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Since John Landgraf arrived at FX Networks seven years ago, he has populated his schedule with darker themes and imperfect characters. Until recently, the basic cable network served up a string of successes, from the screwball comedy Louie to the edgy biker drama Sons of Anarchy. Then came critically acclaimed ratings duds Terriers (canceled) and Lights Out (limping along), which have caused the veteran TV exec, 48, now the president of FX Networks, to rethink his strategy. Still, the network ranks No. 5 among basic cable nets in the famously elusive men 18-49 demo, with viewership up 29 percent thus far this year. The married father of three boys (his wife is actress Ally Walker, who has appeared on Anarchy) segued from a vp job at NBC to president of Danny DeVito’s Jersey Television before joining FX. He sat down with The Hollywood Reporter in his office on the Fox lot to discuss the lessons of Lights Out, the latest on Ryan Murphy’s horror project and, yes, the business of Charlie Sheen.
At a recent industry panel, you surprised people when you said you’d be crazy to make another show like Damages. What did you mean?
If you make a show that’s so serialized, it’s a vastly superior experience to watch it in sequence. I’d argue that The Wire is better watched on DVD than as a weekly show, and what we made with Damages was a show that was better watched in bouts of two, three and four episodes than one episode. By doing that, you’re actually working against yourself because people have so many opportunities not to watch your program as a weekly show, and if they don’t, it doesn’t get measured. I don’t think we’ve ever put a show on the air that wasn’t serialized, nor do I think we ever will make a show that isn’t serialized — but you have to worry about the level of serialization.
You’ve also been vocal about the growing price tags of dramas.
You can’t make a high-quality drama for less than $2 million an episode. I don’t think you can launch one now without a very significant marketing commitment — and then it’s really hard, even if you get a large audience, to get them to watch the commercials. So the difference between what it costs and what you get back is actually growing each year because of the DVR, and yet we have five dramas and don’t plan to scale back. [FX just picked up two more drama pilots, Powers and Murphy’s American Horror Story.]
What keeps you up at night?
We spend an enormous amount of money acquiring a series that doesn’t end up on our air for as many as four years, and then we may have it there for as many as seven. Our ability to predict the value that we’re paying for shows depends on the media environment eight, 10, even 12 years in the future. So you have to be a prognosticator to some extent to be good in this business. A basic cable network is like an aircraft carrier: You don’t turn it in a mile; you have to think about where you want it to be 20 miles from now because it turns really, really slowly.
Streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon: friend or foe?
I don’t think we know yet. What we do know is that you can’t make all of this content ubiquitously available for free if you want to get people to pay for it. What the industry is grappling with is, what is the right windowing strategy for all of these different modes of delivery. But I’ll tell you that I’m actually quite optimistic about the future of this business. I think a lot of the doomsday scenarios missed something fundamental, which is that people really like to watch TV. And most people are not going to want to go into an alphanumerically organized bin with 20,000 titles to pick a show; they want to come home from a day of active decision-making and be passive. So I think people have overblown hopes and expectations for what the on-demand business will be; I just don’t see it as replacing linear channels.
Lights Out and Terriers have really struggled. What have you learned from the experience?
We’re a network with a median age of 38, and as a 48-year-old guy, it has really caused me to have to dig deeper into the head of that younger viewer. What I’ve learned is that while older audiences are content to watch something they like over and over again, the younger demo doesn’t tend to want to watch anything that feels reminiscent or derivative. So if you look at both Lights Out and Terriers, they’re superb shows, but they feel, when you market them, quite familiar. Interestingly enough, if you watch them, they’re not — but the things that are so fresh and original are not easy to market because they’re subtle.
What can you tell us about Murphy’s top-secret Horror project?
I can’t tell you much, except that both Powers and Ryan’s project are incredibly ambitious and could define or redefine the genres that they’re in. One is a really complicated, interesting psychological horror show, and the other has costumed superheroes in it, albeit in a hard-boiled Shield-like cop show. So they both represent departures for FX, and genres that tend to skew young.
CBS tried a horror thriller called Harper’s Island in 2009, and it didn’t work. How will this be different?
This is nothing like that. I can’t explain why, but I’d just ask the question: Was Nip/Tuck like any medical show you’d ever seen?
Will FX move into such other genres as sports, unscripted or late-night?
Would we get better numbers if we had significant sporting events on our network? Yeah, I think we would, but that’s a corporate-level decision. On the unscripted front, I’m dubious that you can be in it a little bit, and I’m content with our current programming strategy. But I would still love to have a daily show. I don’t mean The Daily Show —though, of course, I’d love to have that, too — but a daily show. I think it’s really great, as a channel, if you have something where original episodes are produced 30, 40 weeks a year.
The late-night space seems loaded with copycat fare. How would you do it differently?
I think both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have invented entirely new shows that nobody’s ever seen before. If Dave Chappelle said, “I want to do a half-hour comedy/variety show,” and he had the right people around him, he’d invent something that was different. So just because innovation is hard doesn’t mean that it’s impossible.
Two and a Half Men repeats are huge for FX. In light of Charlie Sheen’s recent issues, will you change that?
I don’t think so, no. Ironically, one of the episodes that aired recently was the fifth-highest-rated episode we’ve ever had of the show.
Does that really surprise you?
MY UNIQUE CHILDHOOD: Landgraf’s response by e-mail when asked where he grew up
“Born in Detroit, Mich. Lived in Detroit (ages 1-5); West Covina, Calif. (6-7); Pomona, Calif. (8); Claremont, Calif. (9-10); Scottsdale, Ariz. (11-12); Plainfield, N.J. (13-14); Highland Park, N.J. (15); and Oakland, Calif. (16-18). Fun fact: I have been to all 50 U.S. states. My parents were professional gospel musicians — he played piano, she sang — who traveled eight months of the year, as did I. They made a living at it for 10 years until I was 5 and my mom insisted they settle down so I could go to kindergarten. Then my father got a master’s of divinity and became an American Baptist minister. Then he got a Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy with an emphasis on pastoral counseling. My mom got a master’s in clinical social work and specialized in gerontology.”
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