The slogan for FX is “Fearless,” but that word doesn’t really apply to the network’s most prolific producer, Ryan Murphy, who refuses to take on a new project unless it terrifies him. It’s an approach that unwittingly led him in 2011 to create TV’s anthology series genre—where each season features an entirely new story and characters, with some actors returning in different roles—while early in production on American Horror Story’s first season.
“I thought it could either be great, or it could be a disaster, and that’s why I wanted to do it: because it scared me. I’ve always been attracted to moving toward risk as opposed to running away from it,” he recalls of selling the network and studio on the prospect of tearing down multimillion-dollar sets each season and starting over from scratch. “But looking back on it, it was one of the best things I ever did in my career.”
By embracing his fears time and again, Murphy—Adweek’s TV Creator of the Year—now oversees three wildly different anthology series for FX: American Horror Story, American Crime Story and his newest entry, Feud. They’re all incredibly risky—and were also all incredibly successful this past year. None more so than The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which won nine Emmys, including outstanding limited series, and averaged 13.2 million viewers across all platforms, making it FX’s most-watched multiplatform series ever.
“My career is an odd one, because I always do the opposite of what I’ve just done. I’ve always made that a rule: never try and be stereotyped,” says Murphy, who shifted from O.J.’s grand canvas to Feud: Bette and Joan, about the backstage battles between What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? co-stars Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon). “O.J. felt like such a big thing,” he says, “so I thought, let me do something intimate and small.”
Murphy had optioned a script about the two actresses in 2009, but “could never figure out how to do it,” he says. “People kept saying a show starring two women over 50 is really risky. But when I pitched it to [FX Networks CEO] John Landgraf, he bought it within 30 seconds.”
Switching things up yet again, Murphy opted to keep all details about last fall’s American Horror Story: Roanoke—including its plot, casting and even the subtitle—under wraps until the premiere aired. After so much marketing hype leading up to its previous seasons, “I thought, what would be the anti-move here? And the answer was, a vacuum of nothing: not releasing anything as opposed to me constantly vomiting out information,” says Murphy, laughing. Roanoke’s debut was one of the most-watched telecasts in FX history. “It revitalized the franchise, and then we got a three-season order.”
Murphy is currently working on the next season of American Horror Story, a pair of American Crime Story installments—one on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (starring Annette Bening and Matthew Broderick); the other about the 1997 murder of Gianni Versace (with Penelope Cruz as his sister, Donatella)—and a second season of Feud, about Prince Charles and Princess Diana. He’s also developing a non-anthology drama, Pose, for FX, which would follow four characters in mid-’80s New York City over five years. The producer says he’s equally passionate about all those projects. “My rule is, is this something I want to watch?” he says. “Half the time, I think I just create something that I would like to watch on television.”
While Murphy sounds busier than ever, he notes, “I’ve decided that this point in my career to spend a lot of time championing other people and giving other people opportunities.” He directed three of Feud’s eight episodes, but “you’ll never see me do that again,” he says. “From now on, I might direct the first episode to help set the tone,” before passing the baton to a collaborator.
More often than not, those new voices he is championing will be female ones. Last year, Murphy launched the Half Foundation within his production company, which is dedicated to having 50 percent of his shows’ directorial filled by women (he says the number is now closer to 60 percent). “I wish I had done it lot earlier,” he says. “I changed the face of my business, and not just with directors: I tell all my department heads, ‘50 percent of your crews need to be women.’ Sometimes that’s not possible, but we try. I believe that success, particularly for women and minorities, comes from not just potential, but opportunity. You have to make sure there is a safe environment where they can succeed.”
As he enters this new phase of his career, the man behind Glee says he’s done with the broadcast grind of 22-episode seasons. “I would never do that again, because it’s a difficult business model, and it’s hard on the writers and crew,” he says (notably, the last season of his Fox comedy-horror Scream Queens had just 10 episodes). “I feel so fortunate, because everything I’m working on, I love. And more than that, I love the new voices that I’m bringing up and giving opportunities to.”
Check out the rest of this year’s Hot List honorees: