How FX Became Your Favorite Network

This answer is simple: FX boss John Landgraf feasted on NBC’s salad days, then wanted something meatier.

FX is having a good year and a great decade. The network just landed eight Emmy wins (from 45 Emmy nominations), the most of any basic cable outfit and fourth most behind HBO, NBC and CBS. The channel, which turned 20 in June, now averages 1.3 million viewers during primetime, eighth best on ad-supported cable. Numbers aside, the network’s high-risk, high-reward strategy has led to no shortage of critically slobbered-over shows. And you better believe CEO John Landgraf, who coached the Peacock through the “Must See TV” ’90s, as he embraces the network’s rebel reputation.

“We’d rather fail sort of spectacularly,” he says, “than succeed in a kind of quiet way.”

Perhaps because he rode the Friends and ER wave all the way to the beach, Landgraf is the first guy to admit that yesterday’s programming—”your sort of old, reliable friend”—won’t cut it in today’s more competitive market. Sparked by mold-busting shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Arrested Development, the TV landscape has changed dramatically in recent years, now offering what Landgraf calls “the profusion of excellence.”

“I think people want to be wowed,” he says. “I think they want to be surprised.”

That insight, coupled with a strategy of marketing FX to 18-to 49-year-old men, has led Landgraf to greenlight shows likeSons of Anarchy, American Horror Story, Justified, and Louie. The mail at corporate headquarters may be thick with award nominations and checks from advertisers—the two are certainly correlated—but there are Dear John letters as well. For every Archer, which has been unrelentingly excellent for five seasons, there is a Chozen, which lasted 10 uneven episodes. That show, an animated series about a gay white gangster rapper, went the way of Brand X with Russell Brand, the private-eye program Terriers, and the boxing drama Lights Out. The failures of those series were, perversely, a sort of success. Better to burn out than to limp forward toward mediocrity.

It’s worth noting the show that paved the way for the network’s recent run and now is a key piece of the spinoff network FXX, is an utterly profane program about poor losers and their piece-of-shit bar. When the network picked upIt’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia in 2005, no one knew who Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, or Charlie Day were. Cut to the present and Day is a movie star, Howerton is a smarmy institution, and McElhenney is married to his costar (Kaitlin Olson, not Danny DeVito). Their follow-up effort, Unsupervised, was canceled, but that doesn’t darken the Sunny‘s star. FX bet on unknowns and won big. And the key wasn’t just the performers. The key was patience.

“Believe it or not, none—and I mean not one—of our comedies came roaring out of the gate from either a ratings perspective or a critical perspective,” Landgraf says. His attitude: Give the audience time to catch up.

This fall, the network’s success is presenting its own challenges. Sons of Anarchy and Justified are entering their final seasons. They’re not so much being canceled as they are being saved from becoming repetitious. That means that Landgraf has to find new tentpoles. And—in typical fashion—the guy who gave Louis C.K., Adam Reed, and Rob McElhenney creative freedom has found a group of skilled producers to lead the way.

Guillermo del Toro, a prominent sci-fi brand unto himself, debuted The Strain over the summer. At the same time, Stephen Falk, a producer from Orange Is the New Black as well as Weeds, will helm You’re the Worst, a sort of rom-com-gone-sour, starring actors you don’t know, yet. Even the smartest gamblers can lose their shirts taking too many bets at once, which makes September 2014 an interesting time in the history of FX. The executives will be watching a drama unfold in their Nielsen reports.

“We’re going to push it in ways that will make you feel uncomfortable sometimes,” says Landgraf. “But I think that’s our function in the ecosystem and that’s what I want to do.”

Photos by FX