Today was the day the man Alan Sepinwall calls “The Mayor of TCA,” John Landgraf, addressed the TV press. Landgraf is the President of FX Networks and during his dozen years at the helm, the cable network has been a driving force in television’s second “Golden Age.” Not only has he commissioned hit after hit, including last weekend’s TCA Award winners The Americans and The People v. O.J. Simpson, he also seems to have the best grasp of the ever-changing landscape of television.
His executive session at TCA is among the highlights of every tour. Add them all up and you’ve got a master class on the medium.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t there to hear him this year, but the folks at FX PR kindly forwarded his opening remarks along with a few helpful charts and graphs (or, as I like to call them, Landgraphs).
The FX exec has been telling critics the past few years that we’ve reached the era of “Peak TV.” There is a ballooning number of shows in every category. Look at the rise from 2011 to 2015: Broadcast +29%, Pay Cable +12%, Basic Cable +68% and Online Services (such as Netflix) up a whopping +667%.
Landgraf predicted the balloon would burst and the show totals would fall by now; in fact, the number of scripted original shows is up this summer from last summer, 322 vs. 304.
There are so many networks and streaming services and content, good and bad, that viewers simply can’t keep up with it. As a result, even some terrific shows are getting lost in the clutter.
Too much good TV is bad, says Landgraf. “I continue to believe that there a greater supply of U.S. television than can be produced profitably given the demand. 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.”
Landgraf didn’t say that’s why not as many people watched Justifed or are watching The Americans as those shows might be expected to attract, but you can bet that’s how he feels. He seems to be rejecting the old adage that the audience is always right, suggesting that, in this era of Peak TV, the audience (as well as a dwindling number of newspaper critics) is always overwhelmed.
Landgraf has pushed FX near the top of the cable brands in terms of recognition and prestige and was proud of the 56 Emmy nominations his shows have earned this year, second only to HBO’s 98.
He’s was particularly pleased his Emmy noms edged the total of 54 reached by Netflix. Landgraf clearly sees the international streaming service as a tremendous competitive threat, urging reporters in the past to hound Netflix boss Ted Sarandos to release ratings data.
He pointed out that the FX Emmy haul came despite the fact HBO and Netflix submitted three times the number of shows for consideration. “On top of that,” he told reporters, “our programming budget is approximately one-third of HBO’s and about one-sixth of Netflix’s.”
Basically, Landgraf battles the big guys in the U.S. on a Canadian budget.
As such, Landgraf’s words of wisdom — aimed at Netflix but whatever — should be heeded by those in Canadian program development circles. For example, the following insight:
I have always believed that great storytelling is best fostered in a uniquely personal and human-scaled context. The storyteller has to come before the story—and the story has to come before the data, or the money, or the competitive ambitions of an organization. Television shows are not like cars or operating systems, and they are not best made by engineers or coders in the same assembly line manner as consumer products which need to be of uniform size, shape and quality.
Every single great television show– and even every great episode of every great television show—should on some level be sui generis– one of a kind– and every creator needs and deserves a personal relationship and an attention to detail that takes its direction from inside THEIR vision as a storyteller– from everyone at their partner network or brand— across all dimensions of program development, current programming, scheduling, publicity, marketing, production, etc. If an engineer or coder does their job brilliantly, then every jet engine coming off a line is precisely and reliably the same, and every user who visits a site has the same, perfect qualitative experience. If FX and our storytelling partners do our jobs brilliantly, then every series and every episode is great in its own, unique and (at best) surprising way. In the realm of storytelling—unlike the realm of user interfaces and jet engines– the possibility of greatness and the possibility of failure often go hand in hand. The fact that we at FX know this– that we accept it– and that we admit it publicly remains one of the underlying secrets to our success in fostering the work of talented storytellers.
Landgraf also credited Variety’s Mo Ryan for busting him on FX’s lack of diversity when it came to hiring minority directors. To his credit, he read her article on the subject last November and immediately put the word out to all of FX’s showrunners to bring more women and minorities into the mix. In the 149 episodes FX has cranked out since the memo, more than half were directed by women or diverse. About 11% were first time directors.
Once again, Canadian networks, take note.