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SPECIAL FX

“The smartest man in TV” took his network from the least diverse to the most with one simple mandate

By Adam Epstein

It shouldn’t take a genius to make real improvements in the diversity of TV, but apparently it does.

They say John Landgraf, president of the US cable network FX, is the smartest guy in every room he’s in. Television critic Alan Sepinwall calls him the “mayor of TV.” Now, the man whose network produced Sons of Anarchy and The Americans, has taken on one of TV’s most intractable problems—its domination by white men—and he appears to have scored another victory.

Last year, a paltry 12% of episodes of FX television shows were directed by people that are not white men, according to a Directors Guild of America report on diversity in TV. The report revealed that FX was the least diverse television network, at least in terms of directing.

(Not included in this chart is Showtime, which had a 79% white male directorship, and the CW, which had 69%.)

A lot has changed in a year. Today, less than half the directing slots went to white men at FX, and a whopping 51% belong to women and people of color, according to Landgraf, who cited internal numbers. (While FX clearly made quite a bit of progress on diversity, Landgraf’s numbers can’t be directly compared to the DGA report, since FX accounted for a longer time frame. The next DGA report should come out later this month, and it’s unlikely another network will exceed FX’s improvement.)

So, what exactly happened?

“We set a goal that wasn’t incremental but quantum,” Landgraf told Variety this week. “If you’re going to go from a laggard to a leader, try to get to something you can actually achieve and sustain that looks like real change.”

Following the DGA report last year, and Variety TV critic Mo Ryan’s excellent reporting based on that report, Landgraf sent a letter to all of FX’s showrunners—the people actually responsible for hiring directors—and asked them to make a change, sooner rather than later. His showrunners, along with Jonathan Frank, the executive in charge of series, and Nicole Bernard, the network’s head of audience strategy, got the job done.

Of FX’s 149 filled directing slots for the 2016-2017 TV season, 76 are women or people of color, while 73 are white men, Landgraf revealed at a Television Critics Association (TCA) event Aug. 9. (Twenty-one spots are still open.)

“It’s just a matter of will, and it can be done,” he said to Variety afterward. “Nobody really can say, ‘It can’t be done,’ or ‘It’ll take 10 years to do it.’ It can be done now.”

FX is also making an effort to produce more diverse shows in terms of their casting and subject matter, including Atlanta, about cousins in the eponymous city’s rap scene from actor-rapper savant Donald Glover (also known as Childish Gambino), and Better Things, starring Pamela Adlon as a divorced actress.

Still, Landgraf noted that the work to make American television—and his own network—more accurately represent the country is far from finished.

“White males are only, depending on how you count them, somewhere between 31% and 36% of the US population,” he told Variety. “There’s nothing in my mind that says they ought to have 50% of the directing jobs. It’s not a panacea. It’s a beginning.”

FX’s TCA executive session presented a stark contrast to CBS’s, which was pulverized by TV critics for a fall lineup of new shows with zero non-white leads (and only one female lead)—and for fumbling the answers to questions about how the network can improve its diversity.