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With apologies to Netflix and Showtime, this is a two-network race.
That was FX Networks CEO John Landgraf‘s bold message Sunday as he took the stage for the semiannual gathering of the Television Critics Association. After praising the network’s robust slate of shows and its 2014 Nielsen standing — FX rounded out the year the No. 4 network on cable, with four of the top 10 rated cable series — the famously erudite network chief showcased a pair of PowerPoint slides that broke down the networks by the number of critics’ top 10 lists their programming appeared on in 2014. HBO topped that list at 250 mentions, with FX ranking second with a similarly impressive 213, thanks to a growing cadre of shows that include The Americans, Fargo, Louie and Justified. The point he was looking to make not with superlatives but with data: The rest, including AMC, Netflix and Showtime, ranked well behind with 74, 67 and 62 mentions, respectively.
“HBO and FX absolutely dominated the race for quality in television, and this shows at the moment that the race for the best in TV is really only a competition between two channels, with all the others way, way behind the two leaders,” he said as a roomful of reporters took in the slides. He went on to note that while a single show like Fargo, True Detective, Mad Men, Transparent or Orange Is the New Black can account for a lot of inclusions, it requires several shows of that caliber to get to the level that HBO and FX achieved last year.
“I would submit if FX was previously considered a part of a group of channels battling it out for second place in the perceptual pecking order,the factual pecking order is now that HBO and FX are No. 1 and No. 2, and everyone else in a pack battling it out for No. 3,” he said, throwing down the proverbial gauntlet, before adding: “And that’s not a swipe at everyone else because I truly respect our very good and formidable competitors and the many, many excellent TV shows that are not on HBO or FX, it’s just the reality that FX has broken well out of that pack and demonstrably strengthened its position and it, and only it, is now closing in on HBO.”
Here are the other highlights from Landgraf’s half hour before the press.
The Americans’ Future
If it remains as creatively strong as it is now, Landgraf expects The Americans will run at least five seasons. What would help solidify the latter, however, would be stronger ratings and awards attention to match the series’ unanimous critical praise. “I sure would like the Emmys to step up and take notice, and I think that would be really helpful for the show,” he said from the stage, noting that the Russian spy drama’s forthcoming third season is the best yet. And while the ratings are a perennial disappointment, Landgraf reiterated that the series does lift the network’s creative standing: “We’re not really a channel that’s trying to be the highest-rated channel on television,” he added. “We’re trying as hard as we possibly can to be the best channel on television.”
The Bridge’s Demise
Landgraf acknowledged that he does have regrets about pulling the plug after the second season of the border drama, but the ratings were such that he had no choice. “It was a relentless downward trajectory,” he said, adding that while he can ignore ratings for a long time, if a series is still falling after 26 episodes he has to reconsider the space it’s taking up on the schedule. There were other challenges, too, with Landgraf acknowledging that this was the first time the network had done a show based on a format and the series struggled to replicate the original iteration’s marriage of a border storyline with a serial killer one early on.
Louis C.K.’s Reign
Louis C.K. is to FX what Larry David is to HBO. Which is to say if he says he wants to do eight episodes of Louie, eight episodes he will do. And the decision to do more will be in his hands as well, but Landgraf noted that his star does want to keep making the show after the forthcoming season, which bows in April. At this stage, it will just be a matter of when, with Landgraf acknowledging C.K. was “burned out” by the intense process, which includes writing, producing, directing, editing and starring, on top of everything else he has going on. “We’re just trying to give him as much flexibility as we can,” said the network chief. In the interim, FX announced Sunday that it’ll air a C.K. stand-up special, which will come out of the comic’s currently sold-out comedy tour, and a Pamela Adlon pilot that C.K. will produce.
TV’s Next Wave
A question about the rebirth of the anthology format, for which FX has achieved success with Fargo and American Horror Story, prompted a discussion about the evolution of storytelling. Landgraf credited David Chase and The Sopranos with birthing the shorter-season, serialized cable drama movement, which was born out of a desire to break out of the medium’s 22 episode, procedural drama box. But as the cable landscape exploded with myriad iterations of the former, that format of seven seasons, 91 hours of serialized fare began to feel like a form of handcuffs as well. The FX boss argued that the anthology format is the latest means of breaking free, with the length of the show being dictated by the optimal length of the story, and not the other way around. To that end, Landgraf added: “Fargo was pretty great at 10 hours, and it wouldn’t have been if you tried to spread it out to 30 or 50, or tried to compress it down to two.”
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