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Can Great TV Survive In a World of Endless TV?

FX’s John Landgraf thinks it can — even in a world where viewers can choose from 532 (!) scripted shows.
  • At the Television Critics Association winter press tour on Thursday, FX chief John Landgraf introduced “FX on Hulu,” the new channel-within-a-streaming-service that launches in March. (FX)
    At the Television Critics Association winter press tour on Thursday, FX chief John Landgraf introduced “FX on Hulu,” the new channel-within-a-streaming-service that launches in March. (FX)

    If you’ve added up the costs of all the streaming services out there, you may find yourself wondering if cutting the cord was such a great idea. But you’re determined to save money and make the best of it. So you look for value. You’re getting Netflix for sure. That’s a no-brainer. It has zillions of shows. Maybe none of them is a classic, but you always get something new to watch with Netflix. OK, what else?

    On Thursday the chief executive of FX, John Landgraf, spoke to TV critics at our winter press tour in Pasadena. Over the past two decades Landgraf has guided the development of some of the finest series on TV: The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, American Horror Story, Nip/Tuck, Archer, and more. But Landgraf admitted this week that even the great FX has “hit a ceiling.” Cable TV is shrinking. People are cord-cutting and are switching to streaming platforms instead.

    One of those streamers is Hulu, which is owned by Disney, which in 2019 acquired most of Fox, which includes FX. And so, starting in March, FX will launch in a big way on Hulu. “FX on Hulu” will have all the classic shows like The Shield at the ready, and will also debut all the new FX series coming up. FX previewed these new shows this week for critics. My favorite is the retro-drama Mrs. America (April 15), about the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. It stars Cate Blanchett and John Slattery and is fascinating, insightful, and just plain fun.

    FX’s value proposition is simple: better is better. Make great shows one at a time and people will pay to watch them. Netflix is making a different value proposition: more is more. Give people an endless buffet of shows, and people will pay for the volume. As if to underscore this point, Netflix skipped this winter press tour. Virtually every other American broadcast, cable, and streaming network is here to present their shows to TV critics. But not Netflix, which puts on more new shows than anyone.

    And Netflix seems to be winning the argument. The number of scripted shows in production, churning out new episodes, has grown steadily toward unheard-of heights for years. Landgraf told critics on Thursday that his staff had counted no fewer than 532 scripted series in production for 2019. With more streaming services coming online in 2020, he predicted that number would grow again — “which is bananas,” he added.

    Not all of those 532 scripted shows are great. In fact, a lot of those shows are just OK. (We won’t even get into the quality of reality shows.) But if more is more then they don’t have to be great. Netflix isn’t the only streamer that believes that. Hulu has a ton of shows that don’t exactly wow me, but someone’s watching them because Hulu’s been doing fine without FX.

    The challenge for FX going forward is to take its brand, which always appealed to a more discriminating viewer, and begin sharing its content with a streaming platform where viewers seem content to spend all day watching those other 500-plus shows, plus reality, plus reruns of Scrubs and Brockmire and Real Housewives.

    Does the rise of streaming mark the beginning of the end of quality channels like FX? That’s the question I asked John Landgraf on Thursday.

    “You know, I smile with a little bit of amusement when I think back to the halcyon days of the early Internet when we said that everyone was going to get better quality information,” he said. “How did that work out? I would say there’s a volume of knowledge, but the average quality of the knowledge has declined because of the Internet, not increased. As journalists, you have the experience of working hard writing something, going through an editorial process, fact-checking it. You put it out into the world, and then it feels like the zone gets flooded with so much garbage, frankly, that it drowns out the quality of the work.

    “All I can say from the FX standpoint is that ultimately we are a one-at-a-time business. We are trying so hard to make something of quality. The danger of the Internet is that everything becomes junk food, right? It’s delicious. It’s cheap. It’s easily consumed in the moment. But what meal that you ate at a fast-food restaurant do you remember from your entire life? You simply don’t.”

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Peak TV, FX, Mrs. America, John Landgraf