Why FX Boss John Landgraf’s Netflix Warnings Ring Hollow (Guest Blog)

Exec rightfully talks about boosting quality and diversity on TV — and he should practice what he preaches

For the last two years, John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks and FX Productions, has used a portion of his allotted time at the Television Critics Association’s annual gathering to bash Netflix. Last week, Mr. Landgraf complained that Netflix is putting out so many shows that audiences are having a tough time distinguishing “the great … from the merely competent.” He warned of a Netflix monopoly, noting, “I don’t think monopoly market shares are good for society.” He punctuated his concern about Netflix with a plea: “It’s a point of real emotional meaning to me — storytelling and storytellers have a unique place in our society and in human culture.”

For someone morally opposed to monopolies, committed to diverse storytelling and supportive of consumer choice, Mr. Landgraf has a funny way of showing it.

For starters, FX’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, grew its market value to $50 billion (about 20 percent bigger than Netflix) in part by engaging in textbook monopolistic practices: forcing consumers to buy a bundle of cable networks at steadily rising prices in a market that lacked viable substitutes. Conversely, Netflix charges a low monthly price, is sold a la carte and allows for easy cancellation. If Mr. Landgraf’s new pet cause is to combat the anticompetitive effects of monopolies, he could start by pushing Fox to unbundle the FX channel from Fox’s other networks, price it separately and sell it directly to the consumers that actually want it.

Mr. Landgraf may preach the virtues of diversity in storytelling, but his programming strategy is at odds with his sermon. Few FX original series feature non-white leads, and a report released in 2015 found that, of all leading television providers, FX’s record of hiring women and minority directors was among the worst.

On the other hand, Netflix shows such as “Orange Is the New Black” and “The Get Down” feature racially and ethnically diverse casts that depict segments of society never before represented on TV. Showrunners like Cheo Hodari Coker on “Luke Cage” or Melissa Rosenberg on “Jessica Jones” bring a contemporary point of view to iconic source material. As an evangelist for the value of diversity in storytelling, Mr. Landgraf should commend Netflix’s bold choices. He could live the gospel by following suit.

The most aloof position taken by Mr. Landgraf at the TCA was his contention that so many new shows are being made that audiences cannot tell which ones are good. The notion that there are objectively good and bad shows, and that only a tastemaker like Mr. Landgraf can discern which is which, is condescending to viewers and antithetical to the virtue of consumer choice. People have wildly different tastes. The power of the Internet to account for these different tastes through the personalization of content ensures that more shows can get made. That is a huge step forward in the name of consumer choice.

If Mr. Landgraf is truly concerned that too many shows are being made, there is an easy solution: FX should produce less. Otherwise, maybe next year, Mr. Landgraf will use some of his time to praise Netflix for advancing the causes that he holds so dear.

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