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FX bets on comedies for its immediate future

David Bradley in The Strain
David Bradley in The Strain
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

As a reminder, I'm at the summer Television Critics Association press tour through tomorrow. If you're curious about what that means, read a quick explanation here. And follow my writing from the tour at my blog.

As it headed into its day at the TCA press tour, FX found itself in an unusual position: it had left itself open to attack. Normally, FX is one of television's best run networks, relentlessly following its mission and always on message.

Plus, the network's president, John Landgraf, is a figure who commands a fair amount of respect at events like this, his candor and honesty about the industry combining with a prescience about trends to make him a favorite. Landgraf, for instance, was one of the first executives to warn about Netflix not reporting ratings data, something that's a hot topic in the TV world now. He also was one of the first to point to DVR numbers being necessary to understand if a show is successful, and he helped make the idea of "total audience" (the number of viewers who watch an episode across all platforms) into a common one. One of FX's latest initiatives, for instance, is to stop reporting same-day ratings numbers, choosing instead to report the number of viewers across the first three days after air as the initial number.

But FX is, as mentioned, having a bit of a rough patch right now. Some of its shows, like spy drama The Americans and crime miniseries Fargo, are among the most acclaimed on television, but they don't set the ratings on fire. And its four big summer premieres – dramas Tyrant and The Strain, and comedies Married and You're the Worst – have struggled with critics. (The Strain, at least, looks to be one of the biggest shows FX has ever aired in terms of ratings.) The network launched the channel FXX last year, which has struggled to make a mark and led to the cancellation of plenty of good shows. And though the Emmys showered nominations on Fargo, Louie, and American Horror Story, they continue to largely ignore most of the network's other programming.

What is the solution to all of this? Well, Landgraf announced renewals of Fargo (with a brand new story and characters) and Louie (for just seven episodes). And he talked about a slew of projects in development. But he has one main solution for the question of where to go next: in a word, comedy.

Zigging instead of zagging

Landgraf spoke of when FX began broadcasting original programming in 2002 (with cop show The Shield) as entering a wide, untapped oil field, where few were looking to make it rich. In those days, Landgraf said, it was easy to strike oil, because only FX and HBO were really looking in that area. But now, just about everybody is looking around for the next great drama, with networks as diverse as WGN America and WE TV debuting their first scripted original dramas this year. That makes it all the harder to stand out, especially when some networks can spend more on their projects than others.

Though FX remains in the original drama game (and will be shooting a pilot for a new series set in the 1300s from Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter), Landgraf suggested the new ground for fertile TV exploration is in the comedy market, where Louie changed the definition of what a comedy could look like, and a slew of other series swept in. Whether those shows were fairly close in execution to what Louie did (as with HBO's Girls and Looking) or simply borrowing its fuzzy tone for more traditional comedies (as with Comedy Central's Broad City), the last few years have been marked by great half-hours that feel as wild and unprecedented as any of the dramas that sprang up in The Sopranos' wake 15 years ago.

"We had a period of time when as good as the dramas were that came through our door, the comedies were better in our view, so we made more comedies than dramas," Landgraf said. "And I think we just have faith in the long run that if we make good shows, if we tend to our knitting, if we pick really good people, that the audience will find them eventually, that there will be economic value there. It's maybe a naive trust, but it's served us well for 12 years."

A less crowded arena

He's likely correct about this, at least for the time being. For the most part, channels new to the programming game are heading for dramas. And for a long time, only HBO, Showtime, and FX were programming both comedy and drama. (USA joined them this year, with the promising Sirens and Playing House, and BBC America is making steps into this arena as well.) But the comedy space is crowded, with the aforementioned networks, but also channels like Comedy Central, IFC, Adult Swim, and others.

And it's harder to stand out with a comedy than it is with a drama. Louie and Girls both have commanded their fair share of discussion and debate, but neither does a terribly great job of drawing in viewers. The level of need to watch a comedy, when compared to a serialized drama, is usually lower, simply because comedies tend to have lower stakes. Looking to make noise? A drama is still probably the best bet.

None of that takes into account FX's tendency to broadcast comedies that have edgier sensibilities, which can be harder to take for a mass audience. TV comedy, increasingly, is about programming to niches, and FX's devotion to its niche has led to programming that even critics aren't always certain about. (Though, for the record, I would highly recommend both Married and You're the Worst.) Yes, both It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Archer have become established hits. But that process took time and happened when the network had a less crowded schedule. Yet maybe Landgraf has a solution to this, too. One of the network's upcoming projects is The Comedians, which stars notably non-edgy comedian Billy Crystal.

The biggest show on TV, CBS's The Big Bang Theory, is a comedy, and there have always been comedy mega-hits. But FX doesn't seem like the sort of place where something like Big Bang would pop up, even in terms of the cable universe. The question for FX now is going to be how it balances these sides of its personality. Making lots of noise has always been a major part of FX's strategy, but how will it move forward in an arena where making noise is occasionally detrimental to success, and audiences respond as much to comfort and predictability as anything else?

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