FX Chief on 'Louie's' Future, Netflix's Ratings and Streamers' Lack of Profits

John Landgraf - H 2015
AP Images/Invision

John Landgraf - H 2015

FX Networks CEO John Landgraf appeared at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour Saturday with a report card for both his networks and the larger ecosystem.

Rather than stand before the press and simply tout records and opportunities, the famously erudite executive used the platform to acknowledge the challenges of today’s increasingly fractured landscape. “Anyone who currently runs a television brand derived from a linear channel will, if they’re honest, admit to frustration with the pace of change,” he said, rattling off examples ranging from new approaches to licensing and more fluid windowing to the pressure to revolutionize ratings and data measurement.

Though Landgraf didn’t set out to revive the debate about “peak TV” that he began on the same stage six months earlier, the conversation almost inevitably made its way there. He joked that counting television series was like counting lemmings, revealing how his network distributed a list of 409 scripted series in mid-December only to find out that it had missed three more series (one from Pivot; two more from Netflix) premiering between that date and Jan. 1. “So, you can’t even count how many television shows accurately there are so many of them,” he said to laughs in the Pasadena ballroom.

The FX chief used the opportunity to reiterate that his prediction wasn’t one of doom and gloom, but rather a reality check about the health and sustainability of the business. And while he, too, had read about rivals who took issue with his “too much TV” claim, he isn’t so certain they disagree with him. “We all have a stake in saying really positive things about the health of the businesses that we run," he explained, "so I think there are people who are uncomfortable even debating the question of whether there is or can be too much television."

Landgraf continued making his case: “I’m not saying the more television in general doesn’t beget more good television; I’m saying from a business standpoint it’s harder to launch shows and it’s harder for consumers to see good shows,” he said, further noting that “content creation is in an economic bubble.” He once again predicted that 2017 would be the year the series output would register a decrease.

With all of that said, he doesn’t believe that increased competition has hindered FX Networks’ creative output to date. In fact, he offered a pie-chart slide showcasing how each of the networks fare on the 146 critics’ best-of lists from 2015, in which HBO and FX tied for the highest percentage of inclusions, with 15 percent a piece. They were trailed by Netflix (13 percent), AMC (9 percent), Amazon (6 percent), Comedy Central (5 percent), USA, The CW and ABC (4 percent) and Showtime, Fox and NBC (3 percent).

Here are the other highlights from Landgraf's time before the press:

Those Pesky Netflix Ratings

Yes, Landgraf saw the Netflix ratings report released by NBC earlier this week; and though he’s been banging the drum for the streaming service to release its viewership figures for years, he isn’t entirely sure those figures are accurate. He suggests they’re likely more directional instead. “It doesn’t feel rigorous enough,” he says of the underlying methodology, which relies on what he calls random demography and usage measured by querying people after the fact. Which is not to say Landgraf doesn’t applaud the measurement company for trying to offer some level of transparency to Netflix’s cloaked process. “I think it’s ridiculous that we don’t have usage numbers from Netflix,” he added. “We can all agree that there’s probably some data that a national security apparatus has the right to keep secret that’s important for our national security; I don’t know that I feel the same way about television usage data.”

Speaking of Netflix

“It’s Moneyball,” Landgraf said when asked about the current arms race for content, which often has basic cable nets like FX at a financial disadvantage. To that end, he suggested FX was competing against payrolls that are three to four times his, an ongoing analogy that had him likening Netflix to the New York Yankees. (He cited Master of None and historical drama The Crown as projects FX had courted aggressively but ultimately lost because he couldn’t compete with Netflix’s offer.) But Landgraf's frustrations about Netflix and now Amazon run considerably deeper. Though FX doesn't break out its earnings as it's part of 21st Century Fox, "FX’s earnings alone are many, many times higher than Netflix’s globally," he told the room, adding: "This is something that legacy companies have been feeling which is that because there’s a perception that’s very carefully cultivated by Silicon Valley that essentially they’re going to take over everything, they don’t have to be held to the same standards in terms of earnings because you’re buying the future." With frustration apparent in his voice, he concluded: "So, we have to return a profit to our shareholders and our board of directors and we have to grow that profit year in and year out; and nobody pays attention to the profitability of many of our competitors."

Louie, Louie, Louie

Asked about the future of Louie, Landgraf acknowledged he had no clear answers with regard to a timeline. The decision of when — and if — to return to the show has been left up to creator and star Louis C.K., who currently has four other shows in various stages of production at FXP along with a forthcoming stand-up tour and special. As Landgraf sees it, C.K. could call him up tomorrow and say he wants to do a final season; or Louie could become a series that C.K. does periodically for the rest of his life. “Maybe it’s one of those shows that has 15 seasons over 40 years,” he said. There is also the possibility that the most recent season was the series’ last, though Landgraf seemed somewhat optimistic that that wouldn’t be the case since the two still speak regularly about the possibility of a return.

What’s Happening With …

The network has already seen multiple scripts for Legion and is well in the process of casting with a tentative plan to put that series on the air later this year. The third season of Fargo, for its part, will be set in 2010. Post-panel, Landgraf said he knew the theme of American Horror Story's upcoming season, but would reveal only that it will take place in the present with echoes of the past. As for Tyrant, which was renewed for a third season, he said "I don't know if this is the last season, I think it well could be but I don't know if it is." With regard to The Bastard Executioner's quick demise, the FX boss acknowledged that creator Kurt Sutter's transition from Sons of Anarchy to Bastard was "aggressive," and he encouraged him to take some time off. Oh, and Landgraf told you he’d have a spot waiting for Tracy Morgan when he recovered.