Asked at yesterday's TCA presentation to critics about the challenges FX faces in confining its original programming to the 10 o'clock time period opposite the ongoing growth of DVR playback at that hour, network president John Landgraf replied, "I think anybody who sits in this chair as an executive who tells you they don't wish the DVR had never been invented is lying. It's a great device for consumers, and I use it heavily as a consumer myself. But we do pay a penalty. You know, we're now losing upwards of 25 percent of the saleable audience from our shows. In other words, if you take a show on FX, we get paid, from an advertiser standpoint, typically now for about 75 percent of the people actually watching the show. The other 25 percent are, in fact, measurably watching the show, but not watching the commercials. Thankfully, we have a dual revenue stream. I think that's more challenging for the broadcasters and that's why you're seeing broadcasters move towards a dual revenue model, too."
Reflecting on his seven years with FX and how the cable landscape has changed during that time, Landgraf said, "They were heady times when The Shield and Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me came on the air because it was the leading edge of defining a new trend in television, and FX was at the forefront of that edge, and we were putting shows on the air that were quite unlike what many audiences had ever seen. Now it is a much more crowded marketplace. I recently worked on a presentation and I think I counted that there were about 40 scripted original series in all of cable when The Shield launched. That would include Nick at Nite and whatever HBO was programming at the time. And now there are 140."
FX made history when it became the first basic cable network to command an entire day at a Television Critics Association tour. With presentations for six new and returning series, one executive session and a luncheon that included an interview session with one of its top show-runners, the network's schedule yesterday spanned seven hours, not including breakfast.
This was a dramatic change from last Friday, when NBC Universal crammed sessions for shows from USA Network, Bravo, MSNBC and Syfy into an already very crowded day filled with NBC's new fall series, and from Sunday, when Disney ABC's day did not include panels for any of its cable networks (though a smattering of Disney XD and ABC Family stars attended ABC's party that night).
It doesn't hurt that FX's series are quality dramas and quirky comedies. The network's TCA schedule included panels for returning series Sons of Anarchy (the highest rated series in the network's history), Archer, The League and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and two new shows: Terriers, a comedy drama from Shawn Ryan of The Shield, about a pair of unlicensed private investigators, which debuts in September; and Lights Out, a drama about a former heavyweight boxing champion struggling to support his family outside of the ring, set to premiere in January. Peter Tolan, the co-creator and an executive producer of the network's long-running drama Rescue Me, took questions during lunch.
This wasn't the first time FX made a strong impact at TCA: It has in recent years often occupied a full half day of tour time. And its expanded presence at this gathering doesn't commit it to a similar amount of time in future tours. (I'm told FX at the January 2011 tour may only offer panels for two series, the highly acclaimed drama Justified and the comedy Louis, currently a hit in its freshman season.) But yesterday was definitely the network's biggest and best TCA effort yet.
Landgraf continued his tradition of being the only basic cable network chief to sit during every tour for a full-length session with the press. (Over the years there have been occasional sessions with top executives from the Turner or Discovery Network groups, but they aren't consistent. Landgraf always shows up, and reporters always show up in kind.)
Given the continued increase in the network's ongoing series development, Landgraf was asked if he foresees a time when FX will run original scripted series programming five nights a week in the 10 o'clock time period, home to all its original shows.
"I don't," he replied. "I think there's a right size for a basic cable network. We have more original scripted series than any other basic cable network, so I think as an individual channel and the business as a whole, we are in the process of discovering the right size, the right optimal maximum size for a cable brand. It's been a really big initiative for us to not only be a drama channel and a drama brand, but to be a comedy brand. I see the channel getting to six or seven or eight comedies.
"But at the point we have a dozen original series," he continued. "I don't really see much growth beyond that, because the truth of the matter is, we have to market every show we put on the air. We don't have that massive audience flowing through our channel for two or three hours in primetime that a broadcast network has. Much of the audience that comes to each one of our series comes from off the channel, or the TV is off and it turns on at 10 p.m. We would have to have such a humongous marketing budget to sustain any more shows. It's really a very different programming model.
"My suspicion is that a dozen [original scripted series] will be about the maximum that any channel gets to, or certainly probably the maximum we get to, and we're nearly there, but it will take a couple more years for us to reach full size."