Still “Crazy” After All These Years

Another media milestone was reached over the past weekend, but you’d be truly hard pressed to find any mention of it by even the most obsessive of observers.  Were it not for a few personal friends and former business colleagues with a soft spot for history, I probably wouldn’t have remembered, either.

But there it was, short but sweet, in my social media timelines.  Happy 30th birthday, FX.  You ever hear someone say “Never trust anyone over 30?”  Unless you’re WAY over that number, you likely haven’t.  But never has that advice been less appropriate when one considers both the resillience and the relevance that the network has today.  Especially when one considers how it started.

The FX that debuted on June 1, 1994 took full advantage of the confluence of three simultaneously opportunistic trends in television at the time–the expansion of channel capacity via both digital cable and its arch-rival, the newly-emerging satellite technology pioneered by DIRECTV, the successful lobbying by companies that owned broadcast networks to extract retransmission fees from those distributors since they were far and away the most popular offerings in their lineups, and good old fashioned greed.  Rather than actually pay for the right to offer NBC or FOX, cable and satellite companies were offered the opportunity to effectively place a long-term bet on a start-up business that would have immediate brand recognition and theoretical stability from corporate ownership that dozens of other companies looking to cash in on the bandwidth bandwagon could guarantee.

What we tended to get were brand and catalog extensions in the spirit of speciality Oreos, devised hurriedly by synergy teams and beancounters, with a few maveric creatives seizing upon their desperation and naivete to literally throw anything against the wall to see if it would stick.  NBC allowed Roger Ailes to try his hand at a 24-hour all-talk show channel, AMERICA’S TALKING, which included a couple of hours with him in front of the camera doing his interpretation of Howard Beale from NETWORK.  ESPN offered a spinoff ostensibly aimed at younger viewers, lovingly called The Deuce, that used graphics and dressed its anchors much like a downtown punk club as a veneer for what otherwise was a place for second-tier college sports to air.  And fX (yep, the “f” was lower case) took that cost-efficiency one step further by attempting to build a block of daytime programming that aired exclusively from a renovated, cool apartment in New York’s Flatiron District, taking many of the irreverent Australian and British imports that warmed Rupert Murdoch’s heart and lined his pockets with low-cost shows that successfully matured from quiet launches on the owned-and-operated stations into national hits, such as A CURRENT AFFAIR, AMERICA’S MOST WANTED and the GOOD DAY franchises that began to take root against established network shows from 7-9 AM local time.

ESQUIRE’s Bob Sassone lovingly recalled those really early days in a piece he wrote when FX turned 20:

FX (or as the name looked when the network launched 20 years ago this week, fx) has changed quite a bit since 1994. The network started as a channel for almost all original programming, almost all of it shown live, with some classic TV thrown in, too. It’s hard to describe to someone who doesn’t remember what the network was like, but imagine MeTV meets Today meets local cable access. A fun, odd mix of shows hosted by a large team of rotating hosts throughout the day, all broadcast from a cool gigantic apartment in New York City.

In the spirit of GOOD DAY, what fX had hoped would become their signature show was an even more irreverent AM offering, the British-inspired BREAKFAST TIME.  Sassone captured the essence of that show in this reminder of the kind of talent and why-the-f—not attitude that prevailed:

Then: Tom Bergeron, host of Breakfast Time

Now: Tom Bergeron, host of America’s Funniest Home Videos and Dancing with the Stars

Bergeron has been hosting America’s Funniest Home Videos for so long that it’s hard to remember if he even did anything before it. But he did. He co-hosted the unbelievably fun Breakfast Time on FX starting in June 1994. His co-host was Laurie Hibberd (you might know her as the wife of Gelman from Live! with Kelly and Michael), and there was an announcer named Jim and a sarcastic puppet named Bob. It was a morning show, a variety show, a travel show, and just about every other type of show you could think of, broadcast live every morning. A mixture of talk, interviews, information, music, and general goofiness. And it was brilliant.

Then: Phil Keoghan, naked “Road Warrior” on Breakfast Time

Now: Phil Keoghan, clothed host of The Amazing Race

One of the regular segments on Breakfast Time was “The Road Warriors,” in which a team of correspondents would report live on the scene from an interesting place or event. Maybe they’d explore a cave or report from a sporting event or from a historical landmark. Maybe even a Turkish bath in New York City.

That was the time Road Warrior Phil Keoghan caused several viewers to choke on their Cheerios. While coming out of the water, live on television, he showed a little more than he meant to. I can still remember Bergeron sitting in a bathtub laughing his ass off and Bob the Puppet making a joke about how we now knows Keoghan is Jewish.

It became the darling of hipster Manhattanites and influencers at magazines like ESQUIRE and THE VILLAGE VOICE.  And when the network launched with what then a record initial footprint of more than 20 million homes optimism reigned.  But few of those homes watched and, just as significantly, if you didn’t live in Manhattan, if you didn’t have satellite TV you couldn’t even receive fX.  By the time I got to the network five years later BREAKFAST TIME and the lower-case f were history, they had not yet broken 30 million homes in their universe, and even the MeTV-liked utility of the lees and dregs of the 20th Century FOX library had been scaled back to include a handful of the few shows more than a dozen people were watching.

