After a TV season in which FX saw its original series grow in the ratings, the launch of a successful new series in American Horror Story, and substantial Emmy and critical success, all FX president John Landgraf wanted to talk about was the way that online streaming sites report their ratings. That’s not strictly accurate, actually, since he had a number of other announcements—including a fourth season for Louie and more episodes of Russell Brand’s talk show Brand X. He also discussed nearly every series on the cable channel’s docket with critics and journalists at the Television Critics Association press tour executive session for the network. But at the end of his initial prepared remarks, he launched into a fiery critique of how sites like Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu report their ratings. (Well, fiery for Landgraf, who essentially defines “mild-mannered.”)
His major concern seems to be that there’s little to no transparency to how the sites report how many people have watched their series, despite the fact that said sites have the ability to provide minute-to-minute data of such things, should they want to. Landgraf accurately pegs content on Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube as a growing major competitor to basic cable, but he’s concerned that since the sites aren’t governed by the Nielsen ratings, there’s no apples-to-apples comparison with cable ratings. This might seem confusing, so let me try to explain it.
You know how every TV season, CBS goes up with promos saying that “17 billion people” (only a slight exaggeration) watched its most popular shows? That’s because CBS is cherry-picking Nielsen data. The networks do get that data minute by minute, and they can pull out the minute with the most viewers and say, “Hey, this show was watched by 17 billion people at one point!” Everybody rolls their eyes at this, but nobody really calls CBS on it because a.) all networks try this strategy in promotions at one point or another and b.) the Nielsen numbers are reported weekly. The numbers that are reported are to the media are the numbers that show the average number of viewers who watched the whole program. Thus, if 50 million people are watching at the start of a show and only 10 million at the end, that number will be reported as 30 million in the weekly Nielsen report. This gets complicated with live+7 numbers (live viewers with seven days of DVR or streaming viewing added in), but every Nielsen number that’s issued is the average number of viewers who’ve watched the whole program.
Thus, when Landgraf announces that, say, 6.4 million total viewers watched Justified this season, he’s averaging out the average viewers for every single episode in the third season. (Other viewership numbers FX announced included 3.2 million viewers for Archer, 4.3 million viewers for Wilfred, 3.3 million viewers for Louie, and—sigh—13.8 million viewers for Anger Management. These are all live+7 numbers.) But, he said, he could easily announce that Anger Management had been watched by 25 million people, because 25 million people had tuned in to check out one minute of the series, before presumably deciding it wasn’t for them and changing the channel.
That standard doesn’t really exist for online streaming sites, which aren’t specifically in the same game as basic cable. Netflix doesn’t care if you watch only one minute of Lilyhammer, its original series starring Steven VanZandt, because it already has the money you spent to be able to access it. So if Netflix announces that 20 million people watched Lilyhammer (a number Landgraf reported the site as having said), there’s no good way to say if that number dwarfs all of FX’s numbers, as it seems to. Is that a number for those who’ve watched the entire series since it launched earlier this year? Is it a number of people who’ve checked out one episode? Or is it a number of people who’ve checked out 30 seconds of one episode? There’s no meaningful rubric, outside of what Netflix releases, but there’s also no real way to calibrate the Nielsen rankings to reflect this new reality.
FX, along with its fellow Fox television channels, has pursued a remarkably conservative online streaming strategy. Though its shows used to be available on Hulu, now, there’s little opportunity to watch any of its shows online. That’s a conscious choice many television networks are making, since they often feel that online streaming cuts into their viewership numbers and, thus, their profits. But that also leaves them vulnerable to those streaming sites, which are increasingly filling the void left behind by the content those networks used to provide with series purchased from other countries and series produced in-house. To be sure, these series are rarely to the level of the best cable productions—yet—but the sites are rapidly catching up, and the series imported from Canada and the United Kingdom are often the very best those countries have to offer. The gap is shrinking, and while Landgraf wants an even playing field, his complaints about the issue have also raised the profile of those sites, which did a couple of disastrous panels earlier in the week at TCA. (Hulu’s panel is on Tuesday.) For the most part, these sites aren’t on the radar of most traditional TV critics and journalists, but Landgraf put them there, ideally to get us to pressure the Netflixes of the world to release their numbers, even as he’s made them seem more like competitors than they ever were before.
