Almost lost in the pre-Christmas rush of media and pandemic news was a report of a branding tweak that I believe represents a huge win for a perpetual insurgent that has even triumphed over Mickey Mouse.
Disney announced this week that FX, the network I am proud to say I helped build that was acquired from FOX two years ago, will now receive its own branded digital destination for its acclaimed original content and that the cumbersome “FX on Hulu”sub-branding that it has been saddled with since becoming part of Mouse House will be retired. For my former boss John Landgraf and his team of superb executives this is nothing short of a massive internal political win.
Disney is a company that passionately believes in the value of a brand and will frequently choose their perception of protecting one versus the investment in content that will actually generate an audience. Indeed, many of the recent difficulties that Disney Plus has had in continuing their early momentum against their chief studio-centric streaming competitors has been directly related to the internal conflicts surrounding what content is appropriate for a service with the pristine Disney nomenclature. It has resulted in numerous more adult-centric programming either pivoting to other corporate destinations (including Hulu) that don’t have the Disney Plus reach or being delayed or aborted.
When FX was evolving within the FOX universe similar issues of brand policing emerged, and I was in the forefront of it, When it was first created FX was perceived as FOX without the O, imaged as FOX without its heart. At the time, the network was still a hodgepodge of reruns and male-appeal originals like Howard Stern’s sitcom spoof SON OF THE BEACH and THE X SHOW, otherwise known as the talk show that didn’t launch Jimmy Kimmel’s career. Frankly, there was not only no heart, there was no heartbeat.
As the move toward more defined and consequential content like THE SHIELD unfolded FX found audiences in the millions and its identity of being “fearless”. Landgraf has been the key champion of that branding, relentlessly putting every program under consideration through that filter to determine its potential for the network. At various times his passion has been blind to the realities of what his viewers actually want, and many of those incidents occurred early on in his regime, where our worlds collided. Unfortunately, speaking Leblanguage to someone even more determined to advance his vision proved to be fatal for me. As the executive often responsible for the sobering reality of Nielsen rejection who refused to challenge the same ratings company that provided good news when bad news would be offered, I am one of the few architechts of the empire he built who fell off the ride early on.
During the 2010s, FX and Landgraf had far more hits than misses, secured their respective industry positions and ultimately became the crown jewel of the media assets Disney acquired when it got Rupert Murdoch out of the entertainment side of the business at decades’ end. At that point, Disney was heavily invested in trying to make sense out of Hulu, a brand whose name literally came out oif a brainstorming session. While Hulu has achieved some degree of success with breakthrough content like THE HANDMAID’S TALE it was–and is–more defined by a much larger array of niche series, time-shifted ABC series and 35-year-old GOLDEN GIRLS reruns. Basically, where FX was at the start of the century. The initial push was for the “FX on Hulu” connection to drive young adult traffic for critically acclaimed original shows to the platform, with FX benefitting from multiplatform exposure it was never able to capitalize on under FOX ownership. (If you didn’t subscribe to FX Now, you’re one of hundreds of millions of TV viewers who didn’t).
FX has indeed thrived with a stronger online presence. DAVE, a comedy that initially runs on its younger FXX channel, broke all FX records for total viewership of an original half-hour thanks to its omnipresence on Hulu. The FX series are among Hulu’s most-viewed, eclipsing those of Freeform and ABC series. But while legacy brands like NBC and CBS become subservient to their streaming cousins Peacock and Paramount Plus it became apparent that it was FX, and not Hulu, that was the front end of this horse.Hu
lu can’t even keep pace within its own universe with Disney Plus. It is about to lose its NBCU content and still does not have a global footprint to match those of those competitors. Its originals lack the buzz that Apple TV+ and Prime Video shows have, let alone the pedigrees of the library-inspired originals that Paramount Plus and Peacock leverage.
Landgraf has been uncharacteristically quiet of late, with rampant rumors of corporate inflghting between his team, lead by his longtime FOX boss Peter Rice, and the Disney distribution team headed by former HR executive Kareem Daniel frequently surfacing. Like most linear networks, even its critically acclaimed hits like its recent Monica Lewinsky-themed AMERICAN CRIME STORY installment delivered disappointing audiences. There was even some buzz that Landgraf had grown frustrated enough to perhaps move on.
I haven’t spoken to John in years, but I do believe I know his thought process and I still respect his talent and passion. Indeed, we share the same dedication to rigorous honesty and will defend what we believe to be true even when empirical evidence says it should be reconsidered, Clearly, he’s stuck to his guns. This week’s news strongly suggests he was correct in doing so. Whether or not he hangs around to continue remains to be seen. He’s been successful enough to chart his own course. Regardless, the house he built will stand separate. And for that alone, hats off to the Mayor of Hollywood yet again.
Until next time…