FX Networks CEO John Landgraf kept a TCA tradition, taking a shot or two at premium cable and digital platforms, arguing that FX is as good as them despite not having the same cachet. During the FX executive session today, Landgraf showed a pie chart that represents cumulative mentions of TV programs on various critics’ Top 10 lists for 2014. It had HBO and FX in a neck and neck finish for first place with 250 and 213 mentions, respectively, and everyone else far in the distance. (AMC was in third place with 74 points, followed by Netflix and Showtime with 67 and 62, respectively.)
“HBO is not the runaway leader anymore,” Landgraf said. “FX has broken out of the pack, with HBO and FX absolutely dominating the race for quality in television. (The chart) shows that at the moment, the race for the best in TV is really only a competition between two channels, with all the others way way behind the two leaders.”
FX’s tally no doubt included Emmy and the Golden Globe-winning Fargo, which FX considers a miniseries, not drama series.
Landgraf has been vocal about distinguishing FX anthologies American Horror Story and Fargo from traditional drama series and ripping HBO for not taking the same route with True Detective.
He was more philosophical on the issue of drama series formats today. “When I looked at the revolution in TV sparked by The Sopranos, when you take storytellers and put them into a confined box, they can make some good shows but eventually everything starts to feel repetitive,” he said. “While these really great novelistic series continue to come through the door, that started to feel like a formula — a drama has to be 7 years long, 91 hours… that turned into golden handcuffs. What if the innovation is that the length of the series should fit the length of the story? That opens doors for more mid-length stories, like Fargo, which are between 6 and 13 hours long (a season)… I think it is a game changer, the minute you define what something has to be, you limit its quality.”
Landgraf was also asked to do a postmortem on drama The Bridge, cancelled after two seasons. “This was the first time we’d ever done a show based on a format,” he said of the adaptation of a hit Scandinavian series. He admitted The Bridge was “kind of uncomfortable marriage” between a serial killer story and exploration of the ecosystem of the US Mexican border. “In the second season, we all were in agreement to jettison the serial killer story and focus on the quirky Wire-esque story.”
There was an additional challenge when executive producer/co-showrunner Meredith Stiehm left after Season 1, leaving Elwood Reid as sole showrunner. “It took him awhile to get all pieces in place,” Landgraf said. “At end of the day, we looked at the ratings trajectory, it was relentlessly downward trajectory. I have a lot of regrets about not renewing that show as that was subject materialI we want to pursue, and the show brought diversity, but at the end of the day you have to pay some attention to ratings.”
Landgraf later argued that rating don’t play an important role in FX’s renewal decisions. “We are not really a channel that’s trying to be the highest-rated channel in TV, we’re trying our best to be the best channel on TV, whatever that means. I think you’re still going to see us renewing good shows (that are not highly rated).”
In that context, Landgraf argued that Middle Eastern drama Tyrant “earned a second season.” “It thought the show finished up really strongly, and I think they made a strong pitch for a second season.
Landgraf shed more light on the upcoming second installment of Fargo. “It covers something that was referenced in the first installment…it’s a big sprawling, in some ways more comedic, but at times more serious show… set agains Reagan’s first presidential campaign. It is incredibly ambitious and explores the culture of the time and feminism.”
Diane Haithman contributed to this report.