The rest of the session dealt often with network economics, a subject Landgraf usually discusses with us with more candor than most network heads. He talked at length, for instance, of how the network had to settle for reruns of Mike & Molly because The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, and New Girl’s cable rerun deals were all so astronomical. (Both Big Bang and Modern Family reportedly got around $1.5 million per episode from TBS and USA, respectively, numbers FX apparently can’t match.) Where FX can compete is in the movies market, where the network picked up 20 of the 30 films that made $100 million or more at the domestic box office last year for their basic cable debuts. (Landgraf also mentioned that the network will occasionally send series it doesn’t think “fits” its brand to Fox Movie Channel, citing Slumdog Millionaire as one of those.)
Landgraf also talked at length about Anger Management, which now seems all but certain for a back-90 pickup, thanks to the ratings it has accrued over the last four weeks. (The premiére week episodes don’t count in the ratings formula FX is using to decide whether to make the pickup or not.) The show, produced on the same model TBS uses with Tyler Perry, shot 10 episodes to prove there was an audience for it, and will shoot an additional 90 episodes over the next two years, to get it to the syndication-worthy number of 100 episodes. The show’s cheap enough that FX should make lots of money on it, particularly thanks to its announcement that Martin Sheen will join the series in a recurring role in the 90 additional episodes. (He guests in the ninth episode of the initial order, which airs in August.) The elder Sheen joining the cast should provide a ratings boost whenever the show returns, thus ensuring it sticks to viewership levels the network would like. (During a later panel for the show, Charlie Sheen said he’d like it to run for more than 100 episodes. We’ll see how that goes.)
As mentioned, FX also picked up Louie for a 13-episode fourth season and expects to close a deal on a new season of Wilfred soon. It’s aggressively expanding into late night, with seven more episodes of Brand X, which will be reconceived by Brand and his producers and will air with It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and The League in the fall, and the impending debut of Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, a topical, incredibly political late-night comedy show that’s pretty much just Bell tossing jokes toward figures in the news.
The network is also looking seriously at its new “Soviet spies living in America” pilot The Americans, which stars Keri Russell, and has announced production of a new drama pilot called The Bridge, from Cold Case and Homeland writer Meredith Stiehm and Elwood Reed. Based on a Danish series, the show will be a murder mystery. The original was about a body found on a bridge between Denmark and Sweden. That has been changed to a bridge between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in the pilot script. The series has plenty of similarities to The Killing on paper, but Stiehm’s “The Weekend” episode of Homeland was one of the best episodes of 2011 (and largely unchanged from her original script, according to that show’s executive producer), so we’re cautiously optimistic. The adaptation of the comic series Powers is also still in consideration, and the network has ordered four scripts. If it likes those four, it will completely reshoot the pilot it commissioned last year (not least because original female lead Lucy Punch is now a regular on another show). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the network announced it was aggressively getting back into drama, after pursuing comedy more over the past few years.
That’s not to say that FX has abandoned comedy either. There’s Bronx Warrants, a new pilot from Denis Leary (who produces but does not star) coming that is a workplace comedy about warrant detectives, and Landgraf said he’d be happy to do a Louie-esque deal with anyone who came along and would be willing to write, act, direct, and edit his own show. Later, on the panel for Bell’s show, executive producer Chris Rock was asked if he’d take a deal like that, since he, indeed, does all of those things. Rock hemmed and hawed a bit but said that if he ever did decide to do a show, he’d want a deal like that. Later, Landgraf said, via John Solberg, the network’s head of publicity, that he’s welcome to take a Louie deal at FX any time. So there you go. A show that will probably never happen that you can get excited about right now, all thanks to the TCA press tour. Never say we didn’t do anything for you.
Update: Though Landgraf said during his remarks that Martin Sheen would be a series regular on Anger Management, he has actually been signed to a recurring role. The report above has been edited to reflect this fact.