The Secret To FX’s Success: A Chief Executive Willing To Give His Writers Creative Freedom

If you haven’t noticed, we take a lot of pride around here in celebrating the best scripted shows on television — the smartest, the funniest, the most clever, the most groundbreaking, etc. — while also setting rhetorical fire to the worst shows on television.

With that said, no single TV network has more shows on its roster that we regularly shower with love and affection than FX, shows like Archer, Justified, Louie, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Sons of Anarchy, The League and, more recently, American Horror Story, and The Americans.

Ever wonder why that is, specifically why FX just seems to “get it”? I know I sure have, and I honestly didn’t know who or what the secret to the network’s success was prior to reading New York Times media reporter David Carr’s column this week.

The prime reason for this, it appears, is that John Landgraf, the president and general manager of FX Networks, was once on the other side of the table, someone who actually developed TV shows as a creative and who knows the absurd frustrations of dealing with boneheaded network executives intimately. So he knows it’s best to just hire smart people and get the f*ck out of their way.

Writes Carr:

He learned early on that the guidance he received from the networks was not going to lead to remarkable television.

“I always got the same dumb note from the networks. ‘Can you make the character more likable?’ ” he recalled last week in a phone interview. “Not make them more exciting, more compelling, more interesting, no, it was always make them more likable.”

Mr. Landgraf, who worked as a network executive at NBC during the ’90s and had a hand in “Friends,” “ER” and “The West Wing,” went on to form a television production company with Danny DeVito. He had 53 projects in development from 1999 to the early 2000s — nine that became pilots, six that were made into shows and one, “Reno 911!” that made it beyond a single season, albeit on Comedy Central.

“It was crazy-making,” he said.

He became convinced that network television was broken — that in an effort to make characters more likable, the industry made television that not anyone much liked.

Mr. Landgraf’s turn on the other side of the table came in 2004 when he became president of FX, the basic cable channel owned by News Corporation. He inherited “Nip/Tuck” and “The Shield,” but they were aging and he needed to replace them, so he went on a spree — of saying yes.

“We wanted to adapt our process to what the creatives needed and have a more efficient outcome,” he said. “We write a check to fund the production and they send us the shows. By trusting the people you work with — sharing the authority — and being willing to fail, things have gone pretty well for us.”

He said yes to a lot of dark and spicy fare — it is not as lurid as pay cable can be, but it is only technically less naked. And it is clearly intended for adults.

So simple, yet so unbelievably rare. Sadly, the GIF below is an accurate dramatization of what it’s like for most TV writers out there…

Never change, FX.

(New York Times)