Upfronts 2014: Landgraf Touts Limited Series, Explains Plan for FXM

New York – Wednesday morning was FX Networks’ turn on the Upfront circuit and CEO John Landgraf held court in his typically candid way during an informal press gathering at 21st Century Fox’s Manhattan headquarters.

Landgraf was joined by Fox Cable Networks ad sales president Lou LaTorre, who issued a rosy forecast for cable network ad sales for the coming broadcast year.

During a wide-ranging and lengthy discussion, Landgraf shared his thoughts on limited series, how their 10/90 sitcom model is working so far, their SVOD strategy with Amazon and Netflix and when original programming might come to FXM.

Next week FX debuts its first limited series in Fargo, an adaptation of the popular Coen brothers’ film. Landgraf is very bullish on the potential that these closed-ended miniseries can have creatively.

“As much as I love the storytelling and the challenge of sustaining a narrative over five or six or seven seasons, there are so many potentially great stories – great films, you would say – that are intermediate length,” he said. When asked if there was any possibility of Fargo returning for a second go-round, he said it would have to be in the same vein as HBO’s True Detective, with an all-new cast and storyline. “This story has a beginning middle and end.”

Landgraf’s remarks about increasing their amount of original programming from 11 to 20 across FX and FXX led to questions about when original content would pop up on FXM. He previously said that he saw that channel as a home for the company’s limited and “event” series and while he didn’t back away from that promise, he explained nothing was coming any time soon.

“I would like to see that programming eventually repositioned at FXM. We’re going to incubate it at FX and then reposition them on FXM at some point in the future.” He said it would likely be another couple of years before that happened, explaining that they would use the same strategy as when they launched FXX last summer.

“You think about the way we incubated The League and It’s Always Sunny on FX and then moved it to FXX and now we feel FXX has the punch -- particularly if we’re using It’s Always Sunny as a lead in – to launch a new original series.”

FXM is currently available in 51 million homes, compared to the 70 million for FXX (Landgraf expects that to grow to 90 million over the next 3-4 years). “[FXM] is growing, but I want to wait to make sure it’s got the appropriate level of distribution.”

Landgraf did leave open the possibility of an acquired series, much like what networks like SundanceTV are doing, landing on FXM; he admitted they looked into acquiring a BBC production. “I could definitely see us picking up something that way.”

A few more highlights from Landgraf’s discussion:

On the need for SVOD revenue streams from companies like Amazon, Netflix and Hulu:

“It’s very difficult to be successful in volume in the high quality content creation business without the revenue streams that are coming in from SVOD,” he said.

Landgraf compared their SVOD strategy to that of a premium cabler such as HBO, which relies more heavily on its subscribership. “They are giving up incremental value by not selling their shows to Netflix, Amazon or Hulu. On the other hand, they’ve made a calculus that essentially keeping all their content exclusive to their subscribers inside their ecosystem is what maintains subscribership.” He added that HBO receives a much higher sub fee than FX, which is why they don’t need to rely on SVOD revenue.

“While it would be awesome to be able to own and control FX’s great content for its entire lifecycle…if you’re a basic cable channel its really difficult to do that.”

On what he’s learned from the 10/90 sitcom model:

Landgraf admitted that the faster speed at which episodes have to be produced –they make 45 episodes per year compared to a broadcast network’s 22 episodes – has been difficult and described it as a “daunting challenge,” but also that he wasn’t surprised by it.

He said the reason they got into this model was based on the fact that there are very few “A-level” off-network sitcoms coming from the broadcast networks that will make any sort of impact in the way that The Big Bang Theory has for TBS. He continued that they see the 10/90 model as their version of acquired programming.

“Has it produced at this point a show that’s anywhere commensurate with a Big Bang Theory or something like that? No, it hasn’t.” he said. “It’s a lot of programming, and it’s [a] lot of original programming, at a very attractive price.”

On HBO submitting anthology series True Detective as a drama instead of a miniseries for this year’s Emmys, which FX does for American Horror Story:

Landgraf pulled no punches in calling out HBO for what he sees as being “unfair” for submitting True Detective in the drama category, because it gives them an advantage with their star power in leads Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, who signed on knowing they only had to do one season.

“Essentially you can get certain actors to do a closed-ended series, a la Billy Bob Thornton in Fargo or Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in True Detective, that you can't get to sign on for a seven-year deal… That is patently unfair to someone like Matthew Rhys in The Americans, who did sign on for seven years.”

FX holds its annual Upfront bowling party on Wednesday night.