Can Landgraf’s FX formula fix Canadian TV?

One of the smartest people in television, in my estimation, is John Landgraf (left). Had the pleasure of chatting on the phone with the president and general manager of FX Wednesday for this CP piece on the deal behind FX Canada.
I had flown home early from the TCA press tour in Los Angeles and missed Landgraf’s executive session last Saturday. Seven years into his job and just signed for another three, Landgraf is always impressive at press tour. He’s very candid and uncloaked, with none of the duck and spin you get from most other network executives. When I also spoke with Rogers broadcasting president Scott Moore the same day, he agreed that listening to Landgraf was like sitting in on a masters class on television.
Moore is equally smart for getting into business with the FX crowd. The shows emerging from the cable network and the way they are developed and marketed will provide solid, practical lessons for any Canadian broadcaster. FX, with a fraction of the budget of HBO, produces comparable programming, scheduling nine or 10 quality original series a year. They do it on an impressive economy of scale. Louis, for example, is cranked out at a little over $300,000US per episode. Double that and you get Ashton Kutcher’s weekly salary this coming season on Two and a Half Men.
The other brilliant and gutsy thing Landgraf does is leave people alone. The guys behind It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia–just renewed for a seventh and eighth season–came in green as grass, yet the savvy exec resisted the temptation to impose a veteran showrunner into their midst.
“The ethos of the company is more like independent film,” explains Landgraf. “Independent film is all about self reliance and ingenuity. Creative freedom trumps financial resources. So we try to figure out how much creative freedom we can provide to the people who work for us.”
What Landgraf has proven and what every other TV executive on both sides of the border should pay attention to is that network interference costs money. “When you make people jump through a lot of hoops, when you put a lot of conditions on what they do and how they do it, when you change your mind a lot, all that translated directly into money,” he says.
No wonder people are dying to work for this guy. Talk to Rescue Me duo Denis Leary and Peter Tolan, they go on and on about the incredible support they get from FX.
“Don’t change you mind, support what people do, empower them, give them the ability to use their own brains,” says Landgraf. “You ultimately save a lot of money.”
Usually shows that find this kind of freedom dodge a bullet thanks to geography, proximity or a budget so small nobody cares. Trailer Park Boys was way the hell out in Halifax and the folks at Showcase at the time were smart enough to leave well enough alone.
Landgraf acknowledges that “certain people don’t work well” in such a total hands-off environment. But for those who do, he says, “it’s manna from heaven.”
Canadians should get a chance to find out. Landgraf says he welcomes the opportunity to get in business with Canadian producers and hopefully he’ll find the next Wilfred or Louis or Sons of Anarchy he can program on FX and Moore can schedule on FX Canada.
By terms of its licence, FX Canada is required to come up with at least 15% Canadian content on its schedule, a pathetically small amount that often gets skirted around by Canadian broadcasters with Littlest Hobo reruns. Moore indicated he was determined to take that requirement seriously.
I ran a Canadian producer name by both Landgraf and Moore: Chris Haddock. Watching CBC struggle with Intelligence, I always thought that was a show that could have been dropped perfectly between The Shield and Rescue Me on an FX schedule. Better to play to the smaller, smarter room. Moore agrees that Haddock’s sensibility would be a great fit at FX.
I checked with Haddock and he says he hasn’t pitched FX yet. “Tell him to get in touch,” said Landgraf. That goes double for Moore, who has something to prove on the Rogers believes in Can-con front. Over to you, Chris. Another Chris, Bolton, should also pitch to these guys. There are a number of resourceful Canadians who have the scars to show they know how to make original, entertaining and often edgy programming on an FX-size dime.

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