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Kicking and Screaming, FX Is Forced to Confront Future in the Stream (Column)

During his network’s presentation at the winter Television Critics Assn. press tour, FX chief John Landgraf made waves — and headlines — by mounting perhaps his most direct criticism yet of Netflix. Landgraf, whose briefings to the press tend to rely heavily on data about the volume of shows with which FX’s competitors flood the airwaves, has never made a secret about his disdain for Netflix’s a-show-for-everyone strategy. And his claim that the streamer is “not telling you the whole story” by refusing to use industry-standard audience-measuring techniques fits neatly into the picture he’s been painting of a company that plays by its own rules.

After all, FX — at least when Landgraf is telling its story to the press — exists directly in opposition to Netflix. The cabler boasts a small set of shows, generally built with an eye to attracting awards attention and to creating the sense of a network with a cohesive vision. From “American Crime Story” to “Fargo” to the upcoming “Fosse/Verdon” (about the relationship between iconic choreographer-director Bob Fosse and star Gwen Verdon), the network’s dramas tend to boast a glossy, operatic grandeur, while its comedies, like “Atlanta” and “Better Things,” are sharply observed and trend toward the melancholic. 

Netflix, by contrast, is a lavishly funded tech behemoth willing to splash out dollars on endless new shows of wildly varying tone and quality; its poaching of FX’s leading creative force, Ryan Murphy, means that he will now be part of a stable that includes not only Emmy-winning series like “The Crown” but also lowbrow fare like “Fuller House.” FX, Landgraf repeated at the TCA, had fewer “at-bats” than did Netflix — a vastly smaller quantity of programs debuting annually, but ones that had been capitalized on more ably.

It’s a canny way of turning a simple market reality into a virtue. FX couldn’t hope to compete with Netflix in sheer volume of content. And it brushes past the fact that the streamer doesn’t intend all of its shows to be potential Emmy winners. But positing that quantity and quality are necessarily opposed has a certain poetry to it, and the idea has clearly found its perfect audience in the TCA, a group of television critics and reporters professionally obligated to wade through some of Netflix’s less accomplished efforts. 

What’s not apparent is how much that matters to the general public. If FX produces five shows out of its bespoke collection that a hypothetical TV fan follows, and Netflix produces 10 such shows among its hundreds annually, which model has been more effective in earning the consumer’s dollar? It may be true that the audience for many Netflix shows, if measured, would be infinitesimal. But FX’s service to the complexities of the artistic process — as evidenced by news out of TCA of various shifts and delays of shows, including “Atlanta” slipping out of its annual cycle and of planned installments of Murphy’s “Feud” and “American Crime Story” falling away — creates a dearth of available progamming, even if it yields dividends when those shows finally arrive. A lack of content is a quandary Netflix does not face.

It was curious that Landgraf pressed the issue of quality versus quantity quite so resolutely at a moment when FX’s place on that continuum seems most in doubt. As the network joins a much larger corporate empire after Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox, Landgraf acknowledged that the greater resources behind FX would lead to the network producing more content. According to the FX exec, this increased output would be in support of Disney’s planned streaming service (though details of how the FX-Disney relationship would work, at this early stage, are still forthcoming). 

While it’s a fair bet that FX won’t aim to produce programming that radically departs from its standards of quality, the fact is that the cabler has always opposed the economy of scale represented by the streaming revolution, taking the time to nurture shows like “The Americans” and “Pose” — programs that would have been swallowed up by a volume play that requires developing ideas more rapidly.

Now FX will have to try to hold on to its core qualities in support of the kind of streaming service it has tried to beat, or at least coexist with. Perhaps Landgraf’s disdain for Netflix comes, in part, from the knowledge that even a carefully crafted boutique must, eventually, march to the beat it sets. 

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