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FX Boss John Landgraf Talks ‘Narrative Exhaustion’ in TV’s ‘Gilded Age’

John Landgraf is no longer surprised by the ever increasing number of shows on TV.

“The golden age of television has become the gilded age of television,” the FX CEO said Friday at the Television Critics Association summer press tour.

Known for his cerebral, data-infused exchanges with journalists twice yearly at press tour, Landgraf updated FX research’s projections for the number of scripted series on television. According to FX, 319 scripted series have premiered on linear and streaming television so far this year, up 5% from the same time last year. That growth has come from streaming services (up 46% from last year) and premium cable (up 42%). Volume year to year is down in basic cable (-11%) and broadcast (-5%).

Landgraf does not see the growth in volume of programming leveling off anytime soon.

“I think you can see that the distribution of scripted content across streaming services is going on strong,” Landgraf said — noting that the scaling up that the Walt Disney Co. is engaged in through its pending acquisition of most of 21st Century Fox and that AT&T is engaged in through its acquisition of Time Warner is geared toward growing ambitions in content streaming. Speaking of “an epic battle between very large companies that are going to be competing in the streaming business” against Amazon and Netflix, he said that the volume of original scripted programming on TV will continue to increase “as long as that battle is red hot and as long as those companies are scaling up.”

Landgraf warned of what writer Paul Schrader has called “narrative exhaustion,” saying, “Profusion of stories is very good if you want to talk about innovation and diversity.” But, he added, that thanks to that same profusion, “It’s very hard if you’re talking about trying to surprise the audience and delight the audience.” Everything “feels vaguely familiar” to an audience inundated with options.

“I once said to this group I thought there was too much television,” he said. “In some ways I think there’s too much story. Too much narrative.”

The Disney acquisition will, if and when it’s finalized, see FX become part of the Mouse House. Landgraf spoke Friday about his brand’s movement toward new genres such as documentary and animation, but said that those shifts are not in anticipation of the Disney deal’s completion. “They don’t own us yet and I don’t have any marching orders from them,” he said. The expansion into new genres is instead part of efforts to grow FX without dilluting its brand — an effort Landgraf likened to similar movements at HBO, recently acquired by AT&T as part of its acquisition of Time Warner.

“I’ve seen a lot of activity at HBO,” Landgraf said, making reference to the number of new series pickups made by the pay cabler in recent months. “My guess is they had those shows in development and they were waiting for new marching orders after the close” of the AT&T deal. He added that the new HBO shows, based on their creative auspices “look really good to me,” showing that growth can take place without quality being diluted.

“That’s how I feel about FX,” he said. “You can’t get infinitely bigger without diffusing the brand. I admire much of the programming that Netflix makes. But I will also say that their business model is to mean all thing to all people.” He cautioned, “I don’t see that as our role.”

Landgraf also took a veiled swipe at Netflix’s ascending Emmy fortunes. The streaming service last month drew more Emmy nominations than any other network or platform — the first time in 18 years that HBO didn’t claim the nomination title. Attributing Netflix’s nominations to volume, Landgraf noted that HBO and FX were the only two networks or platforms to average more than five nominations per show submitted.

The FX chief also spoke to larger, unsettling economic and political trends affecting the entertainment business and beyond. “I genuinely and truly believe that in general regulatory policy has fallen down in some key areas and it has allowed what I would call predatory economics to prevail too much sway,” he said, noting that such predations have increased pressure on the middle class. Of its impact on the entertainment business, he added, “When we have competitors that are losing money but they’re basically trying to snorf up everything that exists, that feels really crummy to me.”

Landgraf also addressed specifics around FX’s programming, diversity efforts, and distribution:

• Breaking down stats for directors employed on FX shows for 2018, Landgraf said that 51% were white men, 22% white women, 22% non-white men, and 5% non-white women.

• Of writers employed on FX shows in 2018, 48% were white men, 21% white women, 17% non-white men, and  14% non-white women.

• Landgraf said that the casting of Chris Rock in “Fargo” season four happened as a result of a meeting Hawley asked Rock to take. “It came about because Noah really wanted to work with Chris,” he said.

• FX’s new “Shogun” miniseries, Landgraf said, will present an authentic view of historic Japan told from multiple points of view. “If you just sort of exoticized or fetishized Japanese culture through the Western male gaze, it probably wouldn’t fly,” he said.

• Streaming service FX+ will become available to all FX subscribers. The platform had previously only been available to Comcast and Cox customers. It currently allows access to 35 shows and 125 total seasons of programming from FX’s library.

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