FX's John Landgraf on 'American Horror Story,' 'Tyrant' and Late-Night Stumbles

"We'd rather fail spectacularly and nobly than succeed in a quiet, middling way," the FX Networks CEO said of the networks' philosophy.
John Landgraf

FX Networks CEO John Landgraf kicked off his turn at the Television Critics Association Monday with an apology.

After noting that there are simply "too many good programs" for those gathered in the Beverly Hilton ballroom to consume and cover, he joked that he was sorry to be adding still more — and thanked them for not booing him off the stage as a result.

While the programming onslaught has the potential to overwhelm critics — FX and the nearly year-old FXX continue to ramp up their original offerings, making the network group the biggest provider of original fare in cable television — his ambitious push is being rewarded, creatively and commercially.

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Proof: FX recently picked up a basic-cable record 45 Emmy nominations, while FXX has surpassed its predecessor Fox Soccer by over 500 percent in both total viewers and adults 18-49 and is expected to get a significant boost from the forthcoming addition of the Simpsons library.

Over the course of his 45 minutes or so onstage, Landgraf addressed topics from competition to complacency. Here's a look at the highlights.

FX's Risk-Taking Brand

As Landgraf is known to do, he used his TCA platform to speak philosophically about the components of FX's brand — and its subsequent success. Among other things, he pointed to the network's eagerness to take risks, whether that has meant betting on a new format (the anthological miniseries American Horror Story) or on bold voices (Louie). "We're looking for people with the creative chutzpah," he said of his talent, noting that with the profusion of excellence in television, viewers want to be wowed. As he sees it, his networks' contribution will continue to be to push against the confines of storytelling, even if sometimes their approach makes viewers uncomfortable: "We'd rather fail spectacularly and nobly than succeed in a quiet, middling way."

That Late-Night Stab

Landgraf offered a refreshing dose of candor when asked about the short-lived late-night experiment with W. Kamau Bell. Though he stands by Bell's talent and his unique ability to provide "a point of view about the future of our country," he acknowledged that his weekly and then nightly show lacked consistency: "It was brilliant sometimes," he said, adding that in order to succeed in a crowded landscape "it has to be consistently excellent." He continued on the topic, noting that they had made a bet on a young comic, and that he and his show weren't yet ready to compete with rivals such as The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report.

American Horror Story update

After doling out heaps of praise for visionary Ryan Murphy, the network chief offered a sneak peek at the fourth season of Murphy and Brad Falchuk's horror anthology, subtitled Freak Show. Not only will it be set in the 1950s, but it also will "have a really different look than previous incarnations," according to Landgraf. The series will feature a roster of new and returning stars as well as what the exec called the same really distinctive and original characters — "some of them strange but very compelling." The tone, meanwhile, falls somewhere between Asylum and the recently concluded Coven. "It's not quite as brooding and Hitchcockian as Asylum," he said, but less campy than Coven.

Other Series' Futures

Landgraf suggested he was very pleased with the "amazing ratings consistency" of Tyrant, but noted that unlike other networks FX doesn't make decisions about future seasons prematurely. All he would offer at this stage is that the trajectory of the show, which has had to move production to Turkey care of the current political situation in Israel, is positive. As for the newly renewed Fargo, he had little to offer outside of the fact that he'd like to return to the same locale, if they can make it all work. With regard to casting, he noted that it would be nice to cast another big star a la Billy Bob Thornton, who was key to Fargo cutting through initially, but it is by no means necessary at this point. "It'll definitely bring more buzz, but I don't think we need it," he said, noting that Noah Hawley's material is strong enough to stand on its own.