One of the great agonies of loving “The Americans,” the FX Cold War drama about deep-cover KGB spies, is that so few people seem to get caught up from one season to the next, depriving one of the best shows on television the audience it so richly deserves. There are a lot of potential reasons for the lack of an “Americans” bandwagon, including the show’s stringent moral vision. But what I hear most often from readers is that they just don’t know where to find it: Episodes don’t go to Hulu right after air, and while some past seasons of FX shows are on Netflix, “The Americans” is part of Amazon’s Prime streaming video service.
At the Television Critics Association press tour on Friday, FX President John Landgraf used the start with his presentation to journalists to talk about the overwhelming proliferation of scripted television shows, the challenge that presents to viewers, and the way he thinks the industry will handle it all. “A contention that people watch shows, not networks, I think, does have some validity, but as technology evolves and people consume television through different modes of delivery than channels, brands will become increasingly important as mediating filters for the overwhelmed viewing public,” he argued. “So brands make consumers’ lives easier. They are sign posts that point to their favorite choices.”
To maximize the value of the FX brand, it would be ideal for all of FX’s content to be in one place: All the shows would air on one network, episodes would be available streaming in the same place shortly after they air and past seasons would all be archived in a single outlet. HBO, which owns its shows, has concentrated them in its HBO Go app and HBO Now service, which is an alternative to cable. But FX’s shows are split across the FX and FXX channels, and old seasons are scattered across Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and FX Now. I asked Landgraf how he squared the company’s current strategy, which has diffused that content, and his vision for the future, which requires greater consolidation.
“It’s true that we sold the back-end rights to the bulk of our content, and one of the things that’s really driving that, frankly, is that we have a fiduciary responsibility to that content and the content creators to maximize the value of their content and to pay them profits,” he told me. “The final statement in the pact of partnership we make with our creative people is we support them. They get to make their shows exactly the way they want to make them. We’ve pushed them to try to make them better. We market them, and then ultimately, in success, we cut them checks, basically, that give them a recognition for ownership of what they’ve created.”
In a better environment, a network like FX might be able to maximize the size of those checks by growing the audience for a show season-to-season and charging more for advertising. But technology makes it easier than ever before for viewers to skip or avoid ads. And with the huge growth in scripted shows, advertisers have more inventory to choose from than ever before, driving advertising prices down.
“The advertising model is pretty broken right now,” Landgraf acknowledged. “And that model just has to be reinvented. . . . But I don’t think the advertising business is going to go away. There’s a lot of really interesting innovation around targeted advertising and things that could go on in the on-demand and the VOD space, and it won’t be 20 ads. It will be maybe one ad, or say you get the opportunity to say I can engage with one ad now and watch the show commercial-free, or I can start watching it, watching commercial-free, and I can pause it any time I want over the next hour, and then I’ll be interrupted by a commercial. And if I don’t pause it and I don’t want one at the beginning, yeah, we’ll interrupt you towards the end, and you’ll have a choice of what commercials you watch, and there will be fewer of them, and they’ll be a higher [cost per thousand impressions] for the advertiser, but better targeting.”
But until that innovation happens, the choice is stark. “Right now the problem is the network can capture quite a lot of economic value from Amazon from having the back-end rights to one of our series,” Landgraf explained. “We can have it. We can put it on free video on demand or advertisement-supported video on demand. We can get virtually no revenue from it.”
This may be frustrating for those of us who wish everyone had the chance to appreciate the brilliance of Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) Jennings. But just as the spies of “The Americans” do their best work in obscurity, I’ll settle for a model that lets the series thrive, under-looked but in plain sight.