Can Edgy FX Thrive at Family-Friendly Disney?

How John Landgraf's daring network is expected to fare at its future owner

John Landgraf joined FX as its president of entertainment in 2004.
Scott Witter for Adweek

As much as FX Networks and FX Productions CEO John Landgraf welcomes the return of American Crime Story and Atlanta to FX this winter, he still wishes the network could have had them back on the air last year, where their absence on year-end top 10 lists hurt the network’s position relative to its two biggest competitors for quality TV, HBO and Netflix. But that’s what happens when you work with visionaries like Ryan Murphy and Donald Glover—Landgraf calls them “unicorns”—who make the edgy, distinctive shows that have turned FX into one of TV’s most acclaimed, and most daring, networks. With other creative demands on their time (Murphy is shepherding six other shows; Glover wanted to play Lando Calrissian in the Han Solo prequel movie), Landgraf decided in both cases that he’d rather wait until he could have “all of their attention” and produce second seasons that would be worthy successors to the first ones.

Not many network chiefs would make the same decision, but for Landgraf, “it comes back to this question of, are you investing in the quarter, are you investing in the year or are you investing in the decade? And FX has done extremely well by investing in the decade,” he says. “We’ve invested in the brand, quality, breadth and consistency, whether or not that had the most profoundly positive impact on the quarter or not.”

It is a mantra that has served Landgraf exceptionally well as he’s built FX into one of the edgiest brands on TV—which, aside from AMC, is the only ad-supported network with a stable of premium programming that stacks up against the likes of HBO and Netflix.

Scott Witter for Adweek

While advertisers flock to hits like American Horror Story, they’re also eager to be a part of the network’s lower-rated critical darlings like The Americans and Baskets. “For these high-engagement shows with passionate fans, regardless of rating size, we know that our commercials resonate better in that programming to that audience than in lower-engagement shows, so advertisers seek that out,” says David Campanelli, svp, director of national broadcast for Horizon Media. “There’s incredible value to advertisers to reach those people, and the content that they’re passionate about.” FX Networks (which includes FXX and FXM) brought in an estimated $749 million in linear ad revenue last year, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence’s Kagan, with FX accounting for $592.5 million of that.

But for the first time since early in Landgraf’s tenure, the future of FX’s brand seems to be more of a question mark than an exclamation point. On Dec. 14, Walt Disney Co. announced it was acquiring most of 21st Century Fox—including FX Networks and FX Productions, its TV and movie studios, its stake in Hulu and international assets like Star and Sky—for $52.4 billion, to expand its global footprint and to help fortify its content as it prepares to directly take on Netflix with a trio of direct-to-consumer offerings over the next couple of years.

The announcement left many concerned whether an edgy brand like FX can thrive in a family-friendly company like Disney, and prompted an unnerved Murphy—the network’s most prolific producer (American Horror Story, American Crime Story, Feud and the upcoming Pose)—to leave his longtime home at 20th Century Fox Television studio and sign a five-year exclusive deal with Netflix two weeks ago that could be worth as much as $300 million. “I was very not prepared for what happened” when the Disney news was announced, Murphy said at the TCA winter press tour last month. He told Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger, “The stuff I do is not specifically Disney. … Am I going to have to put Mickey Mouse in American Horror Story?”

Landgraf is sorry to lose Murphy to one of FX’s biggest competitors, but admits, “I saw that coming for awhile.” Ultimately, “I don’t think it changes our business at all,” aside from FX missing out on some new shows from Murphy during the length of his Netflix contract. “At the present time, though, we have four shows we’re making with Ryan, so our Ryan Murphy business is pretty full at the moment, and every indication I have is that he’ll continue making those four shows.” Landgraf adds that Murphy’s three anthological shows for FX could go on “indefinitely,” which means they will likely remain in business together for several years to come.

Navigating the Disney deal (the regulatory process could take 12 to 18 months) will be the biggest challenge—and perhaps also the biggest opportunity—yet for Landgraf, who joined FX as its president of entertainment in 2004, shortly after dramas The Shield and Nip/Tuck started the network along its transformative path. Despite FX’s early successes (including Rescue Me, which was the first pilot Landgraf ordered to series), “we had to prove we weren’t just lucky,” says Landgraf, while wooing wary advertisers. “The notion that for artistic reasons we were going to have to be pushing towards premium made some advertisers uncomfortable.”

The Americans: The spy drama, which concludes this spring after six seasons, isn’t among FX’s most-watched series, but “it’s one of our best shows we’ve ever made, and about as critically acclaimed a drama as has existed in the last decade,” Landgraf says.

Back then, brands “were a lot more risk-averse” when it came to envelope-pushing content, says Dani Benowitz, evp, strategic investment, Magna Global. When Sons of Anarchy first launched in 2008, “it was mostly beer and video games in there,” she recalls.

Many of them eventually came around, as Landgraf and his team built FX’s brand, a process he likens to constructing a building, story by story. The cornerstones—The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia—were followed by a second wave (Sons of Anarchy, Damages and Justified), then a third (American Horror Story, American Crime Story, The Americans, Atlanta and Better Things). “Each generation of programming has to be as good as, or better than, the one that preceded it, because you can lose momentum as much as you gain it,” says Landgraf, who is readying FX’s fourth generation of shows—including drama Trust, debuting March 25.

A key component of FX’s stellar reputation among audiences and advertisers is the unusually close relationship that Landgraf and his team have with their creators. “I tend to hire people who are very passionate about making great television,” says Langdraf, who listens to a creator’s vision for a show, “and I make a very clear, binary choice: Do I want to support this person in doing this wholeheartedly, or not?”

If the answer is yes, “win, lose or draw, we’re in all the way,” says Landgraf, who sees the network’s role as “not diluting somebody’s point of view, but distilling it.” (His instincts aren’t infallible, though: He famously passed on Breaking Bad because he worried at the time about making yet another FX drama about a white male antihero.)

The Shield: The drama redefined FX—and basic cable series—in 2002, and drew Landgraf to the network two years later. “Something’s going on there that I’d like to be a part of,” he recalls.

Many of those creators rave that FX took a chance on them that no other network would. “I truly believe that no other network could have let me cultivate my vision and make the show I wanted to make,” says Better Things creator and star Pamela Adlon. “They would have wanted to change everything. Including me.” Echoes The Americans creator Joe Weisberg: “FX was the only network that wanted the show. I think it was too far out for anybody else, but John got it.”

Once a show is brought into the fold, that loyalty only increases. FX and Landgraf “have found a way to take the fear out of the creative process so that we can dance on our creative tightrope and not worry about falling, and that really allows the work to come to life,” says The Americans co-showrunner Joel Fields.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 26, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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