FX at the TCAs: John Landgraf says goodbye to Justified next season, but hello to a bright future

FX at the TCAs: John Landgraf says goodbye to Justified next season, but hello to a bright future

For the first time, FX—or rather FX Networks, which also encompasses fledgling sister channel FXX—presented an entire day of content to the Television Critics Association press tour, a proud accomplishment for a channel that’s been at the center of basic cable’s intense rise in original scripted programming. It’s a programming lineup with considerable depth and purpose, and the choice to renew both of its 2013 freshman dramas—The Bridge and The Americans—meant there wasn’t even a Terriers situation for the executive to “answer for.” Instead, Landgraf continued to hold court as one of the industry’s most intelligent pontificators on the future of television, and most of his comments spoke to his plans to keep FX Networks as a key part of that future.

Most of this will still be done through fostering great programming, a subject on which Landgraf has consistently shown attentiveness to creative concerns. Regarding the now-official decision for Justified to conclude after its sixth season in 2015, Landgraf deferred to creator Graham Yost and star Timothy Olyphant’s decision to bring the series to an end, a choice he respected in his desire for the creative end to drive his business, rather than the other way around. Without citing any specific examples, Landgraf is at least subtly referencing channels like HBO and Showtime, where shows like True Blood and Dexter continued running despite considerable creative turnover, purely for business reasons. While Landgraf has had to make some tough decisions with regard to low-rated series in the past, he expresses a commitment to giving critically acclaimed, “must-binge” series consideration regardless of their ratings performance, which is reassuring to lovers of shows with great reputations and low viewership.

That said, Landgraf is unwilling to cite a specific ratings threshold, and one senses that’s changing as the landscape adjusts to non-linear viewing—particularly when FX is making its own distribution changes. If FX Networks is facing one challenge, it’s the launch of FXX, ostensibly designed as a haven for the young male viewers who are central to FX’s brand identity. But after the quick cancellation of Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell—which strangely didn’t come up during the executive session—and the choice to move animated comedy Chozen away from its announced FXX home back to the flagship channel, the future of FXX seems uncertain. Asked about what makes “an FXX series” in light of Chozen’s late-game move to FX, Landgraf said there wasn’t really a distinction: It was, instead, a decision based solely on wanting to give the series the best chance to succeed and leverage the success of Archer (now its most successful comedy).

It’s a statement that reflects the fact that FX really isn’t invested in differentiating the two channels’ respective brands at this stage in their development. As FX launches its new FXNOW steaming service—which combines programming from FX and FXX with FX Networks’ extensive feature film library in a non-linear streaming environment—the programming from both channels will co-exist peacefully, so that those who don’t watch the episodes on FX or FXX may be totally unaware that the series are on different channels. FX wants all of its content to stand on its own merits, and the channel on which it appears is merely a slight distinction within the broader FX Networks brand.

FX’s tagline is currently “Fearless,” and yet that doesn’t feel like it reflects the development strategies behind the launch of FXX or elsewhere. Landgraf’s development is actually very shrewd and tactical, targeting demographics who are still engaged with television and well-suited to monetizing and launching services like FXNOW, while simultaneously committing to 10/90 deals with more broadly marketable stars like Kelsey Grammer and Martin Lawrence (whose Braddock & Jackson is scheduled to launch in 2014).

You also wouldn’t blink if you were told their upcoming dramas and comedies were appearing on a premium cable channel: Landgraf was quick to remind critics he competed with HBO and Showtime for True Detective, while names like Paul Giamatti (Hoke), Billy Crystal (The Comedians), and Zach Galifianakis (the newly announced project co-written by Louis C.K.) confirm Landgraf’s belief that there’s no distinction between film and television for actors (and concurrently, no distinction between premium and basic cable). At the same time, low-budget comedies like Archer and Chozen are the essence of basic-cable narrowcasting, pushing the boundaries to find devoted fans, rather than a broader or more prestigious audience.

More than other cable channels—yes, that means you, AMC—FX finds itself with a diverse enough range of programming to fill a day of TCA panels, and a reputation for focusing on letting its creators deal with shows on their own terms. Whereas Mad Men’s announced 2015 conclusion leaves AMC searching for an identity beyond just “The Walking Dead Channel,” Justified’s now-confirmed 2015 ending finds FX in full control over its identity. That sense of control may be lacking as it tries to distinguish between its two channels and steps boldly into the realm of streaming, but that FX is taking the steps it is—and that Landgraf speaks so intelligently about them—makes it easy to believe in the channel’s ability to weather the storm ahead.

Stray observations:

  • FX’s upcoming drama series will launch throughout the late spring and summer, with Noah Hawley’s Fargo launching April 15, Gideon Raff’s Tyrant in June, and Guillermo del Toro and Carlton Cuse’s The Strain in July. (Meanwhile, The Strain is currently finishing filming its fourth episode, with a trailer set to debut before critics later today.)
  • FX’s purchase of The Simpsons streaming rights is a huge part of FXNOW’s launch, and the press release promises the first 24 seasons in August of this year, with Season 25 launching at the same time Season 26 premieres on Fox in September. The network is also creating “a special environment that will serve as a home to the ultimate curation of all things Simpsons,” so my dream of the Simpsons Clip Database is still alive.
  • Landgraf made a note that FX is up 1 percent among male viewers, but 4 percent among female viewers, before expressing a desire to expand the brand’s appeal to women. And while not every series with a male lead is designed only to appeal to men, the lack of female stars in the current development slate is nonetheless telling. It will be interesting to see how the channels’ further comedy pickups—to be announced in the months ahead—show more movement in this direction.
  • Landgraf confirmed Ryan Murphy has been given “carte blanche” by FX for the fourth season of American Horror Story, so if you had any concerns it would get less crazy, you can breathe a sigh. Whether it’s of relief or exhaustion is up to you.
  • While FXNOW currently only features existing programs, Landgraf hopes to be able to renegotiate streaming deals for legacy programs that are currently caught up in streaming deals on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc. So if you don’t subscribe to cable—which you’ll need to access FXNOW—make sure you watch Terriers on Netflix sooner rather than later.