On Tuesday night, FX debuted its latest Next Great Drama, The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. The Ryan Murphy-produced dramatic retelling of the Trial of the Century arrived, like many FX offerings, with significant appreciation from critics. The show is currently sitting on 96 and 90 percent approval ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic respectively, with critics praising everything from Murphy’s propulsive direction to the project’s social relevance more than 20 years after Simpson was acquitted for double homicide.
The People V. O.J. Simpson caps off what has, on the surface, been a tremendous calendar year for FX. Long-running and beloved drama Justified went out on a high note last spring, period spy drama The Americans and contemporary rom-com You’re The Worst took additional creative leaps, and the second season of Fargo dominated critic’s year-end lists like no show since, well, the first season of Fargo. Yet, for all the praise heaped upon FX and its shows, the network could certainly benefit from O.J. growing into a major ratings hit that its record-breaking first-night ratings suggest it will be. And that’s because being the best or smartest network in TV doesn’t always align with the industry’s trenchant business models and hierarchies.
FX and its leader John Landgraf do so many things right. As Vulture’s Josef Adalian wrote this week, FX been a driving force in television’s rekindled interest in the anthology miniseries, beginning with Murphy’s popular American Horror Story and continuing with Noah Hawley’s adaptation of/homage to Fargo. Even before AHS became one of TV’s annual tentpole events, FX enabled Louis C.K. to do a kind of weekly anthology on Louie, an intensely personal and consistently experimental project.
The freedom granted to C.K. has been granted to creative types at FX for years, dating back to when it famously took a risk on The Shield when the network was known mostly for X-Files reruns. If public comments are to be believed, showrunners are regularly permitted to chase their muses however they want—and in the case of Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter, for however long they want per episode each week. Landgraf has publicly voiced his support for C.K.’s decision to do Louie only when good ideas present themselves and been similarly effusive in his suggestion that the low-rated Americans will get to reach its natural conclusion. This hands-off, creative-first approach to management served FX particularly well with Fargo, as Hawley was given time to develop the story for the show’s second season. Contrast this with HBO’s pushier strategy on True Detective, where writer/leather jacket model Nic Pizzolatto was tasked with creating an entirely new world that could live up to the expectations of the first season in little more than a year.
Part of the appreciation for FX is a byproduct for Landgraf himself, a creative thinker who critics have anointed the “Mayor of Television.” Landgraf’s executive sessions are the must-see and must-tweet events of each Television Critics Association Press Tour for their pointed honesty about FX and the state of the industry as a whole (few network executives openly praise their rivals’ programming, for example). Under Landgraf’s stewardship, FX was the first network to announce they were no longer publicizing the long-running standard of TV viewership, the Nielsen overnight ratings. Other networks, including corporate cousin Fox, have subsequently followed suit. Landgraf has also been openly critical of Netflix’s choice to loudly boast about its ratings without releasing any specific information, a controversy that reached a fever pitch at this January’s TCA when NBC presented second-hand Netflix ratings data.
But Landgraf is perhaps most famous for his August 2015 assertion that we “have reached Peak TV in America,” unintentionally birthing critics’ favorite hashtag: #PeakTV. While the FX CEO’s comments were not intended to become a low-wattage meme, they’re the perfect encapsulation of Landgraf as an industry pontificator—someone who not only makes good TV but recognizes the context in which that content is being made, how audiences are consuming it, and spots where the industry, as a whole, could improve.
Despite all these very good things to say about Landgraf and FX, the truth is that its two primary competitors, HBO and Netflix, are operating at a significant advantage. HBO’s normal revenue sources—fees charged to cable providers and viewers—have only increased with the introduction of the cable-free HBO Now. Netflix can spend more than a small country’s GDP on original productions because its subscription base continues to expand worldwide. FX? Well, FX is on basic cable, where it benefits from those cable fees and advertising, but the amount of money is simply smaller. FX has felt the pain of this fact, having been outbid by Netflix for projects like Master of None and the upcoming The Crown.
