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FX’s John Landgraf: Netflix ‘Isn’t Telling You the Whole Story’

FX chief John Landgraf spent much of his on-stage prepared remarks at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour criticizing Netflix’s reporting of its viewership.

Netflix is “not telling you the whole story,” he told reporters and critics at the Pasadena, Calif. event Monday morning. His assertion: The popular streaming service doesn’t follow universally accepted TV viewership metrics, and is misrepresenting its success rate to the media.

Case in point: Netflix’s estimations of 40 million in household viewership for “You” and “Sex Education.” Landgraf says that that “Sex Education” number is closer to 3 million average U.S. viewers per episode, citing Nielsen-accepted metrics, and that the first season of “You” is likely actually averaging one-fifth of that viewership, or 8 million U.S. viewers. Those are still good numbers, he said, but it doesn’t make either series the No. 1 show on American television.

Netflix’s metrics create a “myth” that most of the platform’s shows are working and that the platform lands more hits than other networks, said Landgraf.

“‘Stranger Things’ is absolutely a home run, but it is a huge outlier on the Netflix platform,” he said. Using another baseball analogy, he said that the flip side of having a large number of at-bats is that there are also a large number of misses, something that is less publicized.

The FX chief has been one of the loudest voices in the industry questioning Netflix’s influence on the creative community and its approach to programming. But his comments weren’t limited to Netflix. Many Silicon Valley companies have “long used video views which inflates their perceived usage” and is not an accurate representation of a program’s performance.

“It’s just not a good thing for society when one entity or one person gets to unilaterally make the rules or pronounce the truth,” he said, adding that “Silicon Valley’s attitude really, really bothers” him. He also critiqued the “monopolistic” hold that tech’s “endless money canons” have on various areas such as search and social media, singling out Google and Facebook in particular.

That “‘winner-take-all’ mentality” is not good for the world, or for America, he said.

Still, Nielsen has not always been in total disagreement with Netflix. Earlier in the month, Nielsen said that Sandra Bullock-movie “Bird Box” reached nearly 26 million viewers in its first week online in the U.S., backing up Netflix’s assertion that the movie was popular with audiences, although the streaming services’ figures and metrics were different. (Netflix said 45 million Netflix users had seen “Bird Box,” but counted those who saw at least 70% of the movie.)

Landgraf says he doesn’t begrudge Netflix its existence, and believes the service will be part of the TV ecosystem for a long time. But he also claims that while Netflix’s shows attract large viewership in the first two weeks of debuting on the platform, that usage “tails off very rapidly,” and has a long tail of “undistinguished” series.

“From my standpoint I think there’s a value in focus and care in what one does,” he said, highlighting the critical success of FX shows, given its relatively smaller number of released originals compared to Netflix.

When Nielsen begins to measure viewership of streaming services such as Amazon and Hulu, “one way or the other, the truth will ultimately come out, as it always does,” he said.

As part of his usual data-packed presentation, Landgraf said there were 496 scripted original series in 2018, citing the findings from FX’s research team, a number that included 160 streaming or online, 146 broadcast, 45 pay-cable, and 145 basic cable shows.

That marks a 1.8% year-over-year increase from the 487 scripted original series in 2017, by his team’s count, thanks in part to a rise in online series from the 117 streaming series in 2017. That also includes a decline from the 153 broadcast and 175 basic cable shows the prior year.

In a bigger-picture comparison between 2018 and 2014, the number of streaming series has rocketed 385%. There are now 32% more pay-cable shows, but 17% fewer basic cable series and 1% fewer broadcast shows on TV.

Landgraf’s remarks made clear, however, that he is not opposed to the evolution of television through streaming or online viewership. If anything, he is “really grateful” and “really excited” that FX gets to participate in a streaming platform, thanks to soon-to-be parent company Walt Disney following the closing of Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox.

Disney will be a 60% stakeholder in Hulu after the combination. Disney CEO Bob Iger said during last August’s earnings call that the company would offer up more resources to FX’s existing business and invest in it as a brand and “critical supplier of original content for our (direct-to-consumer) platforms.”

Landgraf is embracing FX’s new parent company and Iger’s plans for streaming TV, which Landgraf says includes increased output from FX and other brands.

“No matter how well we execute, not being connected to a major streaming service… would be really problematic for us in the long run,” he said.

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