The Looming Disney Deal Isn’t Changing FX’s Upfront Strategy

‘The best way to take care of your future is to take care of your present’

FX upfront attendees included American Horror Story: Cult's Billie Lourd and Sarah Paulson, and The Americans' Keri Russell. Getty Images
Headshot of Jason Lynch

FX threw its annual upfront bowling party at New York’s Lucky Strike Thursday night, as it has every year since 2010. Actors from shows like American Horror Story, Archer, Baskets, Better Things, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Americans and You’re the Worst mingled as usual with buyers and FX execs.

During the evening, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf told the crowd that the event, “has become a true celebration of the many great producers and actors who make FX their home, and whose brave work makes FX one of the best brands in the business.”

It was a familiar speech for buyers, even though this is anything but a familiar time for FX Networks. On Dec. 14, Walt Disney Co. announced it was acquiring most of 21st Century Fox—including FX Networks and FX Productions—for $52.4 billion.

But as Landgraf and Joe Marchese, president of advertising revenue for Fox Networks Group, detailed in the recent Adweek cover story on FX, it will be business as usual for them—and for the entire Fox Networks Group portfolio—during this year’s upfront.

Because the Disney-Fox deal will take 12 to 18 months to close, “this year’s upfront is going to operate exactly as is,” said Marchese. “We have to operate that way for practical reasons as a business, but also because with these other companies, who knows what the future holds?”

Marchese added that while the Disney sale could affect “the tail end” of any upfront buys, those deals “will be honored, no matter how things work out.”

After being named Fox Networks Group’s ad sales chief last May, Marchese quickly shook up the ad experience on FX’s VOD and streaming platforms, eliminating standard commercial breaks in favor of full episodes or individual ad pods sponsored by a single brand.

Ad loads are down as much as 70 percent per episode, and “the brands that are integrated in there, the people actually appreciate,” said Marchese. “Because we remind them that they’re getting this viewing experience for less.”

In this upfront, Marchese will be looking to bring some of those innovations to the linear side, which could include shorter ad pods, single-sponsor shows or pods and reduced ad premieres.

While FX may no longer be under his oversight by the next upfront, Marchese pointed that the industry has adopted many of Fox’s other offerings—including linear six-second ads and audience-targeting platform OpenAP (which he created with Turner and Viacom)—and hopes that continues with whomever next handles FX’s inventory.

“If it’s better for viewers and it works for advertisers,” he said, “we want more people to use it.”

The Disney deal may not be part of Landgraf’s upfront message, but he told Adweek last month that “the best way to take care of your future is to take care of your present. So if you want to know how I’ll express whatever anxiety I have for myself or for the FX brand into a potential future with Disney, we’re going to do everything in our power to have the very best year in our history on every measure this year.”

In recent years, FX has added a screening before its Lucky Strike event, showcasing either the season premiere or season finale of shows “that we believe will go down in the pantheon of great FX series,” said Landgraf, like Fargo, The Americans and The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. That continued Thursday night as FX showed the first episode of Trust, its new drama about the Getty family, which stars Donald Sutherland and premieres on March 25.

Before the screening, Trust writer and executive producer Simon Beaufoy recalled that “in my career, I have endlessly been told to make the scripts bolder and riskier,” by film and television execs, but then when he actually does that, they tell him that he’s gone too far and they’re no longer interested.

“And then I met the guys from FX, who said, ‘This is great. Could you make it bolder? Could you make it riskier?’” said Beaufoy. “It’s been the greatest working relationship of my career so far.”

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.