FX’s Quiet Boss Vows Upswing In Ratings

Jun 19, 2006  •  Post A Comment

There are two schools of thought on FX Networks President and General Manager John Landgraf.

The first is that he’s a hands-on deep thinker whose detail-oriented commitment to guiding talent has resulted in improved ratings and critical praise for FX’s stable of hits such as “Rescue Me,” “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck.” The second is that, after 13 months on the job and several new series launches, he has yet to produce a breakout title.

His boss, Fox Cable Networks Group President and CEO Tony Vinciquerra, said “both statements are right.”

“Nobody ever expected we would be batting a thousand on this network–and we were,” Mr. Vinciquerra said. “John has absolutely improved the shows we’ve had, and he deserves credit for ‘Rescue Me,’ which he developed. ‘The Shield’ went up in its fourth season, which is unusual. ‘Nip/Tuck’ had its best season ever.”

Since his promotion from entertainment president last year, Mr. Landgraf has helped the network continue to make financial and ratings gains. The channel just enjoyed its all-time highest-rated month. Perched at No. 5 among basic cable networks, FX executives hope to overtake fourth-place Spike TV by the end of the year. And a recent online partnership with AOL to stream an exclusive season-joining episode of “Rescue Me” did well, and the network is planning a similar stunt after the fourth season of “Nip/Tuck.”

“They have been growing [costs per thousand] in the double digits, which is what is really driving the top line [instead of ratings],” Kagan analyst Derek Baine said. “They have had double-digit growth every year since 2000, which is very unusual.”

Despite the numbers, media articles have focused on the lackluster performance of FX’s new shows. A trio of shows launched by Mr. Landgraf–“Over There,” “Starved” and “Thief”–have been canceled. Another, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” was renewed despite modest viewership. A reality effort, “Black. White.,” opened strong, then dived. Current ratings success is due more to acquired hit theatricals than to originals.

Mr. Landgraf likes to say, “If you’re slavishly devoted to who you are, then you’re devoted to who you were.”

But what do you do when you’re a network with a near-perfect record for creating male-skewing, anti-hero dramas that deliver mountains of viewers?

For Mr. Landgraf, the answer has been to improve existing series while taking chances on new formats.

“Too much credit is given to executives who oversaw the development of a show and not enough to the ones who oversee the continued success of the show,” said “The Shield” showrunner Shawn Ryan, whose series has experienced a critical and ratings increase in the past two seasons under Mr. Landgraf’s supervision. “A show rises and falls on episodes 20 and 50 more than episode one.”

Out, Out, Out

“Play it again,” Mr. Landgraf said.

Standing in a dim editing bay at FX’s Century City, Calif., headquarters earlier this month, Mr. Landgraf intently watched a freshly cut promo for an upcoming “Rescue Me” episode. During a key segue, the promo shifted from showing the drama of a bus full of trapped children to comic infighting among the firefighting crew, and the voiceover intoned: “You’d think they’d be more careful.”

“That line doesn’t work for me,” Mr. Landgraf said.

A member of the FX marketing team disagreed.

“The line is about how if you put your life on the line for others, when every day could be their last, you’d think they’d be more careful about the value they place on their own lives,” the team member said.

Mr. Landgraf nodded.

“I get it. It’s analogous to the theme of the show–they save your life, but who saves theirs? But I don’t think it works,” he said. “Why not go with something more simple? Like, ‘If they don’t get killed on the job, they might end up killing each other.'”

Interacting with his staff at FX headquarters, Mr. Landgraf was quiet, yet intense. Slight and bearded, he appeared calm but focused. Underlings used words like “professorial” and “ethical” to describe him.

FX’s newest showrunner, Courteney Cox-Arquette, who will play the network’s first female lead in the upcoming tabloid drama “Dirt,” was effusive about Mr. Landgraf.

“If you ask anybody in the business they’ll tell you Landgraf is one of the smartest people they’ve met,” she said. “He’s a philosopher, he’s a dreamer. He references literature and mythology when he gives notes. He’s very concerned with the human-emotional element within the show.”

What makes programming FX tricky is Mr. Landgraf’s mandate that the channel run high-quality original shows that fit the FX brand without replicating itself–or other networks.

“Our biggest challenge is restraining ourselves from jumping on board a trend,” Mr. Landgraf said.

So after the success of “Shield,” “Nip,” “Rescue” (and, more painfully, the failure of “Thief”), the male anti-hero formula feels tapped out.

Scripted comedy, despite the renewal of “Sunny,” is also out.

“I just don’t think scripted comedy is a viable genre on basic cable,” Mr. Landgraf said.

Police procedurals: Again, out. But denying procedurals is a very tough play. Top-five basic cable rivals TNT, USA and Spike owe a large percentage of their success to their off-network procedural acquisitions. Mr. Landgraf and Mr. Vinciquerra said they have turned down many opportunities to purchase procedurals for a basic-cable run.

“Our goal is to be distinctive,” Mr. Vinciquerra said. “If you put on ‘CSI,’ that’s not distinctive. If we were to buy ‘House,’ which is one we had some debate about, you own that show for as long as it runs on the network. That can be eight or nine years. These shows begin to erode, and what do you do then?”

So what genre does he want?

“There’s nothing I want that I can get,” he said. “I want football.”

A basic cable network rejecting off-net police procedurals and knock-off formats is practically rebellious. Yet looking at his competitors, Mr. Landgraf said he’s relieved to find few reasons to feel envious.

“Nobody has launched a show on another basic cable network in the past two years that would directly be on-brand for us,” Mr. Landgraf said. “‘The Closer’ is a great show. But I don’t want it. It’s much too old.”

But what about Sci Fi’s “Battlestar Galactica”? It’s dark, edgy, well-written and skews male. It fits the bill of an FX show in most respects, despite the science-fiction setting. Mr. Landgraf nodded at the suggestion. “Yes, that would fit,” he said.

In fact, FX has a new sci-fi project with “Battlestar” showrunner Ron Moore in development. But “Battlestar” ratings, he said, while a hit for Sci Fi, still wouldn’t be a hit on FX (“Battlestar” averages about 2.58 million viewers, while FX’s top three programs rate between 2.8 and 3.8).

And that, right there, is the whole problem, he said.

“When the bar is raised to the level of ‘The Shield,’ ‘Rescue’ and ‘Nip,’ you have to pole-vault over it every time,” Mr. Landgraf said. “We could have renewed a show and declared it a hit. We could have renewed ‘Over There’ or ‘Thief’ and said ‘We don’t fail.’ But then I wouldn’t be able to do [the upcoming drama] ‘Dirt.’

“I read about the ‘hits’ on Showtime that the network renews that are being seen by 200,000 people and it drives me f–king nuts,” he continued. “Then I see the press go after HBO for ‘Sopranos’ [ratings falling off]. Are you kidding me? They’re in 28 million homes and getting 9 million viewers. That’s just incredible.”

Moving forward, Mr. Landgraf will launch “Dirt,” and possibly the family drama “Lowlife.” But there will be new hurdles: Ratings winner NASCAR will drive to ESPN next year and tentpole franchise “The Shield” ends in 2007.

Mr. Landgraf promised the departures will not halt FX’s momentum.

“Even after losing NASCAR, we’re going to be up year over year,” he said. “You can put that in print.”