FX’s Expansion in the Face of Challenges is an Evolution, Not a Revolution (Column)

FX chief John Landgraf’s executive session at the TCA conference August 3 came at a moment of transition for the network he runs. Disney’s pending purchase of parent company 21st Century Fox has generated an aura of uncertainty around the network’s future corporate ownership — Landgraf described FX as “a passenger, but a happy one.” FX has also, over the past 12 months, respectively bid farewell to and cut ties with its two highest-profile creative collaborators, Ryan Murphy and Louis C.K., while also bringing its most prominent and critically lauded drama, “The Americans,” to an end earlier this year.

That Murphy had been poached by Netflix specifically helped emphasize FX’s difficult position. By definition a boutique and, by comparison to Netflix, a network with limited resources, FX faces an unprecedentedly competitive environment. And Landgraf made seeming reference to Netflix frequently throughout his preference, ranging from oblique to relatively direct. In the most plainspoken moment in a session full of them, Landgraf referred to the television industry’s “predatory economics,” saying “There are competitors losing so much money but trying to snorf up everything that exists.”

Netflix snorfed away Murphy, likely FX’s defining creative talent from “Nip/Tuck” through “Pose.” And it has snorfed its way, if “snorf” is indeed the word, into just about every genre that exists, helping create the environment for “Peak TV,” a term Landgraf introduced at a previous TCA session. (In what’s good, or bad, news for consumers, he noted that the volume of scripted TV has continued to increase; it’s yet to peak.) In a moment of addressing his streaming rival directly, Landgraf noted that “they’re making the kinds of programming HBO makes, the kinds of programming FX makes, and all kinds of other programming too.”

FX cannot make as much programming as does Netflix; to do so, also, is necessarily to erode the network’s brand. In an era of “narrative exhaustion,” as Landgraf described it, the audience cannot keep up and feels at times lost. For a network that exists within the complicated ecosystem of TV rather than astride it, brand identity is immeasurably valuable. (Netflix’s Cindy Holland, earlier in this summer’s TCA tour, used her executive session to deny it has a brand identity and to emphasize its quantity of programming to suit every potential viewer.) Landgraf’s announcement that he plans to move the network into more “programming categories” — premiering a New York Times-branded nonfiction series and investigating further options in documentary or animation, among other genres — feels evolutionary, not revolutionary. It was perhaps characteristic that he justified the move not as a way to consume more of viewers’ time but to open FX up to eligibility for more Emmy categories.

Emmy nominations, important to every network, are the numerology on which FX executive sessions run. And the brand, unrelentingly, is “almost exclusively focused on best in TV quality,” as Landgraf put it: FX shows may not always be the best series on the air, but they represent an earnest attempt at getting there. Which is a difficult act to sustain, especially if you’re a network restocking its cupboard and, even more so, if you’re the one scaling up. FX and HBO are set to build larger complements of shows, in what may well be very different ways; Landgraf made a point of emphasizing his network’s longtime aptitude for finding talent outside television’s A-list. If HBO works to recruit A-list collaborators — and if Netflix snorfs them from their established homes — FX, more than either of its two biggest competitors in the acclaimed-TV space, finds and nourishes them.

That’s the story Landgraf told about FX, anyhow, that the place is fueled by a scrappy willingness to take bets, punching above weight at the Emmys and in the hearts of viewers. It’s a narrative that suits a network that’s not exactly against the ropes — but that’s seeking to increase its claim on TV fans’ loyalties, even without so many of its signature hits and even in the face of Netflix’s reign. In an era in which sensibility has come to be perceived, in some circles, as an impediment to growth, FX is scaling up with both projects that feel, insofar as a logline can tell us things, FX-y, and with projects that evince a responsible and progressive attitude towards inclusion.

To wit: The next season of “Fargo” is to focus on clashes between the Italian and black mobs in Kansas City and to star Chris Rock; New Zealand director Taika Waititi, of Maori descent, is bringing the comedy “What We Do in the Shadows”; Landgraf made a point of emphasizing that FX’s adaptation of “Shogun,” in theory the oldest-school sort of prestige project, will be told in large part through the point of view of Japanese characters. But the bulk of discussion of racial inclusion on the Beverly Hilton stage hinged on how far FX still had to go: In a setting that sees plenty of self-congratulation, Landgraf projected statistics that told a story of progress but not of a goal of fair representation met.

FX is hardly the only network that thinks about such things, but their foregrounding them as a central concern is unique. It reflects a set of priorities more fascinating, and more likely to yield at least interesting TV, than market dominance. “I don’t want to take over the world,” Landgraf said. “I just want to make good television.” Tying that quality to inclusivity — and emphasizing the need for more types of stories at the moment they’re seeking more content — is reason to hope that as FX expands its quantity of programming, its quality won’t peak.

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