There is only one thing FX Networks President-General Manager John Landgraf doesn’t have that could afford his network a shot at challenging his basic cable rivals for the top of the ratings chart: sports.
“I’d love to have a major sports franchise,” Landgraf says. “It’s just a question of which one, and how do you make the economics work? If you look at FX versus TNT to date, we’re up 5%; they’re probably up 4% or 5%. But look at them without sports. Entertainment to entertainment, they’re down 7%; we’re up 5.”
FX has a strong history in highly rated original series and a pipeline of new development ready to be tapped, but originals don’t really move the needle, Landgraf says. FX can maintain its perch as the fifth-highest-rated basic cable network in core demos with its current strategy, but if the network is going to move up, it needs wrestling, playoff baseball, a Thursday package of NFL games, a NASCAR package—something. FX parent News Corp. looked at the Bowl Championship Series college football playoffs, with one scenario putting it on FX, but that didn’t pan out.
“It’s going to be virtually impossible for FX to ever challenge TNT, TBS or USA without sports,” Landgraf says.
“Look at their average number of adults 18-49 per hour in prime,” he continues. “We’re at about 750,000 on average year-to-date. We’ll finish the year in the 700s, just as we have the last three years. I can see with our current strategy being in the 800s at some point. TNT and USA are getting incremental 100,000 or 150,000 on average in prime out of sports. No channel is getting anywhere near 1 million adults 18-49, 21 hours a week, 365 days a year, without sports. It’s not going to happen.”
FX used to have NASCAR, which was a key distribution driver before the network was fully distributed as it is now. The deal was jettisoned years back. “NASCAR was very helpful to FX for the years we had it,” Landgraf says. “It helped people find the channel, helped put us on the map. It definitely helped increase our distribution faster. We are fully distributed now, but were not then. Ultimately it was not profitable on our channel at the price we were paying for it for the number of races we had, so it was one of the sacrifices we made in deference to spending a lot more money on original programming and marketing original programming.”
Right now, FX has no plans underway to acquire a major sports property. If one becomes available, the question for the network is whether it can acquire sports in a way that would be profitable, according to Landgraf. “There are a lot of guys at News Corp., from David Hill and Ed Goren to Chase Carey and Tony [Vinciquerra], who know a heck of a lot more about the sports business than I do. So, it’s not going to be my decision,” he says. “It’s a very, very big business decision to go after a major sports package, and it’s not going to be made at my level. I’ll be consulted along the way, but it will be made for big, strategic reasons.”
But he definitely has an opinion. “Am I ambitious for FX—would I like to see us challenge the top three general-entertainment networks in 18-49, and would sports help us do that?” Landgraf adds. “Yeah, it would.”
Sports was one of many topics of conversation during Melissa Grego's recent interview with John Landgraf. For much more about FX's future, read the "Mel's Diner" interview with Landgraf, which runs online and in print on July 6.