FX's John Landgraf Says Scripted Surge Isn't Slowing, TV Losing "Coherent" Conversation

John Landgraf TCA Panel Getty H 2016
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
It's been a year since FX CEO John Landgraf introduced the concept of "Peak TV" to a room full of critics and reporters — and most of them have been able write about little else since. 
So it was with that kind of sway that the famously philosophical programmer returned to the Television Critics Association's summer press tour stage on Tuesday morning, charts and graphs in tow (and attached below), to offer the curious crowd an update on the industry's unprecedented volume of scripted series.

"I wrongly predicted that we'd hit the peak in 2015 or 2016," said Landgraf, noting that the number of English-language adult scripted series in the U.S. will reach as high as 450 by year's end — with current trends placing the 2017 total closer to 500 shows. "It now seems clear that, at a minimum, the peak will be in calendar 2017 — and there is enough inertial momentum here that we could well see the growth trend carrying over into the 2018 calendar year."

The exec emphasized that he did not see a bubble bursting — but an inevitable contraction. "I think we are ballooning into a condition of oversupply which will at some point slowly deflate, perhaps from 500-plus shows to 400 or a little less than that," he said.

Noting that the surge in TV is still, in most cases, profitable, Landgraf insisted that the biggest problem, as he sees it, is how the volume has confused the TV discussion. "I also believe that there is so much U.S. television, we have lost much of the thread of a coherent, collective conversation about what is good, what is very good and what is great," he noted, though he started his presentation by boasting about the network's recent Emmy love (especially for The Americans).

Netflix and other streamers were credited (or blamed) for the continued surge. Outfits such as Hulu and Amazon have more than doubled scripted launches compared to the same time period last year. And while Landgraf remained diplomatic during his presentation, he was a bit more candid about his take during the Q&A. "They can't double and double and double, because then the entire planet's surface would be covered by Netflix television shows in 20 years," he said. "We're at or near the capacity of what we can pay attention to. You could give me all the money in the world, and I could not make an organization that could supervise 71 shows and give them the level of attention we do." (He added that he thinks the FX suite would cap out just north of 20 series.) 

Landgraf also made a point of addressing the network's efforts to put fewer white men behind the camera, sounded off on series past (Terriers) and present (American Horror Story) and addressed the cannibalized limited series category at the Emmys. Here are the main takeaways:

FX's Diversity Problem Is Being Fixed
Pointing to article about the overwhelming majority of TV directors being white men, and FX Networks hiring 88 percent in that demographic, Landgraf noted that he has already taken great strides in addressing the problem. "I was dismayed to learn that the FX Networks were bringing up the rear rather than leading on this important issue," said the exec, who fired off a letter to his showrunners. For the current 2016-17 cycle, Landgraf pointed to another chart that had that percentage down to just 49 — with white women and non-white men each making up 22 percent and non-white women occupying 7 percent of FX directing jobs. "We hope the example of FX more than quadrupling our percentage of diverse and female directors in such a short time sends a message to our whole industry that it is well past time for change to happen — and that it is only a matter of rethinking our priorities and of putting in the collective effort for us to make it so."

American Horror Story Promos Are Intentionally Misleading

Any reporter with hopes of pinpointing the theme of the upcoming sixth installment of Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story is likely leaving FX's TCA day disappointed. He kept mum about the Sept. 14 return. "Ryan decided it would be really fun to keep it a mystery, so we are," said Landgraf. "They went out and made many more trailers than you've actually seen for hypothetical seasons of American Horror Story. One of them is accurate and the others are all misdirects."

About That "Awkward" Emmy Competition
Landgraf admitted that having The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and Fargo go head-to-head for the limited series Emmy is “really awkward." "I think they’re really worthy competitors and I think their primary competition is each other," he said. Indeed, based on the number of nominations for Murphy’s O.J. opus, awards watchers have given it the edge. But it’s by no means a slam dunk. The other nominees in the category are AMC’s The Night Manager, History’s Roots and ABC’s American Crime. Addressing the glut of limited series overall, Landgraf noted that when Murphy began making American Horror Story several years ago, FX was looking for what was the next new thing in the television universe. And now, the category has become overstuffed with many high-profile and excellent projects. “Imitation is the sincerest form of television,” said the CEO, concluding that “the level of competition across the board is just going to go up and up year after year and it’s going to be very difficult for FX to be dominant.” 

Anthologies Make Sense for Netflix Deals
The decision to license The People v. O.J. Simpson to Netflix raised some eyebrows, given Landgraf’s critique of Netflix and his general mandate to own and distribute his own content. But he noted that the deal was "phenomenal" from a financial standpoint. "Ultimately, running a business is a practical process as much as it is a philosophical one," he said. "It was an unprecedented deal.” Landgraf reasoned that the free-standing structure of American Crime, which is co-produced by FX Productions and 20th TV, also factored into the decision to license it to Netflix. "These are all free-standing seasons,” he said. "When we market Hurricane Katrina: American Crime Story, it really won’t matter whether the audience has watched O.J. When I look at all of the various factors, ultimately I thought on a practical level, and many of my colleagues agreed, that this was the right thing to do. So we did it." 

Terriers Fans Might Want to Sit Down
It was only said in passing, but Landgraf definitely gave hope to fans of short-lived critical favorite Terriers when asked if it would have had better odds of survival in the current TV climate. The answer was yes. "I'm not saying we'll never do a reboot," he added. "Because I guess we will at one point."

See the below charts, courtesy of FX Networks, for the current breakdown of U.S. scripted series — and how the numbers compare to past years.