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John Landgraf: HBO, FX Lap the Field in ‘Race For TV’s Best’

When it comes to high-quality TV, there’s HBO, there’s FX — and then there’s everybody else.

That was the bold statement delivered Sunday by FX Networks chief John Landgraf at the start of his exec presentation at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena, Calif.

Landgraf said FX researchers tabulated all of the shows that made year-end lists from critics and other orgs of the best television of 2014. By FX’s count, HBO shows accounted for 250 mentions on 115 such lists while FX Networks shows grabbed 213 mentions. AMC (74), Netflix (67) and CBS (63) rounded out the top five among networks.

Landgraf’s presentation was complete with a bar chart and a pie chart to underscore the gap between HBO and FX and the rest of the field. But more than anything else, it reinforced the competitive drive of Landgraf and his team to be acknowledged as best-in-class in TV and on the same prestigious plane as HBO.

“The race for the best in TV is really is only a competition between two channels,” Landgraf said. “The rest of the pack is way behind.”

Landgraf noted that while AMC, Netflix and others have been able to field shows that draw widespread acclaim, FX like HBO has the benefit of quality and volume.

“It requires many great shows to get to the level (of mentions) that HBO and FX achieved,” Landgraf said. “I truly respect our formidable competitors, but the reality is that FX has broken well out of that pack, and it and only it is now closing in on HBO.”

Landgraf’s remarks marked the most aggressive claim to greatness made by a top exec during the winter TCA, which wraps on Tuesday with only PBS left to present. Yet there’s little doubt that FX has the goods to back up its bravado, between the near-universal acclaim for its risky swing at a TV reinterpretation of “Fargo,” plus the affection for other darlings including “Justified,” “Louie,” “American Horror Story,” “The Americans” and fledgling comedy “You’re the Worst.”

Landgraf emphasized that the critical attention paid to FX shows is increasingly important amid the exponential growth in original programming across the dial and from digital upstarts.

“The amount of competition is just literally insane,” Landgraf said. “We’re not really trying to be the highest-rated channel in television. We’re trying as hard as we can to be the best channel in television.”

FX and FXX are upping the ante this year with the rollout of its largest slate of original series to date — a total of 19 new and returning shows across the two channels. On Sunday, FX and FXX put the accent on its new comedies, including Denis Leary’s “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” and the Billy Crystal-Josh Gad starrer “The Comedians.”

Landgraf emphasized that his team is focused on finding the optimal format for creatives to deliver their vision rather than sticking to traditional 13- and 22-episode structures. He noted that it was Ryan Murphy who invented the “anthological drama” template with FX’s “American Horror Story” franchise.

“The minute you define what something has to be, you limit its quality,” Landgraf said. “The more freedom we give to storytellers, the better work they’re able to do.”

“Fargo,” for example, “was pretty great at 10 hours. It wouldn’t have been if spread to 30 hours or 50 hours, or if we had to compress it down to two.”

The next incarnation of “Fargo” will be set in the late 1970s and feature Ronald Reagan as a character, from the time of his ultimately successful presidential bid. He said the story is connected to something Keith Carradine’s Lou Solverson character referenced in last year’s series. It involves the character’s background as a Korean War vet and it has a strong feminism theme. “It’s big, sprawling, incredibly ambitious,” he said.

Landgraf was pressed on the decision to ax the drama “The Bridge” after its second season. Landgraf cited its “relentless downward trajectory” in ratings even though he liked the show creatively.

“By the time you get to the end of the second season if you don’t find any kind of momentum from a ratings standpoint,” he said, they have to consider whether a renewal “would create the strongest roster or do I open up an opportunity for someone else?”

In other news from the sesh:

  • FX has set April 9 as the premiere date for its Billy Crystal-Josh Gad comedy “The Comedians,” which will bow in tandem with the fifth season of “Louie.”
  • FX also said it has ordered comedy pilot “Better Things” starring “Louie” player Pamela Adlon. “Louie” auteur Louis C.K. will co-write the comedy with Adlon and direct the pilot, which revolves around an actress trying to raise three daughters by herself. Adlon, C.K., Blair Breard, Dave Becky and 3 Arts Entertainment will exec produce for FX Prods. and C.K.’s Pig Newton banner.
  • Landgraf gave a vote of confidence to “The Americans,” saying he sees the espionage drama going “at least” five seasons. The show bows its third season on Jan. 28.


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