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FX’s John Landgraf: Peak TV Won’t Start to Decline Until 2018 or 2019

TCA: The exec predicts more than 500 scripted TV series this year, and sounds the alarm that streaming services are pursuing a "monopoly" in storytelling.

John Landgraf

Buchan/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

John Landgraf admits he expected a decline in “Peak TV” by now.

Instead, the FX Networks CEO now believes that TV production is still expanding to a point that more than 500 original scripted series will have run on American television this year – another record, and up big time from last year’s tally of 417 shows.

Landgraf gave his state of Peak TV report on Tuesday at the Television Critics Association press tour, where he also subtly threw some shade toward Silicon Valley (read: streaming services).

The headline coming out of Landgraf’s address to reporters: He’s now revising his prediction that the peak will be in calendar year 2017 – with the possibility of growth continuing into 2018. In other words, despite the sheer amount of TV now being produced (and don’t forget, that doesn’t even include the multitudes of unscripted, news, sports, kids and documentary fare), we haven’t reached the top of the mountain yet.

Why did he end up underestimating the amount of TV that the market would bear? “I don’t think I understood at this point last year that Netflix was going to try and compete with the entire MVPD system and all of its channels on a global basis rather than just, say, match the output of HBO,” he said.

READ MORE: ‘Peak TV’ or Peak OTT? From Louis C.K. to Seeso, Players Jockey for Position in a Crowded Market

But Landgraf said he still expects a decline “by calendar 2019 at the latest.” Still, that doesn’t mean a bubble will burst: “I think we are ballooning into a condition of oversupply which will at some point slowly deflate, perhaps from 500+ shows to 400 or a little less than that,” he said.

Landgraf came armed with plenty of charts to illustrate his point: So far in 2016, there have already been 322 original scripted series on TV, up from 304 last year at this time. The big driver: Streaming services Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, which have doubled their output. (Basic cable is even down year-to-year).

FX Scripted Original Series

To also illustrate his point, Landgraf threw up another slide to show how the digital services are now extending the life of Peak TV. According to the exec, Netflix has now premiered and/or announced 71 scripted series.

“For reference, that’s more than the announced future output of HBO, Showtime, Starz and FX combined,” he said. “The three largest streaming brands combined (Netflix, Hulu and Amazon} have at this point announced 113 scripted original series.  Add other online services like Crackle, Seeso and Vimeo to the equation and the OTT services should, in the mid-term future, reach the combined output of more than 130 scripted series, approaching English language broadcast television’s recent full year total of around 150 scripted series.”

FX Projected Originals

Landgraf said he still believes that “there is a greater supply of U.S. television than can be produced profitably given the demand.  I also believe that there is so much U.S. television we have lost much of the thread of a coherent, collective conversation about what is good, what is very good and what is great… While there is more great television than at any time in history, audiences are having more trouble than ever distinguishing the great from the merely competent.”

On the bright side, he noted that the Peak TV environment has created more jobs for storytellers, and has helped foster more diversity both in front of and behind the camera.

To that end, Landgraf admitted that FX had fallen short in hiring diverse directors. FX Networks was actually ranked dead last among all programmers in a survey conducted by Variety’s Maureen Ryan in terms of hiring directors who were not white men.

“I wrote a letter to all of the FX Networks show runners— those who actually make the hiring decisions for episodic directors—asking for their help,” he said. Since then, FX’s ratio of directors has moved to being 51% female and/or diverse.

As for that Netflix/Amazon shade, Landgraf refused to mention those services by name. But it was hard to imagine who else he was referring to when he lamented how “excellent programming is not ultimately about big data or algorithmic recommendation or even necessarily about the brute force of huge programming budgets or having a vast number of programs.”

He added: “If an engineer or coder does their job brilliantly, then every jet engine coming off a line is precisely and reliably the same, and every user who visits a site has the same, perfect qualitative experience. If FX and our storytelling partners do our jobs brilliantly, then every series and every episode is great in its own, unique and (at best) surprising way.   In the realm of storytelling—unlike the realm of user interfaces and jet engines– the possibility of greatness and the possibility of failure often go hand in hand.”

READ MORE: When It Comes to Viewership Numbers, Netflix Can’t Have It Both Ways (Analysis)

Asked what he meant, Landgraf warned that the sheer volume of Netflix’s output meant that he didn’t think the service could pay attention to detail the way a network like FX does with its shows.

“The way we make shows is a highly focused, non-industrial, extremely personal way of making shows,” he said. “We’re at or near the capacity of what we can pay attention to.” Netflix’s 71 shows means he doesn’t think those series get “anywhere near that amount of attention. It’s a very different business model. Obviously it does create some excellent shows. The question is, why are they making so many? It’s hard for me to know.”

Landgraf also sounded a warning that Silicon Valley companies act like monopolies (citing Google and Facebook as examples), and that it would be “particularly bad for storytellers and our country if any company seized a 40% share of storytelling. I am someone who sounds the alarm. I don’t think monopoly market shares are good.”

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