TERRIERS is one of those great shows that few people watched, but those who did, were passionate about it.
The FX series concerned ex-cop Hank Dolworth (Donal Logue) and his best friend ex-thief Brit Morgan (Michael Raymond-James) who teamed up as unlicensed private eyes in San Diego and stumbled across a CHINATOWN-like scheme. The series finale aired Wednesday. Usually, when a TV series is canceled, the network lets it slip away as quietly as possible.
However, when FX decided not to renew freshman series TERRIERS on Friday, network president John Landgraf took the rare step of organizing a conference call with the press this morning to discuss the cancellation.
“I really appreciate the fans that showed up weekly for this show and poured their passion into it and sent thousands of emails to us,” Landgraf says of why the talk is taking place. “I really have tried to run this channel, this network in a more transparent way. It runs transparently internally. We all talk very honestly to each other, we’ve tried to be very transparent and very open with the creative people who’ve come to work here and we’ve tried to be more transparent with the press. This is like batting in major league baseball. Nobody hits a thousand. There are creative successes that are commercial failures, and commercial successes that are creative failures, and every once in awhile, you hit them both, and I think FX is confident enough in its overall track record that it’s okay that we open up the books and we have an honest conversation about the times when things don’t work. My estimation is that that’s better for everybody.”
That transparency was shared with TERRIERS creative team, Landgraf explains.
“On Friday afternoon, late in the day, I had [series creator] Ted Griffin and [executive producers/show runners] Shawn Ryan and Tim Minear over to my office and we had a long conversation,” adds Landgraf. “I took them through some of the numbers related to the ratings performance of their show and also a fairly extensive amount of research that we’ve done, which is a postmortem on the launch and marketing of the show, and unfortunately, I had to make what is the least enjoyable type of decision that’s part of my job, which is the decision to cancel the show. They were incredibly professional and gracious, as they’ve been through the entire process, and we spent a lot of time just savoring and enjoying the excellence of the show that they had created for us. [TERRIERS] is something that I know I and everybody at FX is enormously proud of. New York Magazine just came out with their Top Ten list for the year and put TERRIERS third. I think that’s bittersweet, because it makes it all the more difficult and painful to have to cancel the show.”
If the creative team wishes to reveal to the public what a second season of TERRIERS might have entailed, Landgraf says it’s fine with him.
“I know that Tim and Shawn have tweeted this morning,” he says. “I probably won’t sponsor that forum, but would have no objection whatsoever if they choose to talk to the fans about it. It’s their work and if they want to put it out there, I’m sure it would be fun for people who love the show to hear what might have been.”
The block to a second season of TERRIERS was, bluntly, the numbers, Landgraf says.
“TERRIERS averaged 509,000 adults 18-49 [in viewers in first-run],” he notes. “[The] first season for DIRT averaged a little under 1.6 million. THE RICHES averaged 1.4 million. OVER THERE averaged 1.3 million. [The first season of] DAMAGES averaged a little over 1.1 million. And then if you look at the multi-run, which is what we sell to the advertisers, TERRIERS did 1.6 million [in viewers], DIRT did 1.7 million, THE RICHES did three million, OVER THERE did 2.9 million and DAMAGES did 2.4 million. So I think you can see that those numbers are so far out of the [acceptable target range for advertisers], that you could have doubled the ratings and it would still be the lowest.”
Some viewers were perplexed by the title of TERRIERS, especially in New York and Los Angeles, where there were billboards featuring an angry, tenacious dog. However, Landgraf says the advertising in the rest of the country properly represented the series’ style and content.
“What drives tune-in and awareness of television shows overwhelmingly is TV marketing, and to some smaller degree, word of mouth,” Landgraf notes. ” [To investigate whether audiences were understanding the advertising for TERRIERS], we went and a group of six hundred people, including two hundred that were very stolid FX drama viewers, about two hundred that were more sort of the USA/TNT-type viewer and two hundred that were sort of just drama viewers that had no particular brand affiliation or buy-in. We showed them those promos, we asked them to rank the promos. Then we showed them the first episode of the show, then we showed them the promos again. The first episode of the show tested just about as well as the pilot, almost, not quite, but statistically insignificant, and lo and behold, the promos tested just as well as the first episode and the pilot. The audience basically felt that they represented the show extremely well and explained what the show was about very, very well. The promos [showed] Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James and showed this was a buddy comedy and this was funny and it had some edge and explained that it was set in Ocean Beach and explained that it was a detective show. I think if I legitimately believed that the reason the show didn’t succeed on our air was because we failed to adequately describe to the audience what the show was about, that would have been a reason to renew it. I think one of the reasons that I spent a lot of money and had a lot of people spend a lot of time doing a postmortem analysis is because the question was, was the marketing campaign fair to the show? The [test] audience said, ‘These are good promos, they absolutely represent the show,’ and so from my standpoint, if we in fact did market the show, how would I believe that putting the show on air next year, it would miraculously triple or quadruple its ratings, which is what it would need to be to be successful?”
