By DAVID BAUDER, AP Television Writer
NEW YORK – The way television’s business calendar works, more programs are born or die during the first few weeks of May than at any other time of the year. More often than not, the people asked to invite these shows into their living rooms are kept in the dark about what goes into these decisions.
One person who can’t quite understand that philosophy is John Landgraf, president and general manager of cable’s FX network.
Landgraf is notable for his candor in talking about the business to people outside of it. When he decided in December to cancel the detective drama “Terriers,” Landgraf arranged a conference call with reporters to explain how the show couldn’t break through the competition and talk about whether some viewers may have been turned off by an ad campaign with a tooth-baring dog. The discussion itself was unusual; some networks avoid even using the word “cancel” as if they were spreading an infectious disease.
“These viewers have invested their free time,” he said. “I think they have the right to know, to the best I can communicate it, what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”
He believes the approach breeds good will, even if he’s making a decision that viewers won’t be happy with.
It helps that Landgraf comes from a position of strength. FX has done well, creatively and financially, since he joined in 2004. He’s been the boss since 2005, with series like “The Shield,” “Damages,” “Sons of Anarchy” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” carving out reputations for critical and commercial success. He has his own bosses to answer to, but says he’s given leeway to run the network as he sees fit if the bottom line keeps them happy.
Landgraf’s not perfect, though, and FX is actually coming off two failures in “Terriers” and “Lights Out,” a drama about a retired boxer that slumped to the canvas this winter.
He was precise about what happened to “Lights Out,” too. Television viewers have so much to choose from that a new series needs to be the first choice of a significant number of people when it debuts, he said. Instead, “Lights Out” appeared on a night that BET’s “The Game” occupied many black viewers, Comedy Central’s “Tosh.0” siphoned off young men and MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” occupied many young women.
Susan Young, a freelance writer and president of the Television Critics Organization, said she sees an abundance of caution from TV executives, many of whom don’t recognize that by talking to reporters, they’re also talking to their viewers.
“Hollywood is so fear-based,” Young said. “Everyone is afraid of losing their job. Everyone is afraid of failure. Maybe you just don’t want to put yourself out there and say, ‘I failed at this.’”
Landgraf said he can see that motivation, but that it doesn’t make sense to be paralyzed by fear.
“The thing that has always struck me as odd about this business is that it’s so hard that nobody bats 1.000,” he said. “Everybody wants to bat 1.000 but nobody does. If Derek Jeter strikes out, nobody says he stinks as a baseball player.”
One executive who typified a close-to-the-vest approach was ABC’s former entertainment chief, Stephen McPherson, who lost his job after six years last summer, Young said. McPherson’s sessions with reporters were infrequent and often unproductive; he liked to keep the curtain drawn.
Landgraf believes many of his colleagues would like to be more frank, but feel they have to be cautious with the press in case they say something they regret. Witness the careful way that CBS treated Charlie Sheen publicly through some of his drug-fueled episodes, before it all blew up in the network’s face anyway.
Given the frequent turnover rate in these television jobs, it’s small wonder that many executives are primarily concerned about answering to their bosses. Some corporate cultures are obsessed with avoiding headlines. It’s also a very tough time with old business models disintegrating in an era of digital video recorders, online viewing and increased competition, said Garth Ancier, a veteran network executive and producer.
“I don’t think enough people have a sense of what’s going on right now,” Ancier said. “It’s all moving so quickly.”
Landgraf is reluctant to talk publicly about projects he considers creative failures, because that can break a bond of trust with producers. Asked recently about a mixed critical reaction to the most recent season of “Sons of Anarchy,” Landgraf conceded the season was “very sprawling” and difficult to follow. He said watching the season as a whole on DVD, for example, brings a different reaction where it’s easier to make connections between twists and turns.
He was once in the same shoes as his producers. For five years before coming to FX, Landgraf was president of Jersey Television, which made “Reno 911!” and other projects.
Still, the experience helped teach him that honesty was the lifeblood of the creative process. He was often frustrated with how often network executives would string him along, never really telling him what they thought about the shows he was trying to sell them.
“What I really wanted to know was, `Do you like it or don’t you like it? What can we do to make it work?’” he said.
He worked in the 1990s at NBC entertainment, during that network’s golden years with “Friends,” “Frasier” and “The West Wing.” The network’s subsequent collapse — he left in 1999 — provided another valuable lesson.
“They had some great success,” he said. “Then they lost sight of the kind of courage and risk that it took to create that success in the first place. They got to thinking that it was their legacy. They didn’t take the kind of risks necessary to stay on top.”
For Landgraf, trying to discuss his business with some degree of candor also has an unanticipated benefit.
“Reporters,” he said, “have a greater tendency to believe what I say.”
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