×
Skip to main content
Got a tip?
Newsletters

Table for Two: FX’s John Landgraf Is Ready to Listen

The inaugural guest in THR’s new column — famous for coining the term "peak TV" — talks competing with the streaming juggernauts by going small, the early confusion of joining Disney and why he’s asking his assistants what they’re watching.

John Landgraf isn’t interested in making any grandiose proclamations about the future of television. The FX chairman has already tried more than once to predict when “peak TV,” a phrase he famously coined to address the great content flood, would, in fact, peak, and he insists he won’t be doing so publicly again.

We’re sharing a booth at Beverly Hills’ Nerano restaurant, the popular Italian eatery where he suggested we meet in early October. I’d selected him to be the subject of my first “Table for Two” column, in part because in his nearly two decades atop FX, he has garnered a reputation for being the unofficial mayor of television, often using media opportunities to pontificate on the state of the industry. But Landgraf, whose FX network group was absorbed by Disney in 2019, suggests he’s been more interested in listening of late. In fact, at 60, he believes listening is the only way he’ll stay in the chair.

Related Stories

On this afternoon, Landgraf brings up his age often. I wonder aloud if it’s because so many of his peers have left or lost their big jobs recently. David Nevins and Mark Pedowitz are the latest examples; a week before we meet up, they’ve announced their exits from Paramount and The CW, respectively. “I think some generational turnover is inevitable,” Landgraf says once we’ve settled on our lunch order. (Landgraf selects a grilled shrimp salad, and, on his recommendation, I do the same.) “If you go to the CEO level, that’s a job that people can hold into their 70s, but if you’re at the level where you’re working with creative people and you’re struggling with a question of taste and what is relevant now, even if you have an incredible team, it’s hard.”

In recent weeks, Landgraf has been using the three mandatory days in-office each week to meet with every one of FX’s 300 or so staffers; all but two of whom, he says, are younger than he is. After working from the home he shares with his actress wife, Ally Walker, and one of their three grown sons for two and a half years, he and thousands of other Disney employees headed back to the office in late September. He sets aside as much as an hour and a half each day to sit with 10 to 12 employees at a time. He started with the newest hires first — roughly a third of the FX team joined since the pandemic began — many of whom are still assistants. “What’s inspiring you right now?” Landgraf asks in every meeting, eager to hear about the movies, shows, podcasts and novels that aren’t on his radar.

Abbott Elementary, Reboot and Andor have all come up, he says, as has A24 and, specifically, Everything Everywhere All at Once. Responses that are new to him, like HBO’s Industry or the manga series The Way of the Househusband, he jots down and familiarizes himself with later. Landgraf insists the exercise isn’t simply educational but critical to his own relevancy. “It’s giving me a real feel for who and what is hot now,” he says, noting how many of his newer employees are there because of FX programming that meant something to them. “So, the vast majority share taste segmentation with me, but they’re younger, so they’re listening to and watching different things. And if everything I were making was exactly what I wanted to watch, it wouldn’t work — my job is to try to make things that they want to watch.”

Since May, Landgraf and his executives have been doing a particularly good job of it. First came Under the Banner of Heaven and The Old Man, then The Bear, The Patient and Welcome to Wrexham. “We just went through a period where almost everything worked,” he says, referring to both consumption — Old Man and The Bear were the most-watched drama and comedy, respectively, in FX history, per Landgraf — and critical acclaim. Collectively, the new and returning programming, which included a final foray for Atlanta and a sophomore season of Peabody winner Reservation Dogs, averaged 91 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Without citing any of his streaming competitors by name, he continues, “It really renewed my faith in the idea that it’s not just about conquering with volume or throwing infinite amounts of money at established talent.”

From the outside, it’s easy to presume that Landgraf’s power diminished in the new Disney order. He now reports to former peer Dana Walden and makes programming decisions in consult with other Disney leaders. Plus, for the vast majority of U.S. viewers, his FX brand now is merely a tile on Hulu. But those closest to Landgraf say he hasn’t been this energized in years, even if his even-keeled nature can make it hard to tell. He’s largely shed the pieces of his job that didn’t excite him — namely, those that weren’t explicitly about making shows. And becoming a tile on Hulu, he says, has meant that consumption is up dramatically. Greater investment has followed, with Landgraf now putting out 25 shows a year, roughly double what he was doing when FX was at its peak as a basic cable network. What’s more, the shift to streaming has allowed him to take more and bigger bets — like his forthcoming period drama Shogun — which were previously the domain of Netflix or HBO. But just because Landgraf can make sweeping epics doesn’t mean he will. At least not often.

