How Risk-Taking Catapulted FX’s John Landgraf to TV Executive of the Year

New series Atlanta, O.J. pay off

He's spent 11 years overseeing FX, FXM and now FXX, but John Landgraf says he often feels more like a professional gambler than a TV exec. "FX doesn't make television," he says, explaining that neither he nor his team is involved in writing, directing, producing or acting. "We make bets on people who do that, and what we've tried to do is make aggressive, brave bets on ambitious people. And creative ambition and risk almost always go together."

This year, the CEO of FX Networks and FX Productions—and Adweek's Television Executive of the Year—has been on a real hot streak. FX's miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, centered around Simpson's murder trial for the 1994 deaths of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, broke through as a commercial (12.6 million viewers per week) and critical (nine Emmy wins and 22 nominations) hit. (The miniseries was FX's most-watched multiplatform programming ever.) The network's new Donald Glover series Atlanta became its top-rated comedy, while new comedies Better Things and Baskets debuted to critical acclaim. And American Horror Story returned for Season 6 with some of FX's healthiest all-time ratings. "It was just one of those magical years for us, where almost everything worked," says Landgraf.

While FX is on a ratings roll and the net boasts three of basic cable's top comedies in both total viewers and the 18-49 demo, Landgraf is most proud this year of a strong Emmy showing: FX received 56 nominations and 18 wins, second only to HBO (and just ahead of Netflix) in both categories. The Emmy adulation helped solidify FX's quality brand, but "it's also a really terrific moment for ad-supported television, because we were blanketed by places you can't buy advertising," Landgraf says. "I'm not saying we're the only ones making good ad-supported television. I'm just saying we were the standard bearer this year."

That was especially true of The People v. O.J. Simpson, far from a slam-dunk when Landgraf gave it a straight-to-series order in 2014. "We all know it could have been ill-advised," says Landgraf, who was taken by both the script from Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and the vision of longtime creative partner Ryan Murphy. "I just have profound faith in his ability in casting and in filmmaking."

The gamble paid off, and Landgraf has already greenlit two more American Crime Story seasons—one on Hurricane Katrina, and another on the 1997 murder of Gianni Versace. Murphy is working on both simultaneously, but Landgraf says they'll air at least six months apart. Plus, the executive has teamed with Murphy on another anthology series, Feud. Season 1 will delve into the bitter battle between Bette Davis, played by Susan Sarandon, and Joan Crawford, played by Jessica Lange, as they filmed the 1962 classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Landgraf made another big bet with Murphy at the close of this year, opting to keep the storyline and cast of American Horror Story's Season 6 under wraps until the show premiered in September. "We've marketed the show very lavishly and very successfully for the same way for five years, and maybe that was getting a little stale. So what could we do that's risky and different?" says Landgraf. "Everything is so heavily marketed—even potentially overly-marketed—that it takes all the sense of discovery and mystery out of things. Some of what's really fun in the world is the unexpected joy, the thing that catches you by surprise."

FX took a similar approach with its campaign for Atlanta. "Donald didn't want us to reduce his show to a meme or slogan. So we very carefully and lovingly built a campaign around Atlanta that showed you some of what it was, enough to get people talking about it and see that it might be special," he says. "But it really left the mystery and uniqueness of that show intact."

Atlanta is FX's highest-rated comedy and, like The People v. O.J. Simpson, has given Landgraf a hit with both consumers and critics—an important achievement for a network that hadn't had a major breakout series since Sons of Anarchy ended in 2014. "Broad-based hits are really important," says Landgraf. "I'm somebody who believes that quality and populism don't have to be two separate things, that it's actually the best of all possible worlds when those two things go together."

He hopes to continue that streak next year by refocusing on dramas—after "struggling to find things that we were really excited about"—including Taboo, starring Tom Hardy, and X-Men superhero series Legion, from Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley (who is also working on a third season of Fargo).

Even with the arrival of "peak TV"—the phrase he coined last year to describe the "overwhelming" increase in scripted series, which will top 500 by year's end and which he predicts won't plateau for another year or two— Landgraf says his greatest challenge is the same as when he took charge in 2005.

"For FX to be relevant to people as a brand—for there to be a reason for people to continue to pay attention to what we do and to seek us out—we have to give them an experience they just can't get somewhere else," he says. "You have to continually replenish your brand equity." And that requires big swings like The People v. O.J. Simpson and Atlanta. "You can't just be different," he says. "You have to be different and good."

Check out the rest of this year's Hot List honorees:

This story first appeared in the November 28, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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