable network on the air, including ones available in millions more homes. In Las Vegas, a market where FX reached almost every cable household in a market that had a high overall penetration, we won the 10-11 PM time slot outright. We beat CBS, NBC and ABC in Sin City. After we received the 4.8 million national number confirmation, I did several interviews with disbelieving reporters and downloads with countless colleagues and competitors.
When the Best Drama award at the 2003 Golden Globes was awarded I was in attendance, high in the rafters. The shrieks that came from our section were distinctly heard on the broadcast. Not only had we made ratings history, we had made television history. As so many others have written, there would have never been the explosion of basic cable original dramas, nor the eventual adoption of that model by Netflix and Prime Video, had THE SHIELD not worked. I was given the largest bonus of my life and the chance to work with many other networks as my role expanded. Liguori eventually was given the FOX network. Shawn Ryan, Michael Chiklis and others became friends for life, at least on social media.
There may never be another chance to make the degree of business and cultural impact that THE SHIELD made twenty years ago today. But I’d REALLY love to experience some degree of the rush we all got 20 years ago today. As you can see, I now share a hairline with Shawn and Chikky. I’d give anything to help one of them get another headline.
Can someone out there reading this PLEASE throw me a rope to at least try?!!?!?!
Until next time…