On March 7, a group of top executives at the cable channel AMC checked into Santa Monica’s Shutters hotel and didn’t leave for three days. By March 9, creators of all six new series AMC has in active development had stopped by the hotel’s conference room—two teams a day—to make an elaborate case for their product. Presenters arrived with tone reels (examples of camerawork and direction that fit the project’s mood), story arcs that stretched to the end of the first season, and even guests. The team representing the sci-fi series The Voyage, about the consequences of alien contact (headed by Lynda Obst, who was a producer of the similar-sounding 1997 film Contact), brought a renowned planetary scientist. The makers of a yet-untitled series set in sixties Italy, about an American who enters the Formula 1 scene, brought a current racer. Creators of a football-themed drama briefly considered bringing in a live mascot.
It was only the second year the channel held the bake-off, but the event already showed signs of becoming a tradition. “It’s like a big party,” Susie Fitzgerald, AMC’s senior vice-president of scripted programming, says. But it is the kind of party where few guests were left standing at the end. By summer, the six projects up for discussion would be pared down to one or two at most. Still, one by one, big names and small submitted to the procedure—a kind of pitch after the pitch, a defense of an already-sold script, that no other channel requires.
Such is the status AMC commands in today’s television universe. Just four short years after the one-two punch of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, AMC is the fastest-rising network in America. From 2008 to 2010, Mad Men won three Outstanding Drama Emmys in a row, while Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston took three concurrent Outstanding Lead Actors. AMC characters have inspired essays in The New York Review of Books and Funny or Die parodies. Last year, the network debuted its biggest hit to date, the zombiefest known as The Walking Dead. The season-one finale was seen by 6 million people; the show’s 18–49 audience that season was the largest for a drama in basic-cable history. Not network numbers, not HBO numbers, but pretty stunning for a channel that was barely running original programming five years ago.
The strange thing, perhaps, is not the speed of AMC’s ascent but the road it took to get there: by starting out dreamy, highbrow, and slow, the antithesis of everything we’ve been taught to think about TV. Rejecting the easier path of, say, USA, the most popular basic-cable programmer, AMC followed the model of HBO, another channel that was once known primarily for its movies: Pursue quality, embrace the perceived exclusivity that comes with a limited audience, and hope that critical acclaim takes a show viral. What made The Sopranos special wasn’t the graphic sex and whackings; it was the sophisticated, novelistic approach to storytelling. AMC is now a brand that features shows essentially presold to America’s chattering classes. Even last year’s Rubicon, a dud by any metric, was deemed a noble failure. When AMC’s negotiations with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner turned acrimonious this spring, viewers’ sympathies, which normally stay on the showrunner’s side, were noticeably split. On March 10, just as the bake-off wrapped up at the Shutters, Cablevision announced that it was renaming its Rainbow Media unit (which owns not just AMC but also IFC, Sundance Channel, and other channels). The new company, which is expected to be spun-off by mid 2011 into a separate, publicly traded entity, would be called, of course, AMC Networks.
But that’s right now, and things might not look quite the same in another year. The success of The Walking Dead, paradoxically, has left the network with an unusual dilemma. Like the executives of Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, AMC is facing an existential question: How do I grow my business without sacrificing who I am?
American Movie Classics first blinked to life in 1984, as a premium cable channel devoted to its titular subject: no commercials, no cuts, no dreaded colorization—just beloved old films. For the next twenty years, through changes in ownership and a move to basic cable, the concept remained the same. It was the channel you’d turn to at 2 a. m. to fall asleep to Groucho Marx.
AMC’s first foray into original programming was the geriatric dramedy Remember WENN, which ran for four seasons from 1996 to 1998. But that show has since been all but erased from AMC’s official mythology. Executives almost uniformly name the 2006 Western mini-series Broken Trail as the channel’s first brush with serialized TV.
Broken Trail posted strong ratings—9.7 million viewers tuned in to the premiere, the second-largest audience ever for a basic-cable telefilm and almost three times the channel’s record. But its actual purpose was broader. The mini-series was, essentially, a new way to curate the channel’s many stock Westerns; the fresh product would draw new viewers to the films and vice versa.