FX CEO Says ‘Human Curation’ Is Still More Important Than Data

Targeting can only get advertisers so far

Just a month into upfront season, and the buzz around data has already become deafening. But at least one company, FX Networks, is making the case to advertisers that their upfront buys should be based on more than just audience targeting.

"I think something's really getting missed in the focus on data, which is the quality of attention," FX Networks CEO John Landgraf told Adweek. "It doesn't really matter how well you can target people. You need to give them something valuable enough to really command their attention, and not only the attention to engage with your content but the advertising associated with that content."

Landgraf said FX's slate—which includes shows like American Horror Story, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and Fargo—has value to advertisers that is "vast orders of magnitude greater than anything you can get from somebody watching 30 seconds or a minute of amateur content [online]."

The CEO argued that getting a consumer to engage with a show for 30 minutes, the average time spent viewing FX's digital programming, "is way more valuable than associating a commercial with a short, disposable clip which the viewer will not remember five minutes after she sees it [on Facebook or YouTube]."

"Year after year, we work really, really hard to try to make things of extraordinary value to the audience on the theory—and I think it's a valid theory—that it creates extraordinary value for advertisers," Landgraf said. "So you can have all the sophisticated data and targeting in the world, and you can put an ad in front of a specific viewer. But if you don't provide them with a piece of content they love, you can't get them to watch the commercial."

It was a point the network drove home last week when it kicked off its annual upfront bowling party (now in its seventh year) at New York's Lucky Strike Manhattan by screening the riveting finale of The People v. O.J. Simpson, which airs tonight. The People v. O.J., Landgraf told the audience, is "one of the best shows you'll see all year and a program that represents everything we strive to achieve at FX every day."

Toby Byrne, president of advertising sales and Fox Networks Group, echoed Landgraf's comments about "attention" in his own prescreening comments. "What chance do you really have to reach a consumer, a viewer, if you don't have their attention?" he said. "You absolutely need attention to build brands, to engage audiences, deliver impact and ultimately drive sales."

The ad sales chief said FX's upcoming slate will continue to drive audience attention and engagement. The lineup includes new installments of Fargo, American Horror Story and American Crime Story. It also features new series Atlanta (a comedy starring Community's Donald Glover), Better Things (a comedy executive produced by Louis C.K. and starring Louie co-star Pamela Adlon), and Taboo (a miniseries and BBC One co-production starring Tom Hardy and executive produced by Ridley Scott).

Going into the upfront, Byrne told Adweek, "We're feeling pretty good. It's nice to have the momentum that The People v. O.J. gave us." It will be the second upfront presentation in which ads for FX and sister stations FXX and FXM will be sold alongside all of Fox's broadcast and cable entertainment networks after the ad sales departments merged in October 2014.

Byrne clarified that FX, and by extension the Fox Networks Group, is still very much in the data business and will continue to work with partners to utilize meaningful data more effectively. But while Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter have become powerful digital platforms, FX's audience doesn't watch content the same way. "It's a different business than ours," Byrne said. "It's snackable and nonpremium. The key point of distinction is the attention and engagement of the consumer in the premium content environment." 

For Landgraf, the struggle comes down to the importance of "human curation," he said. "We can talk all we want about how data is going to create a better batting average, and I don't believe it," he said, "because I think ultimately, there are way too many variables involved in what makes great entertainment, great narrative story, great human drama or comedy, than can be quantified and plugged into a formula."

Pointing to FX's critically acclaimed slate, Landgraf noted, "Maybe we're at the point where computers can beat chess champions and Go champions, but I don't think we're at the point now where they can beat programmers."