4 Ways John Landgraf Slays Fear, Failure, And Blandness On Screen And Behind The Scenes At FX

The fearless, GenFlux approach to green-lighting shows such as "The Shield," "Louie," "Justified," and "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" is also the backbone of the network president's management style.

What do you get when you cross a vigilante lawman, a depraved Philadelphia gang, and Louie CK? Who knows, but clearly there’s something wacky going on inside John Landgraf’s head.

He's the president of FX Networks, the cable outfit that has brought us Justified, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and Louie. “We had a cop shoot another cop in the face at the end of the pilot,” Landgraf says, referring the 2002 premiere of FX original The Shield. “No broadcast network would ever contemplate that.”

Landgraf’s choices with FX are not just provocative--though they are certainly that. They are, from a business perspective, inspired. “Basic and premium cable will produce 150 scripted original series this year,” Landgraf notes. “The average consumer will only know that a fraction of those series even exist. So you’ve got to pick really distinctive ideas. If it’s bland and undifferentiated, you just can’t sell it. The consumer is saturated with choice. You need a level of quality to differentiate in our marketplace, and part of what defines quality now is ‘new-ness.’”

Landgraf acknowledges that he’s chosen the road less traveled because he’s running an upstart enterprise. “Incumbents tend to hold on where they are strong. Blandness has been a real benefit [for the broadcast networks]. If you want to build a business of scale, you would build bland. They are much, much bigger than us.” But the trajectory of FX is something any business would aspire to: Every FX show saw audience increases in every demo last year, with the channel’s overall audience up 20%. “They are generally losing audience,” Landgraf notes of the big networks. "We’re growing.”

How, exactly? A culture of creativity. Landgraf walked us through the ways he's helped his business defy the odds.

Fire Fear And Failure

Used to be that little changes and stay-the-course were viable business strategies, Landgraf says. “You could have people who were ruled by fear in leadership. But today in the TV and storytelling industry, conservative tried-and-true strategies have been utter disasters.”

Landgraf is passionate on the subjects of failure and fear. “Fear has no purpose in current market phase, it is an unmetabolized emotional reaction. Two things happen when you’re fearful. First, you make seemingly rational decisions that are actually hedges. Or second, you fail to do something because you worry about the consequences.”

Deciders are the ones who find it hard to accept failure, he says. But Landgraf points out that when he’s deciding whether to pick up a series, he can’t know whether it’s going to be good or successful. So he thinks of himself as more aligned with tinkers or engineers who understand that failure is part of the process. “When A-Rod strikes out six times in a row, no one says he really sucks at baseball,” he says (recent post-series sentiments not withstanding). “We all know it’s hard to hit a major league baseball. In this business, no one seems to recognize how hard it is. ”

Landgraf recalls: “When I started at FX, we had two original series. We now have 14, on our way to 20. But we’re not trying to appeal to everyone with every show. Each show we hope will appeal to someone. There is a style to our shows--a psychographic unifies us. We’re not traditional fast food, we’re an upstart, spicy, with more challenging taste. Those who watch are less interested in bland.”

Employ The Theory Of Multiple Intelligences

The theory of multiple intelligences was proposed in the 1980s by a Harvard professor named Howard Gardner. It posited that, instead of one kind of intelligence, there were eight kinds--from logical to musical, bodily kinesthetic to interpersonal. While Gardner’s ideas were deflected by the scientific community, Landgraf embraces them as a philosophical premise: Just as there are broad personality types (introvert, extrovert, intuitive, analytic), there are also different ways intelligence manifests itself. “When I say we need a smarter organization, I mean we need multiple different kinds of brains, of intelligence, on topics, rather than just specialists.

“In the old style economy, based on manufacturing processes and durable goods, where objects tend to remain in place, you can segment these types of intelligence into different places. So you put your crazy intuitive people into marketing and your analytic people in engineering. But as we’ve moved from an economy of hard goods into the soft goods of ideas, things move really quickly. The adoption of new consumer ideas and products is happening so fast. The consumer doesn’t think in a groove, and they move en masse.”

And so you need all kinds of intelligence in all parts of a business, Landgraf says. “You can’t have people siloed in their particular areas of strength. You have to value all styles, because you never know which type will solve the problem. The challenge for each of us becomes a challenge for all.”

Break Down Silos

You don’t have to care about TV or cable competition to glean lessons from Landgraf. Because what’s he’s done organizationally at FX is every bit as provocative as his programming decisions. “We are seeing a rotation,” he says, “from a business climate where highly conservative and stolid and fearful people are able to succeed [as leaders]--perhaps are best able to succeed--to one where different people might be better.”

Landgraf began breaking down the silos at FX about five years ago. “This takes a lot of time. It’s easier in the short-term to keep information at the top and delegate. It’s cumbersome to get everyone out of their silos and to understand everyone else.” Among other things, Landgraf brings his full 60-person executive team together every two weeks to discuss the full range of problems that FX grapples with.

“Everything is confidential,” he says. “Every department makes presentations on what they’re doing, getting everyone up to speed. If someone in finance has notes about marketing or a TV show we’re developing, we listen to it. Everyone knows they are not confined to one area. It doesn’t mean that we act on everything. But when things move really quickly and problems are more subtle, we need everyone contributing.” He asked the head of FX’s business office if he wanted to read any scripts. “He was gobsmacked: The high priests read the scripts. But I’ve found you can ask lawyers if they have insight about the creative side, and they’re way better at it than people expect.”

Breaking down silos also helps retain his best talent, Landgraf notes. “Fluxers recognize intuitively that they have to be constantly expanding their palette. Because if you’re stuck in one area, that area may become obsolete and so their value would recede.”

It’s been a transition for Landgraf too, to reconceive his leadership role in a nontraditional way. “I’m the person who tries to define the narrative of our enterprise: where we are in the narrative, what challenges are ahead, and what makes people feel vital. People don’t want to work less hard, they want to work more hard--if they feel vital.”

Respect Thy Neighbor

Landgraf circles back to his management decisions. “The way networks work, they have a bunch of different departments, most people are only vaguely aware of what others do, maybe one or two people know everything that’s going on. We’ve made everyone in the business teach everyone else what they do and how it is all interconnected, and we all pull the boat together. Does everyone need to worry about everything? Of course not. But in a fast-changing world, we need everyone to help find answers.”

This connects to his description of FX’s larger mission. “You want your company to be a vehicle for many people to achieve their dreams,” he says. “We’re focused on the needs of creative people, to support them to do the very best work they can do. I want people here to be proud of the quality of their work, to create things that are entertaining but with nutritional value. The ethics of what we’re doing, the humanity of our environment is important. We’re all working for the person on the left of you and the right of you. We’re a team.”