FX President John Landgraf may be suffering a bad case of déjà vu.
Last week, FX debuted its latest series, a boxing drama called Lights Out about a retired former heavyweight champ. Despite a knockout lead performance from Holt McAllany and lavish praise from a number of critics, the show premiered to only 1.5 million viewers — a number reminiscent of the premiere of the also critically adored but soon-canceled Terriers.
"Maybe we should have made a show about a zombie or a sexy vampire who is trying to regain the heavyweight title of the world," Landgraf joked at the Television Critics Association winter previews Saturday. But in all seriousness, Landgraf does think the shows are suffering from the success of such other programming as... Teen Mom?
"I think the market is a competitive market right now," Landgraf said, noting the recent ratings success of the MTV hit, BET's revival of The Game and Comedy Central's Tosh.0. "It's sort of like the feature-film business, where it doesn't really matter if your movie is good. It doesn't matter if people want to see it — it matters if it's their first choice because they're going to see one movie that weekend."
Landgraf exemplified his point by comparing Lights Out's marketing campaign to that of Terriers, which fans and critics alike initially panned as confusing. (Billboards for Terriers featured a snarling dog while series leads Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James, who played the series central private-investigator duo, were in the background.)
"One [campaign] might have felt obscure to you based on the title and the marketing. The other could not be more clear, and the outcome is exactly the same," Landgraf said. "I think it's for the exact same reason: The question isn't, 'Are they good?' The question is, 'Are they the first choice of enough people to overcome the massive wave of competition that exists in that moment in time in the marketplace?'"
Landgraf also noted the sometimes prevalent chasm between what critics like and what finds commercial success. "I think there's always been a disconnect unfortunately between audience taste and critical acclaim," he said. "I think in those rare circumstances where [critics] have near-unanimity and are willing to stand up on a table and shout, 'This is the greatest show of all time,' I think you guys can move the needle. But the reality is that you ... have to raise a huge din. You did raise a huge din on Mad Men, and ... that has taken it from a dismal ratings failure to ratings mediocrity."
Despite the excuses, Landgraf remains hopeful that Lights Out can find an audience in its first season. But even if the show becomes a "beloved 13-episode miniseries" like Terriers, Landgraf says he's committed to taking chances.
"We just have to raise our game," he said. "You'd think after the failure of Terriers from a commercial standpoint and the weak debut of Lights Out ... that we'd be discouraged. ... I'm actually really excited because it's a tougher environment. You've got to jump higher, got to jump further and you've got to work hard to find some kind of creative excellence with commercial noisiness. ... We don't win 'em all but we have a good batting average."