Similarly, though FX was ahead of the curve in ditching the intense obsession with overnight ratings, those fickle numbers still very much matter. And as far as those numbers go, FX’s programming dipped in viewership approximately 13 percent in 2015. A key factor in that dip had to be the absence of Sons of Anarchy, FX’s most popular show, which ended its eight-year run in the fall of 2014. Aforementioned critical darlings like Fargo, The Americans, and You’re The Worst all saw their ratings fall in 2015 (though, to be fair, YTW moved from FX to FXX, a network with far fewer subscribers). Even the very popular American Horror Story reached series lows with this season’s Hotel. Ratings, especially overnight ratings, aren’t everything. But they are worth noting when your favorite FX show is watched less than most of The CW’s lineup.
FX’s willingness to grant full artistic freedom to its leading creative types hasn’t always worked. Sons of Anarchy was replaced on the schedule by Kurt Sutter’s passion project, the hyper-violent and hyper-boring Bastard Executioner, a show that brought out many of Sutter’s worst tendencies without any of the brutish thrill produced by Sons. It’s probably hard to tell Ryan Murphy anything, but if he and FX came together to shorten the yearly American Horror Story run from 12-13 episodes to 8-10 episodes, ratings and interest might stay high through the duration of a season.
Meanwhile, Landgraf’s crusade against Netflix might have had more consequences than FX executives originally thought. If you’re a basic cable network trying to get your shows seen in an unbelievably crowded marketplace, the go-to move is to partner with a streaming platform and catch viewers on their own time. This is the formula that AMC and Sony used to shape Breaking Bad into a cultural phenomenon, but also the one that The CW, USA, and others have utilized to simply make people aware of their shows. Conversely, three of FX’s recent greats are not on Netflix; The Americans and Justified are Amazon Prime exclusives and Fargo calls Hulu home. It’s crucial to note that producing studios and not networks handle streaming distribution, so there’s no way to say for sure that Landgraf has made it a point to avoid business with Netflix to the degree that it influences partnering studios. However, there is something to the fact that these shows can’t be found on North America’s most popular streaming platform.
As a result, few times in recent years, it’s seemed as if FX felt the pressure of creating that massive ratings hit. The Strain is an obvious attempt to capture the bloodlust that drives The Walking Dead’s popularity, while the Middle East-set Tyrant is the less immediately fascinating and far soapier version of Homeland that no one really asked for. Both shows have performed well—better than almost all of FX’s buzzier offerings, in fact—but they’re not so successful that the network must have them to survive in the future.
You might be thinking, “Well, in today’s TV landscape, ratings don’t matter. Buzz, critical appreciation, awards attention—those things matter.” You’d be right! But though FX has buzz and critical appreciation in spades, it has been surprisingly ignored by the industry’s awards measuring stick, the Primetime Emmys.
Since the 2002 Emmys, when FX first garnered attention with The Shield, the network has scored just a total of five combined nominations and zero wins in Outstanding Comedy and Drama Series (three for Louie and two for Damages). Across the same period in the four major acting categories, FX has a total of 19 nominations and five wins. On the writing and directing side, the Emmys have nominated FX shows a total of 19 times, with two comedy writing wins for C.K. and nothing else. Across that same span, HBO has 18 drama series nominations and three wins; 19 comedy series nominations and one win; a total of 50 actor nominations and 10 wins; and a total of 60 writing and directing nominations, with 15 wins.
Of course, with American Horror Story and Fargo, FX has fared a little better in the Miniseries/TV Movie categories at the Emmys. With O.J. now in the mix too, FX should absolutely dominate that category in 2016. But does it totally make sense to have your three biggest projects competing against one another? Maybe not.
What does make sense is the overnight success of The People V. O.J. Simpson. For a network like FX that’s so clearly trying to navigate the choppy and unpredictable waters of 21st century television, bigger, bolder victories with quality shows like this one really matter. Hopefully it means that FX’s model for good-to-great TV can pay off in the long-term and that Landgraf will be known for thriving during #PeakTV, instead of simply coining the hashtag.