Swimming away from 'sea of sameness,' U.S. network FX tests TV waters

Reuters
File photo of John Landgraf, CEO, FX Networks and FX Productions, speaking during FX network's portion of the 2014 Television Critics Association Cable Summer Press Tour in Beverly Hills
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John Landgraf, CEO, FX Networks and FX Productions, speaks during FX network's portion of the 2014 …

By Mary Milliken

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Television cable network FX revels in its minimalist slogan "Fearless," but it could also opt for "It's OK To Fail," "We Have A Long Way To Go," and "Not For Everybody's Taste."

FX is hard to sum up these days. Even John Landgraf, chief executive of the network owned by Twenty-First Century Fox Inc, says he cannot "cleanly and simply articulate the FX brand."

The basic cable outlet made waves a decade ago as a scrappy purveyor of edgy and somewhat outrageous shows such as 2003's "Nip/Tuck," but now stands out for some of the most acclaimed and innovative work in the flourishing U.S. television industry.

No show represents that evolution better than "Fargo," the miniseries based on the cult movie by the Coen brothers that is the favorite to earn FX its first Emmy for a program at television's top awards next Monday.

For Landgraf, a writer and producer who reads 90 percent of the network's scripts, "Fargo" could have meant "potentially humiliating and spectacular failure."

"The thought occurred to me that the best way to honor your favorite film is to not make a crappy miniseries based on it," he said.

But Landgraf said he did with "Fargo" what he always does: listen to the creative people and trust them to get the storytelling right rather than telling them how to do it. And if they fail, that's part of the network's culture of no safe bets.

"When you have gatekeepers who are making sure people do it the way that everyone else did it, what are you creating?," Landgraf said at his office on the Fox lot. "You are creating a vast sea of sameness."

If industry recognition is anything to go by, then the FX formula seems to be working. FX Networks earned 45 Emmy nominations, including 18 for "Fargo" starring Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman. Miniseries "American Horror Story: Coven," comedy "Louie," cold war drama "The Americans" and biker saga "Sons of Anarchy" were also among nominees.

That is less than half of premium cable network HBO's 99 nods, but FX is now right behind stalwart broadcasters CBS Corp and Comcast Corp's NBC.

The risk-taking at FX is also good for business at Fox, which is vying with HBO and streaming company Netflix Inc for original projects in the highly competitive TV landscape.

"They have made a lot of bold bets over at FX and I think you are going to continue to see more out of them along those lines," said Tony Wible, media and entertainment analyst at Janney Montgomery Scott.

'STREET-FIGHTER NETWORK'

Critics say the twists in the FX slate are surprising.

"It has been interesting to watch them come out of the box, this tough little street-fighter of a network, and now they are relaxing a little bit, and saying 'let's experiment with art and horror'," said Los Angeles Times TV critic Mary McNamara.

"Fargo," she said, was "unbelievably successful on every level." And then FX brought in film director Guillermo del Toro to make his vampire horror tale "The Strain."

Del Toro, famous for creating dark fantastical worlds on film, said Landgraf called him with a message he had never heard before in his career: "Be as off-kilter as you want."

"The Strain" is now one of the top new series on U.S. cable television, and FX renewed it for a second 13-episode season this week.

But "The Strain" also highlighted how FX sometimes pushes too far for some tastes. Promotional billboards showing a worm coming out of a bloodshot eye drew a backlash from parents of frightened children and were taken down. Landgraf calls it a "miscalculation" and now wishes he had chosen another image.

After 10 years at the network, Landgraf says his work is only about half finished. And while FX isn't for everyone, he believes more viewers can be pulled in with more diverse programming.

"There's a long way to go," he said. "I think we are viewed as more of a male brand than I want to be."

(Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Ken Wills)

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