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FX's CEO Speaks out on More than New Shows at TCA
August 7, 2015  | By Ed Bark

Beverly Hills, CA -- TV critics can be loath to admit that the smartest person in the room may not be one of them.

FX Networks CEO John Landgraf (top), a forward-looking executive who actually enjoys our company, has more than enough brainpower to overpower even the most pompous posers among us. Leading off his network's full day of panels, Landgraf at one point said, "A channel is an artifact of a linear eco-system."

More on that later. Landgraf, in charge of FX since 2004, doesn't just tout his networks' high points during preambles to the Q&A. He also is likely to speak his mind on the state of the industry, as he very much did Friday without seeming at all self-important.

Landgraf noted up top that this year will "easily blow through the 400 series mark" in terms of scripted originals pouring forth from broadcast, cable and streaming outlets such as Netflix and Amazon. His head is starting to hurt from all of this output.  And as for TV critics, "the blood pouring out of your eyeballs" is a clear indicator that everything has its limits.

"I long ago lost the ability to keep track of every scripted series, even though we all do this for a living professionally," Landgraf said. "But this year I finally lost track of the ability to keep track of every programmer who is in the scripted programming business. This is simply too much television . . . It's also had an enormous impact on everyone's ability to cut through the clutter and create real buzz."

But he's predicting a gradual decline in the sheer number of new series after the peak overloads of this year and maybe 2016 as well.

"What we are starting to see is a new frontier that will be defined by brands," Landgraf said. "A brand is a mission statement, a promise to viewers. The contention that people watch shows, not networks, does have some validity. But as technology evolves and people consume television through different modes of deliveries than channels, brands will become increasingly important as mediating filters for the overwhelmed viewing public. That's no different than what happens in a grocery store. If there were no trusted brand names on the products, you would waste hours of your time trying to figure out what to buy."

Well, that might be a little far-fetched in a world where many merchandisers offer their own "off brands" at significantly cheaper prices. Try one of those Mama Cozi pizzas from Aldi, for instance. You don't even have to choke 'em down like Lucy did with Vitameatavegamin (above).

But Landgraf was warming to his notion that FX, HBO, Showtime, AMC, Netflix "and a handful of others" qualify as potent brands that will survive the shakeout in upcoming years.

"I'm frequently asked how many shows the FX Networks (which include the lesser known FXX) can sustain at a level that supports the specific identity and quality of our brand. I believe we are at or near that optimal number," he said. "It's impossible to maintain quality control with too many shows."

The FX networks currently are producing about 20 original series, with another new one, The Bastard Executioner, premiering on Sept. 15. It's set in 14th century Wales, where dying by the sword was a way of life -- so to speak.

On the other hand, FX also culled its herd by canceling the Billy Crystal/Josh Gad series The Comedians (left) after just one season. And The League will launch its seventh and final season Sept. 9 on FXX.

Still, there are diminishing returns when so many shows are competing for pieces of the ratings pie -- no matter how, where, when or via what device they're watched.

"You see this kind of desperate scrum where everyone is trying to jockey for position," Landgraf said. "In a sense we're playing a game of musical chairs, and they're going to start taking chairs away. And we want to get a seat... It's bold making a prediction about the future because it's easy to be wrong. But I still will stand by my gut that this year or next year will probably represent the peak."

Which brings us to the quote we came in on -- "a channel is an artifact of a linear eco-system." But "brands" are forever.

"What we have to figure out is how to create a new bundle of programming," Landgraf said. "Because I don't believe there's any future in which programming is simply produced and distributed on an a la carte basis. You have to have a business and a portfolio of programming (which the FX networks do) to be able to take risks, to invest and to market.

"Ten years from now, I'm not saying the linear channels that represent the FX networks won't exist. They'll exist, but they might represent 50 percent of our (program) consumption as opposed to 95 percent today. How we own and how we distribute the content -- and when it gets used -- is going to have to radically change. It's gonna be a messy, inelegant process."

OK, how about a couple of conventional programming notes to ease any head spinning.

The Bastard Executioner (right, Lee Jones) is from Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter, whose propensity for violence will get another thorough workout. The 90-minute opening episode includes a battle scene in which a bad-nasty henchman is dispatched via a blade through the back of his bald head that comes out the other end through his mouth.

But there's also a spiritual element, with SOA alumnus Katey Sagal playing a mysterious witch while God also is invoked on a regular basis.

"It's just an opportunity for me to work out all my Catholic sh*$," Sutter explained.

The second 10-episode season of FX's Fargo premieres on Oct. 12. Set in Laverne, Minnesota, circa 1979, it opens with a black-and-white send-up of a fictitious Ronald Reagan western.

"The specter of Ronald Reagan" hangs over Season 2, said executive producer Noah Hawley. And in later episodes, Bruce Campbell (also starring in Starz's upcoming Ash vs. Evil Dead) will be playing the former President.

Plus there's Ted Danson as a white bearded sheriff who surveys a multiple murder scene before deadpanning, "Well, this is a deal."

The cast also includes Kirsten Dunst, Jean Smart, Brad Garrett, Bokeem Woodbine, Jesse Plemons, Jeffrey Donovan and Patrick Wilson as a younger version of lawman Lou Solverson, played by Keith Carradine in Season 1 of Fargo.           

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