The TV Hit That Wasn’t
It was one of the most dramatic episodes of the season. Monica Lewinsky, the heroine of “American Crime Story: Impeachment,” strikes an immunity deal with federal prosecutors, and President Bill Clinton admits to having had an affair to a grand jury and the nation as a whole. The episode also brought Hillary Clinton, portrayed by Edie Falco, to center stage for the first time.
The only thing missing was a big viewing audience.
“American Crime Story: Impeachment,” a series that attracted lots of media coverage before its September premiere, airs on the FX cable network Tuesdays at 10 p.m. Last week’s episode ranked 15th in the ratings for cable shows that day, tied with ESPN’s “Around the Horn” and MTV’s “Teen Mom.”
Produced by Ryan Murphy, “American Crime Story: Impeachment” has a lot going for it, including an A-list cast (Clive Owen, Sarah Paulson, Beanie Feldstein, Ms. Falco) and the sumptuous production touches that Mr. Murphy’s fans have come to expect of his shows.
The last two seasons of the anthology series, which tackles a new subject each time out, won Emmys for best limited series. And although Variety criticized the current installment as an “overwrought rehash,” the reviews overall were “generally favorable,” according to the website Metacritic.
So why hasn’t the show landed with viewers in a big way? Why isn’t it a regular part of Twitter’s top trending topics? The answer lies in the fact that “American Crime Story: Impeachment” is not available on any major streaming platform and won’t be for another 10 months.
The same was true for the initial rollouts of the previous seasons. But millions of viewers have cut the cord since then, ditching cable for some combination of Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO Max, AppleTV+ and other services.
Fans of “American Crime Story: Impeachment” who miss an episode can still stream it, but only if they are armed with their cable-subscription user names and passwords. And in 2021, a show that’s not easy to stream risks becoming almost invisible.
The reason for its absence from the big streamers has to do with a deal worked out in 2016 by FX’s parent at the time, 21st Century Fox. For an undisclosed sum, the company sold the streaming rights to all editions of “American Crime Story” to Netflix. Both sides agreed that the series would be available exclusively on FX for roughly a year. From then on, Netflix would make it available to its subscribers.
The deal seemed reasonable to 21st Century Fox in 2016. Back then, cable was still a robust business, and viewers were still in the habit of watching a program at a certain time on a certain night of the week.
The first season of “American Crime Story,” about the O.J. Simpson case, premiered early in 2016 and was a big hit, although it was not available on any major streaming platform. At the time, video-on-demand technology was still emerging, and Netflix had 80 million subscribers, meaning it had less of a reach than FX, which was then available in 92 million households.
The pandemic accelerated the trend of viewers dropping cable subscriptions in favor of the watch-when-you-want experience of streaming. Netflix now has 213 million subscribers, and FX is available in 76 million homes.
Viewers accustomed to the largely commercial-free experience of streaming would have had a flashback to the days of traditional TV while watching the most recent episode of “American Crime Story: Impeachment” on Tuesday night. The roughly 80-minute show included five commercial breaks that took up 18 minutes and 25 seconds. A sixth commercial break, three minutes long, came between the final scene and the preview of the next week’s episode.
Scripted cable shows are still very much a part of the cultural conversation — as long as they’re streaming. All of HBO’s scripted shows, a lineup that includes “Succession,” “White Lotus” and “Mare of Easttown,” appear weekly on the HBO channel itself while also streaming on HBO Max. HBO said that digital viewing for the third season premiere of “Succession” was “up 214 percent from last season’s premiere,” which came out in 2019.
FX sends most of its new series to a streaming portal, FX on Hulu, which like FX itself, is now owned by the Walt Disney Company. Because of the 2016 deal, “American Crime Story: Impeachment” is not among the shows that go to Hulu.
Before the show’s premiere, John Landgraf, FX’s chairman, conceded that the world had changed substantially in the years since the Netflix deal, telling The Hollywood Reporter he could “not remember the last time that there was a really water-cooler show that was scripted on a linear cable channel.”
“I just don’t know whether the pipes are still there to galvanize people’s attention,” he continued. “But we’re going to find out.”
Mr. Landgraf and FX declined to comment for this article.
Despite the lack of buzz, “American Crime Story: Impeachment” still gets weekly write-ups in Vanity Fair and Vulture. The series also has the eighth highest ratings of any scripted show on cable this year. The 2016 installment, about O.J. Simpson, ranked fifth, and the 2018 version, centered on the murder of the fashion mogul Gianni Versace, was also eighth.
The audience figures tell a different story, though. “American Crime Story: Impeachment” draws an average audience of 571,000 viewers among adults under the age of 50, according to Nielsen’s delayed viewing data. “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” had more than double that audience, with 1.2 million, and the O.J. Simpson season had an average of 3.9 million viewers.
In 2016, the No. 1 rated scripted cable series, AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” averaged 11.3 million viewers among adults under the age of 50, according to Nielsen’s delayed viewing data. By 2018, “The Walking Dead” viewership average had fallen to 5.3 million. This year its adult audience average is 1.3 million — and it still ranks No. 1.
Why did 21st Century Fox executives think so highly of the arrangement they had struck with Netflix deal five years ago? At the time, Mr. Landgraf called it a “phenomenal deal from a financial standpoint.” James Murdoch, then 21st Century Fox’s chief executive, said it was “a great deal for the company and for shareholders.”
Never mind that many television executives, even then, were already concerned that the sales of their back libraries to Netflix might backfire. The more Netflix had to offer its subscribers, the easier it was for it to attract new subscribers. That, in turn, enabled it to spend billions on original series and big-time talent.
In 2018, Netflix signed one of the most successful producers in cable — Mr. Murphy — to a contract worth $300 million. Under the deal’s terms, he was allowed to keep making the series he had already started at FX and Fox. After that, his new shows would belong to Netflix.
FX will broadcast the ninth episode of “American Crime Story: Impeachment” on Tuesday and the season finale Nov. 9.