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The Zombies at AMC’s Doorstep

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By April 1, Weiner had his $30 million and AMC had its two minutes, for most of the episodes. But in the scuffle, a bit of luster had come off both sides’ reputations. To succeed in the future, it was clear that the network would have to adapt, or even forsake, its high-toned model.

Bryan Cranston is angry. If you’re a Breaking Bad viewer, these words should fill you with dread. No one does rage quite like Cranston as Walter White. It’s the first shooting day of Breaking Bad’s episode 404, the fourth in the upcoming season, and Cranston has just finished a take. He stops by the “video village”—three rows of folding chairs before a wall of playback monitors—grabs a bottle of water, and slinks out of the Albuquerque soundstage into the adjacent warren of offices.

Cranston had pitched a show of his own to AMC a while ago. It revolves around a “lifetime military guy,” he says, “39 years old, who has a bad experience in Kandahar and decides to become a drill sergeant.” Cranston thought the pitch went well. Charlie Collier himself was considering producing it.

But now Cranston has just found out the network has passed. “They had Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Rubicon,” he says. “And then along came The Walking Dead and blew everything out of the water. It tripled our ratings. I mean, hordes of zombies! ‘Arrrrghhh!’ My guess is, they saw that and said, ‘More, bigger, flashier.’ My guess is, if someone brought them Rubicon today, they wouldn’t greenlight it.”

AMC’s refusal to pick up one of their biggest star’s shows may very well signal the onset of a new kind of pragmatism. There are three ways to make money running a TV network: selling advertising time, charging subscription fees, and owning the content you show. Broadcast networks depend almost solely on the ad model, while premium cable channels rely mainly on the fees. Basic-cable channels generate revenue from a combination of the two, but because no one subscribes to one basic-cable channel at a time, the fees are set within the packages sold by cable providers. Before Mad Men, AMC earned 20 cents per subscriber; now that number is closer to 40 cents. But 40 cents is still just a middling figure. ESPN commands $4 per subscriber. On the advertising side, AMC simply doesn’t generate the ratings, The Walking Dead notwithstanding, to reap vast revenues.

To grow, AMC somehow has to appeal to more people. But that goal isn’t realistic if the network simply continues to do the one thing it does well—air a few hours of original somber dramas on Sunday nights and movies and reruns the rest of the week. At HBO, original programming now accounts for 35 percent of the schedule, and that includes a mix of documentaries, mini-series, comedy specials, lots of boxing, one-off TV films, and a chat show (Real Time With Bill Maher). FX, AMC’s closest equivalent, may be showing Justified, Sons of Anarchy, and other respectable original fare, but it makes its money on reruns of Two and a Half Men.

AMC’s other option would be to become a content producer as well as distributor. This April, while AMC sank $30 million into getting Weiner to continue Mad Men, Lionsgate made over $75 million selling the show’s streaming rights to Netflix. HBO owns most of its original programming, which entails a greater degree of upfront risk but lets the network amortize its production costs if a show gets syndicated, resold to foreign markets, or comes out on DVD. Producing The Walking Dead is viewed as a positive step for AMC, but it’s one show, in just its second season, and syndication is still far off.

The obvious way forward is for the network to diversify its offerings, which is where AMC is heading next—gingerly. It’s a truism that you can’t go truly big without leaving your first fans behind. A&E used to run high-end drama under the slogan “Time Well Spent.” Now it has Dog the Bounty Hunter and Gene Simmons Family Jewels. Mass-market success, by definition, can’t be highbrow or lowbrow. It’s got to be … unibrow.

Quietly, AMC has begun taking comedy pitches. The goal appears to be something on the order of Modern Family. “I just got back from an AMC pitch,” says a prominent Hollywood agent, giddily, when I call. “They’re looking to establish a comedy brand, and about time. I went in and told them—even your show titles are bleak. I mean, The Killing! The Walking Dead! Mad Men! Ugh.”

Back in March, I joked to Collier that AMC should consider a reality show called The Real Mad Men of Madison Avenue. He nodded. “We talk about that all the time! There are absolutely ways to do great stories unscripted. We hold scripted TV up on this pedestal, but at the same time, you know, you want to broaden your business.”

“I’m not afraid of diluting the brand,” says Joel Stillerman. “The world is used to different kinds of programming. We benefited greatly from being a network that put Mad Men on the air, but I think our audience will appreciate all sorts of storytelling.”

Just last month, AMC picked up its first two reality shows: Inside DHS, about the inner workings of the Department of Homeland Security, and The Pitch, which follows several advertising agencies as they pursue a new account. The channel made a concerted point of disassociating The Pitch from Mad Men, but it’s all but impossible not to see the two shows as symbolic twins—the end of one era and the beginning of another. Pleased as it sounded with the pickup, AMC was also a bit too embarrassed to use the term reality. After a brainstorming session of its own, the network went with “docu-stories.”


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