FX cancels ‘Lights Out,’ take 2: Some thoughts from John Landgraf

Senior Television Writer
03.24.11 63 Comments


As I’ve said many times before, FX president John Landgraf is one of my favorite executives to talk to in this business. He’s a smart guy, an articulate one and an honest one, and he has a genuine, infectious passion for making good TV that’s obvious both from the output of FX under his leadership, and just from talking to him.

Where most networks are reluctant to acknowledge that a show’s even been canceled, let alone explain why, Landgraf held a conference call the day that he pulled the plug on “Terriers” in the fall, and he made himself available to speak with reporters after this afternoon’s news that “Lights Out” won’t be back for a second season. I got on the phone with Landgraf for a few minutes to ask about what he thinks went wrong and whether two failures in a row – even after a pretty good run of success – might in any way change the way FX does things.

How long have you known that this decision was coming? Has it been inevitable since early in the season the way it was with “Terriers”?

What I would say is not til pretty recently. We probably actually wouldn’t be making this announcement if we didn’t have our upfront coming. (FX announces its upcoming programming slate next week.) All our press at the upfront would have wondered why “Lights Out” wasn’t a part of it, so we wanted to explain that ahead of time. The show actually had stabilized and had grown a little bit, and it’s been off three weeks in a row, down to its lowest rating out of 11 episodes, on Tuesday night. I still probably would have waited until the end, but there just really isn’t any sign of life in it from a ratings standpoint, notwithstanding the quality of it.

I know you did the elaborate post-mortem on why “Terriers” didn’t work, whether it was the marketing or whatever. Did you do anything like that here?

I didn’t really need to, to tell you the truth. The bottom line is we’re a network that’s slightly male, and slightly younger male, relative to the way a broadcast show would look. The ratings for our hit series look like sporting events, remarkably similar to a basketball game or a baseball game. There’s no doubt in my mind that if you want to market a show like this on FX, you’re going to market the male lead and the boxing arena. You could secondarily market the family angle, but I’d bet my house we couldn’t sell a family show… The reality is I’ve got no compunction about how we marketed whatsoever. This is a show people didn’t want to watch. I think people did not want to watch a show about a heavyweight boxer. It didn’t matter if it was a good show, or a subtle show, or had a charismatic guy in the lead. They didn’t want to watch that show. There was no indication that there’s any different answer to the question than that. It’s too bad, because it was a really good show.

Well, you’ve had these two recent shows that didn’t work out after a bunch that did, and I know you’ve said after you had to cancel “Damages” that you might be reluctant to try a show like that again. Going forward, do these recent developments change the kinds of shows you would develop? Or do you stay the course and just keep doing things the way you’ve done them?

Both. What you have to also recognize is that, during the same timeframe, we’ve launched a really critically acclaimed show called “Sons of Anarchy” that’s the biggest hit we’ve ever had, and another in “Justified” that’s critically acclaimed and that has how climbed over 2 million viewers 18-49 which is the unqualified threshold for success on basic cable. We’ve launched two shows that are fantastic and have succeeded. In terms of development, we have a show called “Outlaw Country” that we’ve piloted. Although it’s not derivative of “Sons” and “Justified,” it’s probably more conceptually in that direction. And we have a show called “Powers,” a gritty cop show in a world where there are superheroes, and we have “American Horror Story” from Ryan Murphy. We’re not going to stop doing what we’re doing. We may try some shows that are noisier, conceptually, but I’ll try to make them good, try to give them literary merit, make sure the quality is high. But in terms of the ideas and what we can sell to audiences, the younger audience, particularly, wants things that are more different.

How do you mean?

“Terriers” was a buddy show, and its differences from other buddy shows that have been on the air were subtle. Conceptually, it was not different. From the outside, “Lights Out” may not have looked that different from “The Fighter” or “Rocky.” Its diferences were evident if you watched the show, but they were subtle. From the outside, they looked like what you’d seen before.

Speaking of “Powers,” I’ve been saying that your casting people should look at Holt (McCallany) for the male lead. Something good could come out of this.

You and I probably feel a similar kind of discouragement, because you watch these shows and write about them and care about quality, and you know that I do too. It’s hard on the one hand when you make something and it’s good and it doesn’t work. But we’re indefatigable. We have been for 8 years. We’ve had success after success, now in comedy as well as drama. As much as this is a hard day, especially because I’d love to work with Holt McCallany and (producer) Warren Leight for another six years, that’s the television business.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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