BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. At the dawn of the new millennium, programmers at a little cable network were looking for a way to do something that had never been done before.
They wanted to go into hourlong scripted drama business successfully.
What the guys running the then-struggling FX network didn't want was the show they ended up buying "The Shield."
"Their only rule starting out (was) they'd do anything except a cop show," said "Shield" creator/executive producer Shawn Ryan. "And then they read the script and they decided ... to put it on the air."
(Those guys, Peter Liguori and Kevin Reilly, have since gone on to run the Fox broadcast network.)
"The Shield" is a show that Ryan himself never expected to see on the air, let alone run for 85 episodes spread over almost six years.
"There was no original plan. I mean, I wrote this as a spec script and never thought it would get made," Ryan said. (A spec script is a sample generally intended to solicit work on another show.)
And yet current FX president John Landgraf doesn't hesitate to say, "I think 'The Shield' has probably been the single-most important series in the young history of ad-supported cable television." And not just because it made FX, "a network that no one had ever heard of," a household name and a player in the TV business.
Even taking into consideration the penchant TV executives have for Hollywood hyperbole, Landgraf has a point. The success of "The Shield" changed the television landscape, offering viewers more choices on more channels than ever before.
"It was a very audacious bet," Landgraf said. "At that point in cable history, only HBO had had any success with scripted series. And basic cable had never before attempted the type of high-quality serialized dramas for which HBO was renowned."
The conventional wisdom was that scripted dramas were too expensive and too hard to get viewers to watch on basic cable. Scripted dramas has certainly been tried before, but without much success.
For example, in 2004 TNT general manager Steve Koonin told USA Today that he preferred the safety of NBA basketball, movies and "Law & Order" reruns to original dramas like "Bull" and "Witchblade," which had failed to garner much attention on his network.
"Series enhance the brand," he said. "But if the series becomes your brand, inevitably one day your brand will be canceled."
And yet, in the wake of FX's success with "The Shield," TNT had a change of heart.
"Three years after 'The Shield' (debuted), TNT entered the game with 'The Closer,' which has done more for awareness of TNT than anything in its history," said Landgraf. "Also, USA launched 'Monk' six months after FX launched 'The Shield' and, since then, has had consistent success with character-driven procedural dramas."
The list goes on, from "Battlestar Galactica" on the Sci Fi Channel to "Army Wives" on Lifetime. AMC, a channel struggling for ratings and an identity, suddenly raised its profile when it added "Mad Men" to its schedule. "Mad Men" alone brought AMC 16 Emmy nominations this year; its scripted drama "Breaking Bad" added four more.
"Mad Men" and FX's "Damages" made television history as the first basic-cable series ever nominated for Emmys as best drama. Just like "Shield" star Michael Chiklis made history in 2002 by becoming the first cable-drama star to win an Emmy for best actor in a drama.
"The road to all of this Emmy success for basic cable was paved by 'The Shield.' ... Before March of 2002, when 'The Shield' premiered, there were eight hourlong scripted series in basic cable. And none of them were particularly well-respected creatively," Landgraf said. "This year there will be more than 30."
Why? Because television follows success. And during "The Shield's" initial, 13-episode run, FX's prime-time ratings increased 57 percent. Even after that first season ended, those numbers were still a third higher.
And "The Shield" gave a channel that was just one of hundreds competing for attention an identity to build on. An identity that has gone on to include "Nip/Tuck," "Rescue Me," "Damages," even "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," one of the few success half-hour comedies on cable television.
None of which would have been produced had it not been for "The Shield's" success.
"If 'The Shield' had failed, FX would have quickly exited the scripted original series business," Landgraf said.
"The Shield" was an unlikely candidate for success. For one thing, Ryan had never run a show before. His only real TV experience was as a writer/producer on the 2000-01 season of the vampire show "Angel." (He's since gone on to create and produce "The Unit" for CBS.)
For another, FX was trying to be distinctive with a cop show and there have been hundreds of cop shows.
Plus, "The Shield" is built around the character of Det. Mick Mackey (Michael Chiklis) a tough guy who gets things done. But he's also a dirty cop. In the first episode, he intentionally shoots to death another police detective.
Talk about your anti-hero.
Episodes of "The Shield" are not self-contained. It's demanding of its audience because they have to tune in week after week in order to understand what's happening which is also not the most common recipe for success.
"I feel like it's the longest movie ever made," Chiklis said.
"I think that was a big decision and kind of a fateful decision for FX and other channels that do serialized dramas," Landgraf said.
Indeed, the genre has proliferated on cable.
"And because of content, many people doubted that advertisers would put their clients in the show," Landgraf said.
Ah, the content. "The Shield" makes "NYPD Blue" look like "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." The original review of "The Shield" in the Deseret News called it "the best police show to come along in years" but noted it was "on the wrong channel. A show with as much nudity, graphic sex, violence and strong language as this one doesn't belong on basic cable."
And the success of the show with both viewers and advertisers has opened up the door for more "adult" content on other basic-cable series. (Cable is not regulated by the FCC the way broadcast television is.)
For that reason, "The Shield" has had its share of critics. But, as its seventh and final season begins, the show's influence is strong and its legacy seems set."For the past six seasons, week in and week out, 'The Shield' has delivered episodes as consistently great as any other show on TV," Landgraf said. "And it's my personal belief that 25 years from now, people will look back at this show ... as one of the finest drama series of this era of television."
E-mail: [email protected]