To watchers of the Disney-Fox merger, the cable network offers something else: a giant enigma.
With FX among the 21st Century Fox assets sold to Disney, a question has percolated through Hollywood: Can the network and its beloved programs survive?
“FX has been responsible for some really great television, but these are shows that, relatively speaking, don’t get a lot of viewers,” said Cory Barker, a pop-
culture writer and expert who closely follows the cable space. “And it seems everything Disney continues to do is move toward its big-property, profit-maximization strategy,” he added. “It’s hard to see where FX fits in.”
Disney on Thursday announced it was spending $52.4 billion to buy nearly all of Rupert Murdoch-led 21st Century Fox besides the Fox broadcast network and its news and sports operations.
Many Fox divisions are expected to be consolidated under Disney in the new structure, and executives could be looking for new jobs. Some of Fox’s film operations, including top executive Stacey Snider, may not remain in the new combined company.
And FX? No one seems to know where it will fall.
Under its longtime president, John Landgraf, FX owns one of the most eminent track records in all of cable — a point underscored by its eight Golden Globe nominations this week and 18 Emmy wins last year, the most ever for a basic-cable network.
But it is also a niche channel that rarely scores more than a few million viewers for its shows and regularly engages in the kind of critic- and award-friendly material for which Disney has shown little appetite.
The network helped usher in the era of original cable programming with early 2000s hits such as “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck.” It drove a renaissance of subversive comedy with “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and (before controversy engulfed its creator) “Louie.” And it launched the modern anthology craze with such franchises as “American Horror Story.”
In recent years it has lost a little luster but has remained sharp with the first year of Donald Glover’s much-admired “Atlanta,” and “American Crime Story,” the franchise whose first season about O.J. Simpson was a significant hit — and Emmy winner — for the network in 2016. It will be followed next year with a new installment about the 1997 murder of designer Gianni Versace.
These kind of upscale shows could come in handy for Disney, experts and analysts say. The Fox deal is partly motivated by Disney’s desire to compete with Netflix and Amazon in “over-the-top” content that goes directly to consumers; it will launch a streaming service in 2019. FX could be instrumental in this effort, they say, since both Netflix and Amazon first made their bones with high-end programming.
“If I’m Disney, I want to over-
invest in FX because of who they are,” said Ross Fremer, a finance specialist at the independent entertainment company Cinetic Media. “What the network can do with Disney’s money and scale would be huge.”
At the same time, he acknowledged that moving toward something bigger might mean FX losing at least some of its identity. “I don’t know that they exist as a cable brand known as FX anymore.”
Fremer and other close observers say that even as FX’s development pipeline might be preserved in some way, the shows could be changed to find more mass appeal. Disney’s intense craving for blockbusters, they say, would mean many of the high-prestige shows from FX’s past 15 years wouldn’t survive in the new arrangement.
At least for now, executives are saying the right things. Disney Chairman Robert Iger alluded to FX among a range of 21st Century Fox properties that “we think will be of great use” in selling directly to consumers.
Lachlan Murdoch, 21st Century Fox’s executive co-chairman, touted FX’s “inventive originality” to analysts on a call announcing the deal Thursday and said he hoped it would “flourish under Disney ownership.” Neither Disney nor FX executives would comment for this report.
FX is unique in several ways. It is very small — just a few dozen key employees in a building on Fox’s westside Los Angeles lot — given the shows it produces and cultural impact it has. It also sits on ad-driven basic cable, where very little of the prestige-television revolution has occurred.
And it handles much of its development and production in-house rather than rely on large outside providers, making it a kind of self-contained entity that’s rare in today’s cable world.
That makes knowing its true value difficult. Some banks have valued it high: Wells Fargo recently put the number at $8 billion, more than half of Fox’s entire film operation. But other analysts aren’t so sure.
“It’s difficult to evaluate this deal because evaluating the [Disney-Fox] deal means knowing what you’re getting,” said Brian Wieser, an analyst at New York-based Pivotal. “And what is FX really worth?”
The network has virtues in its favor. Not least is Landgraf himself, who could be seen as the prestige-television equivalent of Marvel’s Kevin Feige, finding and then peddling a very particular aesthetic. Promoted to president in 2005, Landgraf has become known for taking chances on shows and creators that fit his refined taste and hoping a well-heeled audience will follow.
Landgraf also has been a media darling for his almost philosophical takes on the business in conversations with reporters, often accompanied by a strong shot of candor. At the gathering of journalists known as the Television Critics Association tour in 2015, he gained notoriety for asking whether there was simply too much TV, both an admission of responsibility and a jab at his newfangled competitors.
FX also has strong relationships with several valued creators. The top-tier writer-producer Ryan Murphy, for instance, has made some of his biggest hits at FX, including “Nip/Tuck,” “American Horror Story” and current hit series “Feud.”
The network did invest heavily in and profit from Louis C.K. with programs such the buzz-building “Louie,” which the comedian oversaw in almost every regard, and Pamela Adlon’s emerging hit “Better Things,” on which C.K. was executive producer. FX has taken the comic’s name off all of its shows in light of sexual-
misconduct allegations against him. While the absence of a hit such as “Louie” is hardly welcome, FX’s fortunes aren’t tied up in C.K., and “Better Things” is expected to come out mostly unscathed when its third season debuts next year.
That could be one more show Disney takes a look at and decides to invest in, hoping to supercharge FX’s audience with more production and marketing dollars. Under Disney, experts say, FX may not have to lose out to better-capitalized competitors, as it did when it sought comedy hit “Master of None” and eventual royals smash “The Crown” only to lose both to Netflix.
But some past efforts to go bigger have faltered. “The Strain,” a genre exercise that was the network’s answer to “The Walking Dead,” received modest praise and viewership and ended this year. And FX’s ratings have slipped — by double digits in the most recent quarter, as it faces competition from a wide range of streamers and premium channels.
Even with a bright programming future, FX may remain doomed. It has been a unicorn: a basic-cable network at a time of subscription services, and a place of boutique autonomy at a moment of scale and corporate oversight.
“In some ways, we’ve been waiting for places like FX to feel the contraction for a while,” said Barker, the pop-culture writer. “[The] Disney acquisition might just accelerate it.”