In Depth

FX’s Boss on the Perils of Original TV

Landgraf: It’s Quality Versus Quantity

FX may have been one of the first cable channels to air award-winning original scripted drama, but its president, John Landgraf, thinks other networks are tempting fate by trying to cultivate too many original shows.

The differing economics of cable and broadcast create risks for cable executives who get too enamored of originals, Mr. Landgraf said.

“I’m of a different opinion than some of my competitors, in that I think that if you try to compete with them in terms of volume, you’re inevitably going to suffer erosion in terms of quality,” he said.

“When was the last time you had a broadcast network that had eight original dramas on the air and you thought they were all good? If a broadcast network can’t do it, then I think a basic-cable network’s never going to be able to do it,” he said.

That hasn’t stopped networks like TNT, USA and others from trying to field dramas that establish their brands and build audiences without breaking the bank.

Mr. Landgraf said he’s happy as long as FX has at least one original show on 12 months a year and “a healthy stable of really good dramas on the air.” The network also has two drama pilots under consideration for the schedule, as well as four half-hour comedies in the works.

After the finale of FX tentpole “The Shield” last year, FX is betting on other originals including “Nip/Tuck,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Damages” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”

It’s not clear whether more originals would help FX’s bottom line. The network is part of News Corp.’s cable networks group (along with Fox News Channel), which was one of the company’s bright spots during the most recent quarter. FX ranked 10th in total-viewer ratings among ad-supported cable networks in primetime last quarter as viewership declined 4%.

Mr. Landgraf declined to comment on the financial details of his stable of originals.

Mr. Landgraf said he was pleased with the April 8 return of “Rescue Me.” After a 22-month absence caused by the writers strike, Denis Leary’s fireman drama was the top-rated original scripted show on cable that night.

The season-five premiere of “Rescue Me” was down 16% in the ratings from the season-four bow two years ago. Mr. Landgraf said comparisons are tricky because the number of homes with digital video recorders has expanded, making delayed viewing a bigger factor.

Mr. Landgraf said he’d wager that when the DVR numbers come out in 20 days, the “Rescue Me” audience will be within the statistical margin of error from two years ago.

Mr. Landgraf noted nearly all of FX’s original series perform better in C3, the commercial ratings measure used for advertising sales, than the live-plus-same-day viewing numbers used to make quick judgments about how well shows are performing.

“Rescue Me” didn’t have a C3 number two years ago.

“Rescue Me” this season may be one of the first shows to have its video-on-demand plays included in its C3 ratings. Nielsen can include VOD numbers in its ratings, but only if the on-demand version of the show carries the same number of commercials from the same advertisers. Most VOD shows carry only a single pre-roll spot, limiting the amount of ad revenue they can generate.

Though FX’s edgy shows regularly have been the focus of threatened boycotts by self-appointed family-values groups, they are increasing ad rates for the network and have fans among advertisers such as Volkswagen, which bought half the time in the “Rescue Me” premiere and will be integrated into an episode later in the season.

Another award-winning show, “Damages,” attracts a higher-income, more educated audience that pulls in a range of advertisers the network might not otherwise appeal to. (Despite lower ratings this season, the show makes economic sense thanks to foreign sales, Mr. Landgraf said.)

With digital video recorders eating away at the audiences for original shows, FX is looking at acquired films to drive ratings growth, Mr. Landgraf said.

With some off-network series the network bought in the past finally coming off FX’s books, the network has been able to make bigger investments in films.

“We couldn’t get arrested last year because we had no new movies and we had no original programming,” Mr. Landgraf said. “The number and quality of movies that are going to be coming to our air in fiscal 2010, which begins in three months for us, is going to be notably better than what you’ve ever seen in the past.”

Once those films kick in, “You’ll start to see some meaningful growth on the network over the next couple of years,” he said.

Still, it is the edgy original shows that give FX its identity, and FX has a number of them in the pipeline.

One of two drama pilots likely will join the schedule. One candidate is “Lights Out,” about a former heavyweight boxer balancing the idea of a comeback, as he tries to keep his family in the lifestyle they’ve become accustomed to, against the threat to his own health.

The pilot begins shooting this week with Holt McCallany as the lead and Melora Hardin from “The Office” playing his wife.

The second pilot is based on a character from Elmore Leonard’s books named Raylan Givens, a throwback U.S. marshal in a Stetson who has emotional and family issues. The pilot is being written by “Boomtown” creator Graham Yost.

Mr. Landgraf also expects to pick up a couple of comedy pilots in the next month or so.

The shows would be designed as a companion to “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” which is shooting a 14-episode season. Two episodes will go straight to DVD, where the show is one of News Corp.’s strongest sellers. Those two episodes eventually will air on FX.

FX hasn’t had much luck coming up with a comedy to go with “Sunny,” but Mr. Landgraf remains optimistic.

“I get the feeling that whatever we put on the air will be aggressively and edgily funny, but I doubt it will be quite as lowbrow as ‘Testees,’” FX’s last attempt at comedy, he said.