How FX Competes for New Series Without a Netflix-Size Budget

Personal touch, marketing prowess give network an advantage

As streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu snap up original series away from linear networks and lure creators with big paydays and promises of creative autonomy, their competitors have had to alter how they bid for new projects.

That's the case with FX, which lost out on the bidding for Aziz Ansari's comedy Master of None and the upcoming drama The Crown. Both of those shows went to Netflix after the streaming service "overwhelmed us with shock-and-awe levels of money and commitment," FX CEO John Landgraf told reporters in January. He also used a "Moneyball" analogy when comparing FX to Netflix, explaining, "Basically, we're competing against payrolls, if you will, a la the Oakland A's and New York Yankees, that are three or four times ours."

Because he can't match Netflix dollar for dollar, Landgraf has shifted the focus of his pitches, highlighting other attributes of the network when bidding for shows. Landgraf highlights his marketing team, which has been named PromaxBDA's In-House Marketing Team of the Year for five consecutive years. "I think the talent appreciates that," he told Adweek.

Landgraf also emphasizes the personal touch and attention he can give FX's shows versus Netflix, which now has 100 series in the pipeline—55 for adults, 45 for children. "Our network is more of a bespoke organization than a factory. We're at about 18 shows, and that's the most that I can personally pay attention to," said Landgraf. While he could maybe do as many as 20, he said he's "at the max in terms of being able to read scripts, watch rough cuts, have a thoughtful input and dialogue."

And that's important, even when the network doesn't have much creative feedback in terms of notes for producers. Landgraf said that his deal with Louis C.K. for Louie specified that the network wasn't able to give him notes. "But he got to the point where he said, 'I need to call you after I see the cuts because I need to talk to somebody.' And I was able to sustain a true, elevated dialogue with him about him as an artist and the business of it and what he was trying to do through the entire thing," Landgraf said. "I have an incredibly talented team of people, and of course, they do have many of those conversations and they can do it without me, but I think it matters that the person who is running the organization from a business standpoint and making the decisions is someone you can get on the phone and someone who has that level of connection to their work."

And while FX might not be able to match Netflix's checkbook, "Ultimately, we also do pay really well. We've had an astonishing number of successful and profitable shows. I see the profit checks that go out on a quarterly basis, and they're substantial. We just sent out an astonishing amount of profit on Wilfred," said Landgraf, referring to Elijah Wood's comedy, which ended in 2014. "A [four seasons]-and-out comedy!"

It also helps that the network can point to shows like The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story miniseries, which is both a critical and a ratings hit this year. It's the No. 2 scripted series on cable behind only The Walking Dead.

Meanwhile, the ratings of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu's original shows continue to remain a carefully guarded secret. "It's a truly unlevel playing field, meaning that we have public scrutiny of our ratings and they don't. We have to make a profit, and they don't," said Landgraf, who previously blasted Netflix's "wonky" economics in January during the Television Critics Association's winter press tour. "On a level playing field, I'll take anyone on. I'm not saying we'll go undefeated, but we'll win our share against anybody in the industry. And I think we're holding our own with Netflix despite their advantage, but it just feels like a tilted playing field right now."

But not for the long term, Landgraf predicted.

"I feel like at the end of the day, the truth will come out. Nobody is going to be able to sustain a business in the long run where there's going to be no data about the usage of their programming and there's going to be no profit," he said. "So I'm playing, therefore, on a temporarily unlevel playing field because ultimately it's a publicly traded company and the data about the usage and ultimately responsibility for profit will come out. And I'm anxious for it to level, because it's not that I don't respect Ted [Sarandos, Netflix's chief content officer] and Cindy [Holland, Netflix's vp of original content] and all the people there and the work they've done, I just want them to have to fight a fair fight."