“I’d probably at a minimum call it TERRIERS: P.I. ,” Landgraf adds with a laugh, “but I can’t really believe that the ratings are going to triple just because we do that next year.”
Another possible issue with getting people to watch TERRIERS may have been convincing them that it stood out from the pack.
“I guess maybe one of the challenges with TERRIERS is that a buddy detective show is something that people have seen a lot of, so you have to convince people that this one’s worth watching, because like THE ROCKFORD FILES, it’s better than all the others,” Landgraff adds. “And that’s a really hard thing to convince people of, even if we have independent [critical] validation,. And the reality is, if they want to watch a buddy show, or a buddy detective show, they have many, many options. Now I don’t know if people are going to watch LIGHTS OUT. I don’t know if it’s going to be successful or not successful. But I know if you want to watch a show about a retired heavyweight boxer struggling to make things right, you have one option, and that’s LIGHTS OUT. Now, people might want to watch it or they might not want to watch it, but the truth of the matter is, conceptually it’s unique. I think the people who came to TERRIERS ultimately did get a very unique experience. For whatever reason, we and the show couldn’t convince enough people that the show was distinctive and unique enough to make it work. The reality of this is hard. When you’re not [just] aiming for commercial excellence and you’re willing to tolerate creative mediocrity, or creative excellence and you’re willing to tolerate commercial mediocrity, when you really have to hit those two targets simultaneously, it’s really, really difficult. And given that, I’m very proud that we’ve managed to do it about half the time we’ve stepped up to the plate, but the reality is, this isn’t the first really good show we’ve had to cancel and it won’t be the last.”
What conclusions have Landgraf and the FX team drawn from all this?
“Well, people thought that the show was compatible with FX’s brand but not similar to other FX shows, and to the extent that it was dissimilar, they found it to be a little less edgy, a little less sexy, a little less suspenseful,” he says. “I think the things that were really wonderful about the show tended to be relatively subtle. I think you who watched the show and the audience that was very devoted to it found that it had a subtle charm that kind of crept into your psyche over time and you got to like it more. Subtlety? I don’t know if subtlety is something the American public is buying in droves today. Look at JERSEY SHORE and the Kardashians and SONS OF ANARCHY and WALKING DEAD and we can kind of go on and on and on, up to and including what seems to be selling in the political space in America. I wouldn’t say that subtlety and nuance describes the most successful kind of pop content in America today. And so if you want to know what it revealed, it revealed that those subtle charms took a little while to get hold of people, and that’s a hard thing to sell.”
This doesn’t mean that FX is now refusing to take pitches for shows that don’t have the sex/violence quotient of, say, SONS OF ANARCHY, the network’s biggest ratings success to date.
“LIGHTS OUT is a much subtler show than SONS OF ANARCHY,” he concludes. “I don’t know whether it’ll succeed or not when it goes on the air in January, but I certainly don’t regret making it. I think it’s a wonderful show and a totally valid attempt to make a commercial entertainment that’s also gripping and moving. The audience is a democracy. The audience gets to vote whether that’s their cup of tea or not. I wish I could make unilateral decisions and didn’t have to pay attention to what the audience says, but on the other hand, I don’t know if I wish that, because I think part of the unique and interesting challenge of television is, people have to invite these shows into their homes and they have to devote their time to them voluntarily and so how can you make something – how can you foster and support writing that is great and artists that are ambitious and make something that’s exceptional and that’s high-quality that also entertains people? That’s a really hard thing to do and I think in the challenge, there is disappointment and this [cancellation of TERRIERS] is definitely a disappointing outcome. But there’s also a lot of excitement and a lot of fun when we manage to find something that works. I’m glad that at least some people saw [TERRIERS] and loved it. That’s not nothing.”