FX at the TCA press tour: John Landgraf carves out new territory

FX at the TCA press tour: John Landgraf carves out new territory

When FX president John Landgraf took the stage for his Television Critics Association summer press tour executive session, he didn’t have any big announcements to make. Most of those were already in the network’s past. The best he could muster was that Billy Bob Thornton will be starring in the miniseries version of Fargo, which will air on the network FX Movies at some point, and that Louie will return to FX in May 2014. Landgraf will often announce renewals or new series pickups at his executive sessions, but The Bridge is too early in its run to get a pick-up—though positive ratings comparisons to The Americans and Justified suggest one will come sooner or later—and Wilfred has been down this summer, which Landgraf attributes to the network’s bad luck to air the première up against the final game of the NBA Finals. (FX had bet no one would take the Miami Heat to seven games, which turned out to be inaccurate.) Landgraf is a big favorite of the TCA crowd, but he seemed subdued during his opening reading of statistics.

There’s a big reason why Landgraf had no big news, of course, and that’s because the big news came months ago. FX is splitting into three separate networks come the fall, and this was the first TCA press tour during which he wasn’t the head of just FX but of FX Networks. The move to different networks has been pitched as FX splitting up the content it shows into three separate places—FX would be the home of the channel’s dramas, FXX the home of its comedies, and FXM the home of its movies. Nothing’s as simple as that, of course. As pointed out above, Louie, the first basic cable series to be nominated for a Best Comedy Series Emmy, will return to FX, not FXX, and Landgraf also talked about eventually developing some dramas for FXX.

The question, then, is of demographics. FXX will be aimed at FX’s younger viewers, while FXM will take aim at an older demographic. Then, Landgraf hopes, the FX mothership will appeal to all of those viewers, 16-60. The initial move to comedies with FXX largely is driven by those shows having younger demographics, while the network’s dramas tend to skew older. (For instance, while The Americans has solid 18-49 numbers—and pretty great 18-49 numbers when DVR and streaming viewers are added in—those numbers are shakier in the 18-34 demo.) Similarly, many of the network’s “limited series” (which it uses to denote a miniseries, as opposed to the broadcast networks, which use the term to denote shows that have shorter, cable-length seasons) will be tossed over on FXM, since the form seems likely to skew older. Landgraf says he thinks only targeting 18-49-year-olds is something of the past, but it’s somewhat telling that the flagship network will still be primarily targeted at that demographic sweet spot.

Why do this, particularly in an increasingly splintered media landscape? Landgraf pointed out that FX already buys huge numbers of movies, and its scripted programming development is pushing the limits of how much the central network can put on the air. He used a boxing metaphor to describe the channel’s strategy at one point. Where FX alone was like a middleweight punching up at a heavyweight (like, say, HBO), spawning two other networks—with, granted, one simply being a rebranding of the pre-existing Fox Movie Channel—allows FX to become a heavyweight and have a better chance of winning the fight when the 10 rounds are up. And by making the other two FX networks be tied so directly to the original, there’s a healthy sense of branding as well. Landgraf pointed out AMC, IFC, Sundance, and We, which are all owned by the same conglomerate and are all co-branded as “AMC Networks,” though few TV watchers would immediately think of those four networks as part of the same voice. It gives Landgraf more room to develop programming, and he spoke of his desire to be up to 25 original series spread across the three networks by 2015.

He spoke about a handful of those series during his presentation. The network has two major drama pilots going into production soon, including its bid at the Walking Dead audience, an adaptation of The Strain, the vampire novel by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan. Unlike The Walking Dead, however, The Strain will stick close to the events of the book trilogy, meaning that the series, if it goes forward (which seems likely, what with its blockbuster potential and its cast including Corey Stoll and John Hurt), will last 39-65 episodes, or three to five seasons. (Landgraf spoke often of giving creators the right amount of time to tell their stories, both in terms of Sons Of Anarchy ending after its seventh season and the network’s increased interest in miniseries.) The other major drama is Tyrant, the story of an American family drawn into Middle Eastern politics, created by two of the Homeland creators. It will shoot its pilot in Morocco, with David Yates stepping in for the departing Ang Lee. (Yates, best known for his Harry Potter films, did some terrific work in television in the United Kingdom.) There was less said about the networks’ comedy and miniseries development, but six comedy pilots were mentioned—including the project starring Billy Crystal and a project from Charlie Kaufman—and Landgraf hinted at a handful of intriguing period piece miniseries, including one set onboard the Mayflower and one about abolitionist John Brown that will star Paul Giamatti.

At one point, Landgraf made mention of what might happen if he were “mayor of television,” despite there being no such thing. In many ways, at least insofar as the TCA is concerned, Landgraf is the mayor of television. He was the first to call attention to how Netflix doesn’t report ratings data, which has become a constant theme of this press tour. (Curiously, Landgraf refused to take the bait this time, saying that he still has concerns but also appreciates how Netflix has contributed to the overall TV ecosystem with its high-profile series launches.) He was also one of the first to embrace DVR and streaming numbers as a justification for renewal, an attitude that’s spreading to the broadcast networks rapidly, as the ways viewers consume television continue to shift and change so significantly. (The Bridge is adding 88 percent of its audience on DVR, and there were weeks when The Americans more than doubled its audience on DVR playback.) He talked about how after Walter White, the race to have the darkest possible antihero is probably over, at least for now. (It would be too hard to top Walter’s descent into nastiness, he said.) He’s even launching a streaming service of his very own, called FX Now, which will roll out later in the year.

Yet what Landgraf is doing with this new FX empire is perhaps his best shot at cutting through the clutter of the future television landscape. In many ways, the future of television is all about branding. HBO has a strong brand that stands for a certain kind of programming. Netflix has a strong brand in terms of technology and is developing one in terms of programming. Yet it’s hard to say what, say, AMC stands for, particularly when one considers the whole AMC operation, as outlined above. FX already has a fairly strong brand, one that stands for male-skewing quality drama and comedy, but it’s also a brand that could be very easy to lose track of in a sea of media choices. In a lot of ways, all of these smaller operations are jockeying to become the Pepsi to HBO’s Coca Cola, all hoping that they don’t end up the Royal Crown Cola of quality television. Landgraf has done a fantastic job of navigating the treacherous terrain of basic cable. Whether he can find his way through the even more treacherous new world we’re entering now is an open question, but he’s clearly staking out as much territory as he can as quickly as possible.