Swimming away from 'sea of sameness,' U.S. network FX tests TV
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[August 22, 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,"
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
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.
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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
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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