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

An extraordinary thing happened in the TV business today. FX canceled “Terriers.” That’s not what was extraordinary, though. Sad? Sure. But low-rated shows get canceled all the time, even ones as great as “Terriers” was. Later today, I’ll post have a short interview with the show’s creator, Ted Griffin, about his feelings about the cancellation, but that’s not unusual, either – I’ve sadly conducted too many of those over the years.

What was extraordinary was that the network executive who canceled it, FX president John Landgraf, decided to hold a conference call to discuss the decision.

This simply doesn’t happen. I’ve been covering TV a pretty long time now, and I honestly cannot remember anything like this happening before. Hell, most of the time it’s a chore just to get a network to acknowledge that a show’s been canceled at all. It’s a testament to just how good “Terriers” was – and to how candid and self-reflective Landgraf is – that this thing happened.

Landgraf spent 30-plus minutes on the phone with reporters. He wasn’t defending the cancellation, because the terrible numbers – at one point, he pointed out that for the season “Terriers” averaged 509,000 adults 18-49, which was woefully short of the season averages for previously-canceled FX shows like “Dirt” (1.6 million), “The Riches” (1.4 million) and “Over There” (1.3 million) – did all the defending for him.

Rather, Landgraf – who sounded as sad and defeated as many of the reporters on the call (yours truly included) – wanted to give the press, and by proxy, the show’s small but passionate fanbase, a glimpse at how the sausage gets made, and at why this particular sausage tasted delicious but didn’t sell.

I don’t have time to fully transcribe it now, but among the highlights:

• On Friday, Landgraf brought Griffin and producers Shawn Ryan and Tim Minear in for a meeting where he could show them both the starkness of the ratings numbers – “You could have doubled the ratings,” he told us, “and it still would have been the lowest-rated show we’ve ever had” – but also research that the network conducted a few weeks into the season. Once it became clear that the show had launched badly, Landgraf wanted to figure out what went wrong. Was it, as I and many others have suggested, a failure of marketing? He defended the marketing campaign, noting that by far the most influential type of marketing is on-air promos, and that the majority of their promos did, in fact, feature Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James, did say that it was a buddy comedy, etc., etc., and that the focus groups all felt the promos they saw accurately reflected the show.

“If I legitimately, objectively believed that the reason it didn’t launch is because of the title, or we had convinced all of America that it was a show about dog fighting,” Landgraf said, “… that might have been a reason to renew the show.” But that’s not what their research showed.

(As a slight rebuttal, I would say that well before FX began airing those promos with the actors, they were running a lot of short teasers that did just feature the barking dog, and that certainly didn’t make people want to pay attention when the real promos started airing later. Still, Landgraf is as candid an executive as I know in the business, and while I think the marketing didn’t help, I believe him when he says they found it didn’t hurt much, either.)  

• Obviously, they had problems getting people to tune in (it was FX’s lowest-rated series premiere), but also had trouble holding onto people. In that same focus group post-mortem, the viewers “thought the show was compatible with FX’s brand but not similar to other FX shows. They found it to be a little less edgy, a little less suspenseful. I think the things that were really wonderful about the show, were relatively subtle. What they found is that it had a subtle charm that kind of crept into your psyche over time.

“I don’t know if subtlety is something the American public is buying in droves,” he added. “When I look at ‘Jersey Shore’ and the Kardashians and ‘Sons of Anarchy’ and ‘Walking Dead’… I wouldn’t say that subtlety and nuance describes the most successful kind of pop content in America today.”

• As everyone has, he acknowledged that the title was probably a barrier for entry, but he said that even if they had renamed it “Terriers, PI” for a second season, the odds that that change alone might have tripled the ratings into acceptable levels weren’t great.

• He sang the show’s praises consistently, calling it “a credit to FX” during its time on the air, and responding to a critic’s question about proposed tweaks for a second season by saying, “I don’t think you could make ‘Terriers’ much better.” In the end, he said, “I don’t think there’s anybody to blame. We wish that there was a perfect intersection between all that is good and all that is successful, but the reality is that there’s a very poor correlation between creative success and commercial success.” FX has aimed for that narrow intersection where the two meet. Most of the shows that the network has canceled had creative problems as well as commercial ones. Other than “Damages” (which did last three years), Landgraf hasn’t had a lot of experience with a heavily-praised show struggling to stay commercially viable.

But as he noted near the call’s end, “This isn’t the first good show we’ve had to cancel, and it won’t be the last.”

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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