Against Branding, Terriers Division

After canceling Terriers, FX President John Landgraf took the step of holding a conference call with critics to explain the show’s failure. This was unusual, but it’s necessary to maintain the network’s critical respectability: though he didn’t actually say much that was new, he managed to maintain the critics’ feeling that FX is a “quality” network and prevent a critical backlash against the entire network. This is crucially important, since FX has an uneven track record with original drama, and it wouldn’t take that much of a push for it to be viewed as the network that did Season 2 of Damages and makes most of its money off Two and a Half Men reruns. It needs to know that if it launches a new show, critics will take it seriously, and Landgraf is ensuring that by building a positive relationship with the press.

There’s not a lot to say about the substance of Landgraf’s remarks, most of which are studiously uncontroversial. Obviously he doesn’t apologize for canceling it, nor should he. He also doesn’t think the title or the marketing campaign made all the difference, and he’s probably right about that too.

I did want to call attention to how an argument that the show didn’t fit with “The FX brand” soon turns into something that resembles an admission that branding doesn’t matter a whole lot. First he says that research showed it wasn’t considered “edgy” enough for FX, but then he notes that the “subtle charm” of the show wouldn’t really fit in anywhere in the current pop culture climate:”I don’t know if subtlety is something the

American public is buying in droves,” he added. “When I look at ‘Jersey Shore’ and the Kardashians and ‘Sons of Anarchy’ and ‘Walking Dead’… I wouldn’t say that subtlety and nuance describes the most successful kind of pop content in America today.”

The big hit shows on most cable networks (and broadcast networks) tend to share certain characteristics; right now a lot of the big cable hits — the great ones and the bad ones — seem to be characterized by a certain over-the-top quality. (It’s never an absolute rule, or Mad Men wouldn’t be on the air today. But you have to wonder what would happen to a show like Mad Men if it were launched on a network with higher ratings expectations than AMC used to have.) So the issue with Terriers is not that it doesn’t fit FX’s brand, but that it doesn’t fit the brand of current television. This is probably true of many shows that fail; just as good marketing or a good title can only help at the margins, a show that’s unwatched on one network probably wouldn’t get that many more viewers on a network with a more appropriate “brand,” even assuming there is one.

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