Fifteen years ago, FX showed up to its first Television Critics Association press tour to introduce “The Shield,” the network’s big bet on scripted TV. In the years since, the network has grown to tie HBO as a critical success. FX and HBO each accounted for 20% of critics’ end-of-year best lists (Netflix came in with 17%).
“We had accepted the accurate critique that we were not doing what we could be doing and that we were embarrassed frankly that we were bringing up the rear,” Landgraf told reporters.
And so by the end of 2016, FX had managed to swing from a network whose shows were directed by white men 81% of the time to a network whose shows were directed by people of color or white women 52% of the time. “I’m not going to tell you the work is done,” Landgraf said. “But we’re going to do it, and keep doing it, until every aspect of our channel is fair and a more accurate representation of the world we live in.”
The competitive landscape has also exploded since the early aughts, and nearly every month brings a new potential distributor of TV. With reports of Apple Music making a big push into scripted TV, there’s one more place Landgraf and his team have to outbid — or sell to. FX Productions has been selling projects to other networks, taking advantage of the FX brand halo. “We welcome the competition,” Landgraf said.
When Landgraf used the term “peak TV” in 2015, the phrase took on a life of its own, but he said Thursday morning he doesn’t use it as an excuse: “We use it to say, okay, this is happening. How good does a show have to be for you to care? That bar seems to go up a bit every year from the year before.”
FX’s slate seems qualified to weather any impending storms. The third installment of Noah Hawley’s critically lauded “Fargo” will premiere in April; Hawley’s X-Men-related series “Legion” begins its run on Feb. 8. Two installments of “American Crime Story” are coming up (“Katrina” and “Versace”). “Feud” kicks off with its eight-episode exploration of the Bette Davis-Joan Crawford feud on March 5. “The Americans” returns March 7.
Not all of the shows listed above, however, draw huge numbers of eyeballs. Yet the metrics by which Landgraf and his lieutenants gauge success have changed. Ad revenue is now just 35% of FX’s cash pile, which gives the network a little more freedom to look at other factors when deciding what shows to pick up or renew.
Awards show hardware is one factor, though with FX flooding the limited series category with series like “Fargo,” “American Crime Story,” and “American Horror Story,” it may be leaving some statues on the table. Yet FX President of Original Programming Nick Grad isn’t overly concerned about Emmy strategy. “There are so many moving pieces on the schedule, you can overthink yourself to death. We’re not leaving shows on the shelf to wait for a certain awards season,” he said.
Part of the reason FX has so many moving pieces is that it has more real estate, with FX expansion network FXX now heading into its fourth year of existence. “When it was suggested to us we might want to start another network, we thought it was maybe a suicide mission,” Landgraf said. Yet the network’s performance has exceeded their expectations, and, more importantly, has provided an opportunity to give chances to more off-the-wall shows. “It’s enabled us to take more shots,” Original Programming President Eric Schrier said.
It all goes back to what Landgraf, Grad, and Schrier consider success.
“Back when we were just starting to figure out, ‘What are the criteria we should use to pick up a show?’ it was suggested, ‘Can we imagine, 20 years from now, two people sitting over lunch and talking about this show?'” Landgraf said. “[TV] has moved from a disposable medium that’s consumed live and is only there to get people to watch commercials.”