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When the Mayor of Television talks, the industry listens.
John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks, spoke at a Television Critics Association conference a few years back and told the audience what he would do if he were “mayor” of the industry. Landgraf noted that he wasn’t the mayor, but according to Wikipedia and TV critic Alan Sepinwall, “it stuck, in the same way that his use of the phrase ‘Peak TV’ came to be the easiest way to refer to the glut of content in this era.”
Perhaps it stuck because under Landgraf, FX has contributed many successful and acclaimed shows to that glut, including American Horror Story, Atlanta, You’re the Worst, Better Things, Fargo and American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.
“He wasn’t at FX for the launch of The Shield, but he came in and not only kept the machine humming, but in many ways has made it run better. Few networks are more reliable in coming up with interesting shows worth making time for in Peak TV,” Sepinwall said.
His TCA speeches provide a sense of what Landgraf’s colleagues know about the breadth and depth he brings to his job. “I think he is the Michael Jordan of network television executives,” said Peter Rice, president of 21st Century Fox. “To have someone as a colleague who had such a spectacular run at FX over the course of the last 15 years makes every part of our company better.”
After getting a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., Landgraf started his career in video production before moving to NBC, where he oversaw primetime shows such as The West Wing and Friends. He formed a production company with actor Danny DeVito that produced shows including Reno 911!
When FX was looking for a new president of entertainment, Landgraf was the out-of-the-box candidate for the post, according to former FX president Peter Liguori.
FX was a pioneer in bringing premium programming to basic cable channels with The Shield and Nip/Tuck.
“It is a challenging role to fill because you had to find that person who really did have the FX Geiger counter,” Liguori recalled. “I knew he was the right guy from the get-go. John was completely articulate about the shows we were doing, how we were marketing them, ways to improve them.”
Liguori said he had to wait because Landgraf was undoing his business ties to DeVito, who appears in FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. “The fact that he displayed such high levels of integrity and loyalty only made me want him more,” he said.
When Landgraf arrived, FX’s newest original series was Rescue Me, an unusual show with “talented but very opinionated showrunners” in Denis Leary and Peter Tolan, Liguori said. “It was not a procedural, but John just had a very firm grip on where it could go and how to harness the energies of Denis and Peter. I felt like we were in very good hands.”
Noah Hawley, showrunner for FX’s Fargo, calls Landgraf a unique executive who wants to do more than put on a good show.
“There are a lot of networks that say that they want to do something original and then they buy something original and they get afraid and try to turn it into something familiar, and I’ve never had that experience with John,” Hawley said. “His educational background is in anthropology and I really do feel that he is using his position as the head of a television network to try to understand the human condition in the way that an anthropologist would.”
FX hosts an annual bowling party during the upfronts, and the people who make shows for the network turn out in force. “It’s a testament to how much we, the showrunners and creative talents on the shows, see the network as our partner that we want to support FX and we want to come out and celebrate the network and the work that we’ve done. It doesn’t feel like some junket that we were contractually obligated to do,” Hawley said.
But Landgraf does more than make shows. “To me he is the five-tool business executive,” said Bruce Lefkowitz, executive VP of ad sales at Fox Networks Group. “John’s understanding of the business side of the advertising business on a granular level rivals any head of sales.”
Lefkowitz added that Landgraf has played a key role in innovative deals that put Miller Beer and Harley-Davidson bikes in FX shows.
Indeed, Landgraf said the creative and business sides are equally important, as is having a long-term outlook. He points to a memo he wrote four years ago that outlined the need for FX to evolve from a linear channel into a multiplatform brand. To do that, he launched FXX and FXM in 2013 and this year created FX+, a subscription service that gives viewers access to nearly every show in the FX library.
FX’s 2,500 hours of programming stacks up well against premium channels and the new streaming services, whose spending on series he likens to shooting money out of a cannon. “I just don’t think there’s any other ad supported television network that could come anywhere near it and frankly it’s way more than some of the premium channels could put together,” Landgraf said.
Landgraf thinks there’s going to be a shakeout in TV land. “Of the 60 brands that are currently making scripted original programming in America, I’d be really surprised if 10 years from now more than half of them were still actively involved in that business,” he said.
Describing himself as bookish, Landgraf says when he’s not working, he’s home with his wife, actress Ally Walker, and their three sons. He likes rock climbing and hiking and has taken his older sons to Alaska for sea kayaking.
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