FX Wants to Be the ‘Best’ Channel on TV, Not the Highest-Rated One

CEO stands behind lesser-viewed gems like Louie and The Americans

FX's Fargo helped lift the network to No. 4 in cable with 18- to 49-year-olds. Photo: FX

FX is now the No. 4 cable network when it comes to 18-49-year-olds, up from sixth place a year ago. While many networks in its position would be gunning for the top spot, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf made an unusual proclamation at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour: He'd rather be the "best" channel on TV instead of the top-rated one.

"Obviously we want as many people as possible to watch our shows, we want them to be as highly rated as possible, but there's quite a range [of ratings], and we can support that range," said Landgraf, referring to some of FX's critically acclaimed, but lower-rated, shows like Louie and The Americans. "We're not really a channel that's trying to be the highest-rated channel in television. We're trying as hard as we possibly can to be the best channel in television, whatever that means. If we weren't therefore supporting shows that would help us get there, just because [they weren't among the highest-rated], we'd be idiots."

That said, Landgraf's patience does have its limits: The Bridge's declining Season 2 audience forced him to cancel the drama last fall, despite a creative resurgence.

Landgraf noted that more than 1,700 original seasons of television aired in 2014, up from the 1,300-plus in 2013. Per FX's research department, 353 scripted original series aired last year on U.S. broadcast, basic and premium cable, and on over the top platforms like Netflix. The number of original scripted series on basic and pay cable in prime-time doubled in the past five years, from 91 to 180. "The amount of competition is just literally insane," Landgraf said. However, "the reality is there's a whole lot of shows on television that are probably relevant to almost no one."

FX thinks it's solved the relevancy problem with shows that seem to be resonating. The network's research department compiled all 2014's Top 10 lists from TV critics and found that FX lagged behind only HBO on the highest representation of shows by network (250 for HBO and 213 for FX, with AMC in third place with 74). At this point, Landgraf said, "the race for the best in TV is really only a competition between two channels: [HBO and FX.]"

He also discussed FX's decision to experiment with shows that stray from typical episode and season lengths, explaining that while The Sopranos and other dramas changed the game, eventually their formats "started to feel like a box in some cases. Everyone was saying, 'Well, that's the form to emulate. It has to be seven years long, it has to be 91 hours.'"

Instead of writing to a format "dictated by the terms of business," Landgraf said, "what if the innovation is that on some level, the length of the show should really fit the optimal length of the story?" That's allowed the network to air anthology-based series like Fargo and American Horror Story, with fresh, restarted stories every season. "I think it is a game-changer," he said. "The bottom line is, the minute you define what something has to be, you limit its quality. The more freedom we give to writers, to storytellers, the better work they're able to do."

FX's sister network FXX also is picking up, jumping to No. 25 with 18-49-year-olds among cable networks since The Simpsons helped save the network in August. Landgraf is shuttling some original series between the two networks, and he said, "I still think it's going to be perhaps several years until everything is really sorted in its proper place," and FX's and FXX's separate identities are fully established.

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