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John Landgraf Talks Disney Changes, Streaming Competition and Future of ‘American Crime Story’

FX Networks CEO John Landgraf has never been shy about addressing the TV industry’s biggest challenges but on Tuesday he told reporters he has become “more optimistic than I’ve ever been” now that FX is part of the formidable Disney content eco-system.

Although Disney’s family friendly image is at times a world apart from FX’s edgy image, Landgraf noted that the two companies have common cultural traits in being “obsessively focused on quality.” He’s been nothing but encouraged since Disney’s historic $71.3 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox was completed on March 20.

“What I’ve is aspirational common ground there,” Landgraf said during Disney TV’s upfront press preview on Tuesday morning at New York’s Alice Tully Hall. “I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been that our best days are in front of us, not behind us.” He added that moving into the world’s largest media company at a time when Disney is marshaling its forces to establish a global streaming footprint has amounted to “a new lease on life.”

Landgraf said the FX Networks brands will sit comfortably in Disney’s Hulu streaming service, remarks that came less than an hour after Disney announced it has taken operational control of Hulu under a deal with co-owner Comcast. Hulu’s technological platform gives FX the option of offering commercial-free on-demand access to subscribers, something Landgraf said he has “dreamed of” for some time.

“The fact that Hulu has about 40% of subscribers that are ad free — that’s really exciting to me,” he said. Given FX’s roots as a linear basic cable channel, Landgraf said he was proud of what FX has been able to achieve even in the confines of an ad-supported environment.  “We’re proud of making this kind of programming available in 90 million homes with ads.”

At a time of transition for traditional cable brands, Landgraf reiterated that FX on its own does not have enough heft to go it alone as a streaming venture. Instead, being integrated into a cutting-edge streaming channel bundle a la Hulu is a much stronger path. Simply put, Landgraf said FX at present doesn’t have enough original content to support its own platform.

“I don’t think 15 shows is enough to be a brand continuously in the conversation about what’s best in television,” Landgraf said. “I don’t want to expand too far the curatorial quality of the brand. That’s what gives it weight.” Landgraf added that he was eager for the chance to have more “at bats” in program development. “I just want them to come … in a careful way,” he said.

Landgraf addressed the post-Disney shifts in programming assets that have emerged to date. The “Simpsons World” online archive of episodes of Fox’s beloved toon will shift to the Disney Plus platform after the latter launches on Nov. 12. Also Tuesday, Disney confirmed that “Simpsons” reruns will also air on the Freeform cabler.

Landgraf said research determined that the consumer use of “Simpsons World” was limited because it was dependent on authentication for those with a traditional MVPD service. The TV Everywhere effort pioneered a decade ago has never taken root with consumers, which meant that “Simpsons” online rights were severely under-monetized. It’s also a perfect fit with Disney Plus’ emphasis on marquee brands.

“There was a belief that we could radically improve the amount of usage,” Landgraf said.

Landgraf emphasized that FX and other former Fox brands are expected to maintain their identities under the Disney corporate umbrella. But as evidenced by “The Simpsons,” there is a lot of brainstorming among division leaders about how to spread their collective wealth.

“We’re going to have to do what we need to do to maintain the identity of the various different brands,” he said. “But there’s a lot that can be done to circulate great content through the system.”

Among other highlights:

Landgraf said stalwart FX producer Ryan Murphy is not working on a new installment of “Feud” at present. But his “American Crime Story” franchise is working on four potential follow-ups to “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.” He said it was important that the “ACS” franchise find distinctive material at a time when true crime tales can be found all over the media dial. “ACS” series need to have “depth and nuance and (address) the meaning of the crime story in a larger context.”

Landgraf added that he hoped to accelerate the pace of “ACS” productions as development on the four projects continues. It was nearly two years between the 2016 premiere of the inaugural “People V. O.J. Simpson” and the 2018 bow of “Versace.” “We may be able to produce two, three or four seasons in a row,” he said.

The emergence of skinny bundles and digital MVPDs has sparked a winnowing of niche and lesser-watched basic cable channels. Landgraf expressed optimism that FX’s FXX and FX Movies will continue as a stand-alone channels for the foreseeable future. FX Movies is a dynamo for on-demand services, he asserted. “The three-channel suite has been working really well,” he said.

As ever, Landgraf had strong thoughts to share about the importance of branding and curation in a media landscape that has expanded exponentially in the past decade. He reiterated that the focus of Disney chairman-CEO Bob Iger ‘s focus on nurturing and honing brands was the right approach for his close-knit FX team.

Netflix, Amazon and emerging efforts can serve as “big clearinghouses for programming. Audiences love the price and delivery mechanism but how do you find the stuff you love,” Landgraf said. He likened it to “going into a supermarket and not having any brands” on the shelf. “Brands are really valuable when you’re in a really large retail consumer environment. What Bob has quite rightly thought is that brands are going to be more valuable not less valuable in the future.”

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