FX’s John Landgraf is pushing the cable network to new highs
When John Landgraf joined FX as head of entertainment, he smugly figured he’d landed in the catbird seat. After all, the News Corp.-owned cable network had two hit dramas on the air and a hot prospect about to premiere.
It quickly dawned on him that he could easily fall on his face. “I’m the schmuck who’s supposed to replace ‘The Shield,’ ‘Nip/Tuck’ and ‘Rescue Me,’” Landgraf recalled thinking when he was hired in January 2004. Not only was Landgraf going to have to develop FX’s next set of hits, he was also going to have to find a way to make money from them.
Although the shows he inherited delivered solid ratings and were adored by critics, they were very expensive. The costs kept rising the longer they were on the air, as cast and crew demanded bigger raises. But because FX bought rights to these series from other producers rather than owning them, the network did not participate in rerun or DVD sales. Therefore, FX didn’t have much leverage when it came to negotiating deals to keep the shows on its network.
“You’ve got to figure out how to pay for it,” said Landgraf, who devised a way to change that equation to his network’s financial advantage. He created FX Productions, an in-house unit that now produces or co-produces seven FX shows, meaning the company shares in any profits and has more control over costs.
Landgraf, who has since been promoted to president and general manager, appears to be sitting pretty. He has shepherded new and more financially sound shows including the gritty drama “Sons of Anarchy” and Elmore Leonard-inspired “Justified” as well as dark comedies “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Louie” and “Wilfred.”
Landgraf’s strategy has been to have a healthy mix of low-cost comedies and big-budget dramas — each of which turn traditional genres on their heads.
Although most cable networks have looser standards than broadcast television when it comes to content, FX takes it to the next level in terms of coarse language, sex, nudity and tone. “Sons of Anarchy,” “Louie” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” are about the dark underside of American life. Even lighter fare such as “Wilfred” (about a guy and a pot-smoking dog) and “The League” (about a group of crude friends obsessed with fantasy football) are more quirky than conventional.
Not lacking in confidence, Landgraf says most of the shows on rival networks “don’t aspire to be deep, complicated, penetrating character studies.… I think we’ve found a way to remain distinctive.”
Next week, FX takes what might be its biggest gamble with “American Horror Story,” a sexually charged thriller from “Glee” and “Nip/Tuck” creator Ryan Murphy that premieres Oct. 5. The original series, which FX does not own, is one of the network’s more costly shows. It stars Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton as troubled married couple whose move to L.A. is complicated by the haunted house they inhabit.
Under Landgraf, FX’s prime-time audience has grown 55%. According to Nielsen, this year FX is averaging almost 1.5 million viewers a night, an 18% jump over last year. Among the coveted demographic of adults ages 18 to 49, skewing more toward males, FX has just over 800,000 prime-time viewers, an improvement of 17%.
The network is also financially stronger. Advertising revenue at FX in 2011 will hit nearly $521 million, compared with $325 million five years ago, and operating revenue is expected to top $1 billion for the first time, according to SNL Kagan, an industry consulting firm.
Landgraf “has a fantastic combination of creative skills and business skills,” said Peter Rice, chairman of entertainment at Fox Networks Group, to whom Landgraf reports. “That sort of right-brain left-brain combination is unusual, and he has it spades.”
Although FX still trails its chief rivals USA and TNT in terms of viewers, it is closing the gap. The season premiere of “Sons of Anarchy,” about a motorcycle gang, set a ratings record. “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is off to its best start in seven seasons. Emmy-nominated “Louie,” starring stand-up comedian Louis C.K. as a depressed, divorced dad, saw its viewership increase 26% this summer.
“FX has made a mark by raising the bar for original scripted programming,” said Mike Rosen, a media buyer for Starcom.
Not everything Landgraf touches becomes a hit. Two recent efforts — dramas “Terriers,” about two offbeat private investigators, and “Lights Out,” about a heavyweight fighter, were each canceled after just one season. “The conclusion I came to was both those shows were not conceptually original enough,” Landgraf said.
Landgraf, 49, initially resisted joining FX when he was first approached for the job to succeed Kevin Reilly, who is now entertainment chief at Fox Broadcasting. A previous stint as a programming executive at NBC had left a bad taste in his mouth.
“I was very leery about going back to work in a corporate setting,” Landgraf said. “There was just an awful lot of stunningly mediocre programming that was fostered [at NBC] there at that time. I sort of thought that’s what the corporate environment bred — it was about product more than creativity.”
When Landgraf left NBC to become president of Jersey Television, a unit of actor Danny DeVito’s Jersey Films, he found a new kind of irritation: meddling network executives interfering with the creative process.
“I was pretty frustrated at that point,” he recalled. “I had my fill of network television from both sides.”
What changed his mind was watching “The Shield,” a drama about a corrupt cop, and “Nip/Tuck,” about a pair of Miami plastic surgeons — one an amoral womanizer and the other a family man. “I was just astonished,” he said. FX was doing “exactly the kind of work I wanted to and that we’d been trying to do at Jersey with little success.”
Landgraf’s former FX boss Peter Liguroi said of the executive, “He has an utter gag reflex for mediocrity.”
Landgraf may give his producers creative leeway, but by no means is he hands off. “I read every draft of every episode of every series produced at FX,” he said.
What he doesn’t do is nitpick every little detail in a script.
“I have had pilots at other networks where the notes are about trying to do what they think is commercial,” Ryan Murphy said. “John stands by his show creators.”
“Sons of Anarchy” creator Kurt Sutter, no shrinking violet himself, said Landgraf’s “not a guy who stands on the table and says, ‘I am king and I know everything.’”
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