It’s always sunny in the studios of FX Networks, where president John Landgraf has found a formula for producing original scripted comedies on the cheap. While lots of networks boast that they give control to creatives, FX does it–with strings attached. Producers must shoot pilots and even their first season or two on a tight budget, and they only share in the profits if the show is a hit. “This is about buying time,” says Landgraf. “It’s a way to let something find its voice.”
Landgraf’s most famous success is It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which launched in 2004 with three aspiring actors (including Kaitlin Olson, above) who had little Hollywood experience. During its first season, the show was produced for one-fourth the industry standard per episode, or $400,000. Its ratings have grown; last fall, 2.1 million viewers tuned in for each new episode. Sure, costs have gone up (Danny DeVito came on board starting in the second season), but the comedy is a financial hit: In late 2009, FX sold the syndication rights to Comedy Central in a deal that is expected to earn FX at least $55 million.
Following that model, Landgraf has expanded FX’s slate with four more comedies, including Archer and The League (whose six-episode first season was shot in three weeks). Now that FX is known for edgier comedies, new shows don’t take as long to find an audience. Louie, which debuted last summer, broke even this year. That’s nothing to laugh at.