Out of all those pitches and scripts, AMC bought a total of just twelve projects, with an eye toward making one or two pilots. Right now, AMC’s ratio of filmed pilots to ordered series—including its breakout hits—stands at a miraculous 1:1. “It won’t last,” says Stillerman. “But it’s not dumb luck either.”
The network’s success isn’t the work of a single programming genius—there is no Brandon Tartikoff at the channel. (Technically speaking, the final green light for a show is granted by committee—Collier, Stillerman, and Rainbow Media brass Josh Sapan and Ed Carroll—in a process one executive describes as almost bizarrely informal.) It’s more like the network’s animating idea—that you can make TV shows that look like movies—gradually and collectively evolved into a channelwide game plan that, improbably enough, put quality first, and worked.
On Halloween of 2010, AMC premiered a zombie show called The Walking Dead, based on a series of well-regarded graphic novels. It was the first original series AMC produced entirely by itself. But the main distinction between The Walking Dead and its AMC predecessors was … well … it wasn’t great. It wasn’t bad, by any means, but the level of artistic ambition everyone had come to associate with AMC was largely absent. It was simply a TV show about zombies—an innovative enough concept (there’s never been a zombie series before, unless one counts Tales From the Crypt)—but nothing more. It wasn’t even meant to be great. There wouldn’t be think pieces about it in The New York Review of Books.
On the afternoon of November 1, Collier got a call from the channel’s head of research. “Are you sitting down?” she asked. The Walking Dead’s pilot had been seen by 5.3 million viewers. The following Monday, Collier opened the New York Times to see the TV rankings for the week. In the 18–49 demo, The Walking Dead was second only to LeBron James’s first Miami Heat game. It beat Collier’s beloved World Series. It beat his favorite comedy, 30 Rock.
Suddenly, everything about the channel felt a little different. The Walking Dead’s outsize success meant shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad now seemed to be underperforming. This was especially true of Mad Men. On the one hand, it was AMC’s Sopranos, its flagship, its talisman. On the other hand, it was also something of an albatross—the channel’s most expensive property (costing just under $3 million per episode) and not terribly highly rated. So when the series’ irascible creator, Matthew Weiner, saw his contract come up for renegotiation, the zombie-emboldened AMC made its move.
The result was a long and largely calm renegotiation capped, at the end of March, by an ugly he-said-she-said. In an interview with this magazine during the dispute, a source close to Weiner portrayed AMC as a bumbling entity that had lucked into a good thing: “They fought him on the opening titles, the opening-title music, they didn’t want Jon Hamm, or a home life for Don Draper. The dry-cleaning bag over Sally’s head? That was the entry point for so many of the fans of the show. He almost had to die to get that in there.” The channel eased off, the source said, only once Mad Men began gathering acclaim. The only time Weiner would hear from the network, the source said, was awards season, “to remind him to mention its name.” AMC, for its part, quickly leaked the number Weiner was holding out for—$30 million for three more seasons—and hinted it could continue the series without Weiner.
Weiner’s camp claimed the channel was asking for him to cut performers from the cast, to shorten each episode by two minutes to fit more ads, and to do “more product integration.” A source with knowledge of the negotiations says that wasn’t true. “Cast cuts?!” he says. “That’s not even a network issue. It’s a studio issue. The budget was Matt’s to manage with Lionsgate. But if you’re an agent, and you don’t want it to be about the millions your guy is holding out for, you go, ‘He’s fighting for the cast!’ ” The integration issue, the same source says, was not about product placement. “All AMC wanted was the ability for the advertisers to say that they were integrated after it airs: ‘We’re proud sponsors of Mad Men.’ ” (An arcane provision in Weiner’s contract forbade this.) The one charge that was true, the source says, was the issue of two extra minutes. Mad Men had the attention of TV’s most desirable demographic but only ten minutes of national advertising per episode to monetize it. (A network show, and many basic-cable ones, would have fifteen to twenty minutes.) To AMC, the issue was crucial because much of the back-end and DVD-sales money on Mad Men would be made by Lionsgate. “If you’re going to step up and spend 30 million bucks creating support for a very successful franchise, of course you don’t want it to be your least-commercial-load show,” says the source.