FX Networks chief John Landgraf parted company with many of his industry peers during a panel at Advertising Week, throwing cold water on the premise of social media being a catalyst for TV viewership.
He cited the recent season of the high-rated American Horror Story anthology that starred Lady Gaga. When the FX team dug into the numbers, he said, they discovered that “our marketing drove her social footprint,” not the other way around. He added, “Social media is people talking. … You really misconstrue the order of operations when you say that social media is driving people to action. It’s about people commenting on action that they’re taking.”
The comments came during a free-flowing, discursive, but often thought-provoking panel on the last day of the 14th annual Advertising Week in New York. Better Things co-creator, executive producer and star Pamela Adlon joined FX Networks CEO John Landgraf and Fox Networks Group ad chief for the discussion, which covered a wide range of topics. During the hour, Landgraf cited Scientific American, Adlon marveled at the staying power of the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Marchese gamely played friendly ringmaster, lobbing out questions and occasionally adding his own answers. “You guys talk about ads!” Adlon sardonically urged her fellow panelists at one point.
The session, titled “Fearlessly Funny: Scripted Comedy & The Arms Race for Audience Attention,” emphasized FX’s unique position in the TV ecosystem–while it is a prestige player, it is one of the only ones in the very top echelon that is an ad-supported network. And that means selling cars and soap. Still, Landgraf said he and his execs are thinking increasingly long term. “We want to make shows for posterity,” he said. The introduction of the library-deep, ad-free FX Plus offering on Comcast this summer is another way for FX shows can endure. “When we’re looking at FX Plus,” he said, “it makes me feel good because we weren’t just trying to make shows for 10 o’clock on Tuesday night.” (No numbers or results were divulged from the launch of FX Plus earlier this month.)
Rather than algorithms or data, the human element of creative taste as a guide has become increasingly important, Landgraf argued. “Brands developed and were designed as a filter,” he said. With the explosion of content and consumer choice, the programming networks promote “can’t just be a package. It has to be a pathway toward an extraordinary experience.” The notion of playing the long game instead of fixating on boosting live ratings “is liberating. I don’t have to measure success based on who watched it today but rather what it meant to people.”
Adlon followed one of Landraf’s thrusts by admitting, “As I listen to you, I’m thinking that I really didn’t know it was a machine, where you’re trying to figure out what show to put on a Tuesday.”
Marchese marveled that “there’s been one wakeup call after another for the industry” of late, mentioning Shonda Rhimes’ decamping Disney-ABC for Netflix with her new development deal.
While Adlon’s role in the discussion was to represent the creator’s point of view, she mentioned a New York-area ad that’s been in such heavy rotation over the years that some in the audience were able to join in as she sang the jingle: the law firm of Cellino & Barnes. Adlon said Better Things, now in its second season, is so true to her own life that the current season includes a sequence where her character sings the jingle, as Adlon has off screen.
Obtaining clearance for the jingle opened Adlon’s eyes to a whole world of branding that is often woven through the process of making television. “They wanted $10,000,” she recalled. Then, when Cellino and Barnes got embroiled in a nasty legal fight, their mutual consent to the use of the jingle in Better Things “was able to be the one thing that could bring them together,” she joked.
“How will the song go now?” Landgraf asked.
“Baaaaaarnes!” Adlon cried out in her gravelly voice, earning one of her biggest laughs of the day.