FX's John Landgraf on Streaming Competition: "It's Like Getting Shot in the Face With Money”

He also gave updates about the status of 'Louie,' 'Fargo' and, yes, Peak TV.
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FX Networks CEO John Landgraf

John Landgraf isn’t interested in world domination.

Or so he said Wednesday at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour, as part of his semi-annual assessment of the TV business. Instead, the long-tenured FX Networks CEO told a roomful of reporters that he’s more interested in running “a nice little brand" that expertly curates high-end programming. The comments came at the end of his half-hour solo panel, in which he also revealed that he’d been researching macro-economic trends dating back several decades in a bid to better understand, more narrowly, how his business has gotten to the place it has — that place being a programming glut that he famously dubbed “Peak TV,” which is being driven primarily by the seemingly bottomless pockets of his streaming competitors.  

Pontificating from the stage, Landgraf painted a fairly bleak picture of a future, where the Netflixes and Amazons are at risk of driving companies like his out of the business. “In the existing entertainment system … if you’re an artist and you don't want to work with one company, you pick up your briefcase and you go down the road with your typewriter and you go work for another company," he began. "The concern I have is something called a monopsony, which [means there is] a dominant buyer. So, it’s to say that you can’t be in a certain business and not sell to Amazon or sell to Walmart. You have to reckon with them because even though there might be other buyers there, they are the only buyer that matters, or the only two buyers that matter. And I don’t want artists to find themselves in a situation where there’s only two buyers that matter. That just doesn’t seem like a good outcome.”

Rather than use his TCA platform to rail so specifically against Netflix, as he’s done during previous press tours, Landgraf talked more broadly and at length about Silicon Valley, and how the “winner take all, or winner take most” mindset of behemoths like Netflix or Amazon have already impacted the more traditional (and less well-capitalized) Hollywood players like himself at FX and his peers at AMC or HBO. “We — [HBO's] Casey Bloys, Richard Plepler, [AMC's] Charlie Collier — collectively are [chess grandmaster] Garry Kasparov and we’re playing [IBM supercomputer] Deep Blue, and I want the humans to be able to hold their own against the emerging strength of the machines,” the exec said to laughs. Minutes later, he offered another metaphor to better illustrate the uneven battlefield: “It feels to me sometimes like when you see the footage of the riot police who come out with their water cannons and the people are basically pushed up against the wall and they’re pants are ripped off by the water. [Except in this instance] it’s money coming at you when you’re competing against that kind of thing. It’s like getting shot in the face with money every day.”

And, Landgraf pointed out, this is all before Apple makes what he has to believe is a major push. “All I can tell you is that we can’t do what they do,” he concluded, adding matter-of-factly, “Nobody is going to hand us a check with an extra $10 billion to go spend on content. And by the way, I don’t think I’d be the guy. I don’t think I’d be good at spending $10 billion more on content because I’m not interested in making the world’s largest all-you-can-eat buffet with something for everything.”

During his time before the press, Landgraf also weighed in on the fate of Peak TV, along with the status of Fargo, Louie and American Crime Story's Katrina installment. 

Peak TV Is Far From Over

No surprise, the FX chief was asked for a numerical update on the Peak TV era, for which he, to nobody's surprised, was utterly prepared. Pulling out a piece of paper from his suit pocket, Landgraf began spouting off a series of staggering figures to once again illustrate the glut of content available to TV viewers. For calendar year 2016, he reminded the room, there had been 455 scripted series on air. And year to date, the streamers alone are already making 62 series, with another 79 announced. If all of those that have been announced are indeed made, that would make for 141 streaming series, which would bring the total tally to 534 scripted series. So, yeah, Landgraf concluded with a smile: “It’s going to continue to grow.”

So, One Possible Answer to It...

After wading through several power point slides packed with data on the flatlining of ratings and uptick in nonlinear viewing, Landgraf addressed TV's overall shift to streaming and his network’s plan to keep getting viewers — especially younger ones — to tune in. “We’ve leaned into just acknowledging the elephant in the room and saying, ‘OK, we’re just going to have to pivot, and we’re going to have to be better about serving up nonlinear content,’” he said, before playing a clip promoting FX’s new $5.99-per-month subscription service FX+, which was announced earlier this week. The ad-free service, which will be available to Comcast subscribers on Sept. 5, will offer up episodes simultaneously with their linear scheduling, and without any commercial interruption. Landgraf acknowledged that though Comcast approached FX about the service, his team had already been incubating and preparing one for years. “Ironically," he said, "we'd put together a video and a presentation of what we were going to pitch to them.” And, in case you were wondering, the pact was done at the same time as AMC’s $4.99-a-month streaming service, AMC Premiere, but FX made the decision to roll out their announcements separately, pointing to the difference in price points and volume of content. By his count, FX+ will offer 20 original series and over a thousand episodes of scripted programming, whereas AMC Premiere will only have, he estimated, nine original series and 60 to 70 episodes of scripted programming. “We wanted to use the platonic ideal of grand expression, which we think is HBO’s expression, and we wanted to raise our hand and say, ‘That’s right, and that’s the direction that we need to go in and be competitive.’” Expect more MVPD partnerships to be announced in the weeks and months to come. 

And What's Still to Come

Landgraf seemed supremely confident that his Sons of Anarchy’s spinoff Mayans MC would get a series order, though he noted that a formal decision was likely still three months away. The exec was considerably more vague when it came to the future of Louie and Fargo, however. As for the former, Landgraf once again stated that he has no idea, at this time, if there will be any more episodes — next year or 30 years from now. (Weighing in later, C.K. added: "I don't think about it much, but there is no reason to say, 'I'll never do it again.' And also I loved it ... [if I were to revive it] I'd find a way to cast it into the future and see what happened to the guy.") As for Fargo, the fate of the anthology series has more to do with the idea (as in, will showrunner Noah Hawley have one) and timing (will Hawley have any). He also fielded a question about the status of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story season focused on Hurricane Katrina, suggesting that it was not "stalled," as director-producer Anthony Hemingway had claimed, but is rather being retooled creatively. Landgraf credited Murphy for coming up with a “great idea for a pivot,” and then noted that he’d wait on Murphy to reveal the latter.

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