Pasadena, Calif. -- FX Networks CEO John Landgraf didn’t lob another grenade into TCA press tour as he did last summer with his “peak TV” manifesto. Even so, in his executive session kicking off today’s FX day at winter press tour, he galvanized the cooped-up press corps by building on those themes and arguing that TV production must become “more fluid” in order to avoid a meltdown.
“The process of making television can be much more fluid and can continue to evolve in the sense that it follows the voice, the timing, the needs and the schedule of the creative people,” he said, “rather than them having to mold themselves into a pre-determined business structure in which they have to be creative on demand. … To me, that’s a recipe for mediocrity.”
As examples, he cited Louie, which is on an indefinite hiatus. In conversations with creator Louis C.K., he offered to the comedian, “Maybe this is a show you do periodically for the rest of your life. …. Could be that odd TV show that has 15 seasons over 40 years.”
Landgraf also said FX’s anthology and limited series, from American Horror Story to the hotly anticipated O.J. Simpson kickoff to American Crime Story to Fargo are proof of his desire to mix things up. “I started to feel like there were tropes in the serialized business and people were back-solving for a business model. So I wanted a new business model,” he told reporters after the session. For David Chase and other HBO show creators in the late-1990s, Landgraf went on, “Their big idea wasn’t, ‘what if we do 13 episodes?’ It was, ‘What if the business model fits the creative? What if the series could be the optimal length to tell that story?’”
Landgraf didn’t break much, if any programming news during the session, though he gestured at new comedies like Baskets and the returning You’re the Worst as well as new dramas like Legion and network fixtures like The Americans, which returns in March. Mostly, as usual, he used the session to take on a range of industry issues, fielding a few consumer-y, “what will happen to this or that character” questions but mostly exploring business terrain.
Last August at TCA, Landgraf issued a study by the network that projected 409 original scripted shows would be on air by December 2015. Asked to update his views on “peak TV,” he initially noted the internal researchers realized the true number was 412 shows—a revision that he said proved that counting TV shows “is like counting lemmings. Hopefully they won’t all run over a cliff.” Of the predicted slowdown, he elaborated, “I’m not foreseeing a collapse. I’m just saying maybe it will go from 450 shows to 350 shows. It’s still going to be a lot of TV.”
Some reaction to his pronouncement was predictably negative. “We all have a stake in saying positive things about the businesses that we run,” Landgraf said. “I think there are people uncomfortable even debating whether there’s too much TV.” But, he added, “I’m not saying more television doesn’t beget more good television. I’m saying from a business standpoint, from a consumer standpoint, it’s harder to launch shows, it’s harder to see shows.”
To that point, he noted at the outset of the session that FX’s average primetime linear audience in 2015 decreased 13%, though some of those viewers were simply shifting to other platforms. There were 12.4 million downloads of the ad-supported FX Now app in 2015, a 75% increase from the prior year.
FXX, two years after launch, saw its primetime audience gain 19% and the young sibling is now No. 28 on Nielsen’s rankings of 108 ad-supported cable nets, Landgraf said.
Using a multi-colored pie chart illustrating the critical acclaim for shows from various networks, Landgraf tossed bouquets at a number of competitors, from USA to Lifetime to Netflix, for contributing to what he called TV’s “platinum age.”
But he also acknowledged some daunting competition, saying FX often competes against companies with programming war chests “three or four times bigger.” Netflix, for example, “went from zero shows four years ago to 55 adult shows now.”
It gets “frustrating,” he said, to run a traditional network that must book profits when, for SVOD competitors, “there’s a perception that’s very carefully cultivated in Silicon Valley, that they’re going to take over everything, so they don’t have to show earnings because the future is theirs.”
It’s been no secret, Landgraf said, that FX was outgunned by HBO in bidding for True Detective. But when it “aggressively pursued” Master of None and Crown, Netflix “overwhelmed us with ‘shock-and-awe’ levels of money and commitment.”
While the stock led the S&P with gains of 140% in 2015, “it doesn’t make a significant profit,” Landgraf said. “Something’s gotta give eventually.”
Asked about third-party ratings for Netflix shows revealed last week by NBC research chief Alan Wurtzel, Landgraf said the numbers were “directional more than anything else. I look at the methodology and it doesn’t feel rigorous enough. It’s not a census-based demography, it’s a random demography. … I think it’s ridiculous that we don’t have usage numbers. I can understand the debate about secrecy sparked by Edward Snowden. … But I think we can all agree that there’s some data that a national security apparatus has a right to keep secret. I don’t know that I feel the same way about television data. That feels like sports scores and more like stuff that should be public and where everyone should be on the same playing field. And I’m sure it will be at some point.”
After the session, he reflected on the cultural and business shift of moving away from releasing live/same-day ratings. FX led the pack on ditching overnights, but Landgraf said it was a smooth transition.
“I used to have a conversation the next day with every showrunner about every episode that aired,” he said. “I would look at the ratings and then call and discuss it with them. I never do that anymore. I might have a conversation after the premiere and I might have a conversation toward the end of the season as more data comes in. But we just don’t talk about ratings the same way we used to. And that’s kind of a relief. … There’s a downside in it, in that shows are not breaking records. But there’s a real upside to it in that it just takes the pressure off the crack of the next day.”
The losses of video subscribers, which hit several traditional programmers especially hard in the fourth quarter of 2015, “feels manageable to me,” he said, asserting that the number of people buying TV packages has remained steady when all platforms are counted. “We’d rather be paid by 100 million homes than 93, but we’re still increasing our revenue on the affiliate side because we have 12 years of momentum and success on the original programming side.”