John Landgraf, chief executive of FX Networks, says he can feel the audience’s pain – because there is now simply too much to watch on TV.
“I long ago lost the ability to keep track of every scripted series,” he told the Television Critics summer meeting in Los Angeles.
“This year, I finally lost track of the ability to keep track of every programmer who’s in the scripted programming business.”
Viewers, along with network bosses, can all agree with Landgraf’s assessment: “This is simply too much television.”
Last year, he noted, the total number of original, scripted TV series on United States TV had swollen to an eye-popping 370 – and he predicted this year the number would probably exceed 400. Adding to the influx have been Netflix and Amazon, and in the season ahead, there will be a push by digital services such as Crackle.
With such a proliferation of viewing options, even good shows contribute to the problem as they “get in the way of the viewer finding the great ones”, Landgraf said. “This has had an enormous impact on everyone’s ability to cut through the clutter and create real buzz.”
However, the trend won’t last much longer, he warned, saying that next year will probably be the programming peak.
“We will begin to see declines coming the year after that and beyond,” he said. An across-the-board erosion in ratings will lead to this reduction in series – as well as outlets that provide them. “You take a fixed audience and divide it by 400-plus shows, it stands to reason their ratings will go down,” he said.
Meanwhile, viewers’ access to programmes has extended from the night a given episode is introduced to potentially any time after that, thanks to video-on-demand and digital platforms spreading out viewing by the audience over days and even months.
“You’re seeing a transformation in the mode that people are using to access television,” Landgraf added. With increasing viewership on apps or subscription to video-on-demand, “that’s putting a lot of pressure on linear channels and ratings”.
One way for a programmer to navigate these stormy waters: cultivate and rely on that network’s own brand identity, which can be a rallying point for viewers.
“Brand is a mission statement and a promise to viewers,” said Landgraf, whose FX brand represents shows that range from Louie and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to American Horror Story, Fargo and The Bastard Executioner, an upcoming series from Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter. “FX is a brand viewers love and trust,” he said.
But while voicing confidence that broadcasters such as FX can prevail, Landgraf didn’t sugar-coat the struggles that lie ahead for his network group and others. “Managing through this transition is hard,” he said. Speaking for the fallout that will hit the TV business as a whole, he said: “It’s going to be a messy, inelegant process.”