FX CEO John Landgraf talks breakthrough content, giving voices to new storytellers, social media and more at Advertising Week


FX Networks and FX Productions CEO John Landgraf; “Better Things” co-creator, executive producer, writer, director and star Pamela Adlon; and Fox Networks Group President of Advertising Revenue Joe Marchese headlined an Advertising Week panel in New York City on Thursday, Sept. 28. The three addressed topics ranging from how to stand out in today’s crowded content environment to FX’s approach to marketing its shows, and the relationship between social media and creative content. The 45-minute session, moderated by Joe, was titled “Fearlessly Funny: Scripted Comedy & The Arms Race for Audience Attention.”

Content and advertising in a non-linear environment

“We have a brand that developed inside the environment of a linear channel, but that’s not the best expression of the brand,” John said when asked about FX+, the new $5.99-per-month service that offers ad-free access to more than 1,000 episodes of FX Originals to Comcast Xfinity and Cox subscribers.

FX’s 15 years of content can’t be presented properly on a linear channel, he added. The key to bringing basic-cable subscribers an experience that resembles non-linear environments is targeted advertising. John said FX wants to innovate around the ad experience so its shows are available without long chains of interruptive ads.

He mentioned Hulu’s finding that 35 percent of its subscribers pay extra to watch content on its platform without ads, while 65 percent choose to watch content on its platform with ads. This shows that most people are fine seeing ads, so long as they are empowered to choose between the two options and perceive that the relevancy and length of ads are acceptable.

“I think the ad experience will be even more profoundly embraced by the people who choose to have it,” John said.

Making content that endures

When Joe asked about the difference between making shows for ad-free platforms versus ad-supported platforms, John said FX’s approach to both is similar. “I think we’ve always wanted to make shows not just for the moment and the night they air but for posterity.”

FX Networks and FX Productions CEO John Landgraf

“Better Things,” which Pamela called a “handmade show” that elevates the mundane, is just one example of that approach. She expressed her ambition to create classic and timeless content that holds up over time, which underscores the heart of FX’s approach to building its brand through the creators it supports.

That strategy has roots in an early challenge John encountered at his current post at FX: How should he determine the criteria for which shows were greenlighted at FX and which were not? A colleague suggested considering whether a show would still be watched and talked about 20 years from now. This perspective cut against the popular litmus test of whether a show could pull in a certain number of viewers in a specific time slot, and it aligned the network perfectly with creators like Pamela.

Today, FX strives to always put the story first – or, in John’s words, make the story the engine, not the caboose.

Giving new storytellers a voice

“Almost every show we’ve ever made has been from someone who was making their show for the first time,” John said. “We’ve never made a show by going out and buying a brand name that had established themselves somewhere else.”

Contrasting FX with massive corporate content producers, which lack a human element and two-way trust, John said FX tries to “curate a process that’s ephemeral,” one that is repeatable with newer storytellers.

Coincidentally, this is also an effective way to stand out in an environment that offers consumers a “profusion of choice and glut of content.” The only way to introduce new, breakthrough stories is to find storytellers who have points of view that aren’t currently found on television, and then to lean in on the unique qualities of those voices, John said.

Marketing done right

John lamented marketing for one of his previous shows before his FX days, which involved spots that essentially gave away the premise of an upcoming episode. At FX, the goal is to create ambiguous messaging that captures the tone of the show.

“If you tell people how to feel about the experience before they have it, you change the nature of the experience itself,” he said. John explained that FX tries to use its marketing to get people to take part in the experience of a show without taking that experience away.

Social media’s role

“I remain skeptical about social media,” John said during the session. He explained that while most people think social media drives viewership, he sees it the other way around. FX’s marketing for “American Horror Story: Hotel,” for example, ended up driving Lady Gaga’s social footprint more than her social footprint drove viewership.

“I think social footprints are people talking about things that are being driven by people making things,” John said. “You really misconstrue the order of operations when you think that social media is driving people to action. I think it’s them commenting on action that they’re taking.”