My era was the transition of that humble beginning into the seeds of what it eventually became, a far more ambitious and honored outlet for truly breakthrough scripted content, which DECIDER passionately summarized when FX celebrated its silver anniversary in 2019:

Over the past quarter century, FX has forever altered television. Shows like The Shield, Rescue Me, and Damages introduced audiences to a higher caliber of TV, without requiring them to pay HBO’s steep subscription fees. Series like Nip/Tuck and Sons of Anarchy pushed the boundaries of what could be allowed on cable and what lines should be crossed. Programs like Atlanta and American Horror Story have even gone as far as to question what television could be, pushing the sad-com — a comedy trend FX also innovated — to its absolute extremes and introducing the anthology format to mainstream television, respectively. That is saying nothing of the large pool of daring, bold creators FX has fostered over the years, storytellers like Ryan Murphy, Pamela Adlon, and Noah Hawley.  From its very first moments as a network dedicated to making interactive television a large-scale endeavor, FX has always pushed the limits of television.

2019 was also the year the network was purchased by Disney as part of the $71B unloading of what Murdoch often called “the middle of the newspaper”–the entertainment frivolity that in his mind were less important than the front page (sensationalistic news) and back page (sports) of a tabloid mentality.  Even though the FOX purchase overall has crippled Disney’s bottom line and the inherited IP underperformed expectations, FX is far and away the most successful of the brands and businesses they absorbed.  Wisely keeping most of the key personnel that built it up, many of whom have been there long enough to have been my superiors and peers, it is still winning accolades and providing some of the most desired and successful content available on any Disney platform, including ABC and Disney+.  FX shows are the most-watched and in-demand shows on Hulu and effectively is keeping the price tag and value of that streamer at the upper end of the spectrum.

And it’s still continuing to do so, even at a time when most of its one-time competitors have regressed to offering far less ambitious original content-if any–and relegated to third class status within their own conglomerates.  The latest example is the highly anticipated CLIPPED, a six-part miniseries that debuts tomorrow night that chronicles how the 2014 Los Angeles Clippers, owned by the notorious real estate tycoon Donald Sterling, became both surprisingly competitive and shockingly tabloidy at once.  The concept evolved from a series of podcasts created by ESPN personality and longtime Clippers beat writer Ramona Shelbourne, making this one of the first cross-pollinizations of arguably the two crown jewels in the Disney TV arsenal.

ROGER EBERT.com’s Brian Tallerico is impressed:

FX’s “Clipped” takes some exciting approaches to telling a complex story about privilege, race, wealth, and fame… there are strong performances throughout “Clipped” and sharp dialogue that trusts viewers to consider the society-shaping dynamics coursing through this true story.

“Clipped” is told from three perspectives, and Donald Sterling’s isn’t really one of them. Sure, “Modern Family” star Ed O’Neill gets to chew a lot of scenery as the crotchety old man who has never really paused to consider his place in the sports hierarchy. The version of Sterling here is that of a blindered troll who is in the ownership game not for the love of basketball but because he has enough money to be in it and likes the privilege and prestige it brings. But the team behind “Clipped” wisely don’t spend too much time with someone whose part of this story lacks nuance (because the real person did too).  The viewpoints from which we see the Sterling saga are those held by coach Doc Rivers (Laurence Fishburne), Stiviano (Cleopatra Coleman), and Sterling’s wife Shelley (Jacki Weaver), who the show asserts got all of these balls rolling when she tried to suppress Stiviano’s role in her husband’s life, going as far as to sue her to retrieve property obtained through her relationship. Naturally, Doc’s story is the most interesting, a former Clipper who was brought in to coach the team at the start of the 2013-2014 season after his success in Boston, only to stumble into one of the biggest sports stories of the year. Fishburne plays Rivers with a perfect air of quiet intelligence, the kind of guy who knows how to read people—as any great coach must—and how to lead men.  Comparisons are being made to HBO’s recent and arguably prematurely cancelled WINNING TIME, which told the story of the 80s Lakers with greater irreverence and happier endings.  Much like most of the anti-heroes that have populated FX for the last three decades, they establish themselves as nonetheless compelling and worthy of one’s valuable time,

And while FX will be missing out on 2024 Emmy award opportunities by airing this after May 31st, it is greatly benefitting from scheduling a premiere just in front of the NBA Finals and will have the benefit of that audience for promotion of subsequent episodes.  Exactly the kind of savvy that helped it become what it is today, and will likely continue to be so long as Disney doesn’t completely screw things up.

Yep, even though the F is bigger and the ratings (at least linear) might be smaller, FX is still taking crazy chances when others won’t.  Still crazy?  You bet.  Like a F(o)X.

Until next time…

 

 

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