In fact, the project that garners the most airtime during our two-plus hours together is The Bear, an A-list-free half-hour that cost about as much as the catering budget on The Lord of the Rings. It wasn’t an obvious choice. Instead, he and his team did as they always do, vigorously debating the merits of the idea, with his younger development staff, in particular, vocal with enthusiasm. So, he ordered it to pilot, and then screened that, as he does all FX pilots, for some 45 higher-ups across the company, soliciting honest feedback from each one. He can’t remember a pilot that was better received. When it premiered in late June, The Bear quickly became the summer’s buzziest show. Landgraf can sit here now and tell you that a restaurant show done right is broadly relatable because so many people watching have worked at one in their lifetime — and if not, they’ve certainly eaten at one. But he didn’t recognize that going in.

“I was just thinking about the history of TV being written in the language of groups of people, in a location, these shows about a found family, and I was missing it,” he tells me. “That’s a thing that TV has stopped doing because it’s making giant epics like House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings — and there’s nothing wrong with that, but if everybody’s throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at making giant epics, then by definition you should figure out how to make the opposite.” Looking ahead, one genre that has him optimistic is the sitcom, notably the laugh-out-loud kind that has fallen out of favor. A primetime vp at NBC during the ’90s, Landgraf worked on Friends in its heyday and even suggests that format could finally be reimagined without it feeling derivative.

***

There was a time, not too long ago, when Landgraf wasn’t nearly as bullish. He didn’t like what the TV industry was becoming, with its influx of tech money and movie stars, and he didn’t see a path forward for FX. Disney had not yet acquired the Fox-owned assets, and Landgraf’s survival seemed to hinge on a cadre of FX cable networks with consumption levels in free fall and a standalone streaming service he was pretty certain wouldn’t scale. “I had no idea four years ago that FX was going to become a part of the Walt Disney Co., but it’s been a lifeline,” he says now.

Still, the transition was glacially slow, setting FX back considerably in the competitive marketplace. Writers and reps, two contingents that typically praise Landgraf and his brand, began to moan about projects being passed over and decisions being prolonged. Landgraf was just as frustrated. “We didn’t get all of our bets down early enough,” he acknowledges. “Apple and Amazon and Netflix and even HBO came along and had a new pathway, a new funding mechanism, and they all went into the market and we were in the process of being acquired and figuring out how to work with Hulu and really didn’t have a lot of ability to put new shows into production.”

So, Landgraf watched largely from the sidelines, overwhelmed and, increasingly, depressed by the volume of output. Moreover, he didn’t love what he was seeing onscreen. “TV became a little full of itself as it appropriated more and more of movies. It got the A-list movie stars and A-list directors and writers and it got the budgets, and as the multiplex became more about the Marvel movies, it took the drama genre, it took the rom-com genre, it took so many genres. But television, at its best, is a different form,” he says. “Episodically replicable storytelling is something that people crave; audiences want some level of comfort and familiarity.”

He pauses periodically to pick at his salad or to order a latte, but he always comes around to his point. In this case, it’s back to The Bear. “The show is uncomfortable, but it lands, ultimately, in a familiar and comfortable place, which is a group of people who work together, who struggle to get along but who find ways of getting to know each other and accommodating each other. It’s as old as the sun,” he says. “And so that’s what I’m feeling energized by — the opportunity to get back to making television, as crazy as that sounds.”

Landgraf’s renewed optimism is being warmly embraced by the selling community, with one agency partner calling him “a bright light in a dim universe” as everyone else seems focused on stock prices and a recession. Landgraf doesn’t fight the characterization, though he insists he has concerns like everybody else. “The industry is going through a deep and radical transformation, and those are painful, but we’re going to get through it,” he says. As for the potential of a writers strike this spring, he adds: “I do worry about the fact that the industry arguably needs to make fewer television shows, so a strike could be an accelerant.”

In the meantime, he intends to stay focused on the job he loves, which he’s committed to doing the way he’s always done: with good, old-fashioned pilots and a fundamental belief that he, the executive, is disposable. The latter came from friend and mentor David Manson, who told him when they were producers: ” ‘There are going to be times as a producer where the writer and the network are in conflict. Always choose the writer because network executives come and go and a relationship with a writer can last 10, 20, 30 years,’ ” recalls Landgraf, and he’s never forgotten it.

“Accepting that you’re not indispensable [as a network exec] actually gives you real power in the process as opposed to the power to dictate and bully and tell people, ‘You have to do this.’ It gives you the power of persuasion,” he continues. “If Chris Storer [creator of The Bear] doesn’t want to take a note from me, he doesn’t have to take a note, and I really mean he doesn’t have to. And it’s true of everyone, so if you think there’s a note worth listening to, [we, as executives] better come with our A game.”

The power that Landgraf does wield, albeit somewhat reluctantly, is the ability to yay or nay projects. “At the end of the day, more credit than I deserve or more blame than I deserve is going to fall on me, and only me, and if I get it wrong for a long enough period of time, I’m going to get fired,” he says. “And so I listen to everybody and really take what they say to heart.”

This story first appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.