The Zombies at AMC’s Doorstep

Elisabeth Moss doing a makeup test on the set of Mad Men.Photo: James Minchin III

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.

Aaron Paul shooting the new season of Breaking Bad.Photo: James Minchin III

The strategy worked, and AMC now saw a chance to reorganize some of its vast vault around an original series that would share the channel’s DNA. In other words, sophistication was a well-considered business move: An AMC series would have to look good surrounded by expensive old cinema. This meant it would have to be shot on 35‑mm. film, a luxury in basic-cable world. A period setting would be great, too.

The executive who saw Broken Trail through development was Christina Wayne, at the time one of AMC’s few staffers charged with original programming. A screenwriter herself (she co-wrote the Dirty Dancing sequel), Wayne had been given an offbeat but beautiful script just two months after taking the job at AMC. She instantly fell in love with it. It was a show HBO had rejected called Mad Men.

Besides its intricate mix of high drama and dry humor, Mad Men fairly gleamed with retro chic; a series like this could be paired with anything from Hitchcock to ­Scorsese. Weiner’s smoke-­shrouded, ­bourbon-drenched pilot script, written eight years before on spec, was no one’s idea of a sure thing. But in the Broken Trail afterglow, Wayne could do no wrong; she took Mad Men to AMC’s head of programming, Rob Sorcher, and as soon as Weiner was free from his Sopranos gig, cameras rolled.

AMC decided to finance the pilot by itself, but the move was perhaps premature. “We were so green,” says Wayne. “We had no experience making scripted TV.” Unlike subsequent episodes, which Lionsgate produces in Los Angeles, the Mad Men pilot was shot in New York City’s Silvercup studios (if you look at it closely, you’ll see the main set of the ad firm Sterling Cooper is slightly different). Exactly how green AMC was can be gauged by the fact that, instead of selling ads against Mad Men, it originally wanted individual advertisers to underwrite whole episodes, like in sixties TV. “I guarantee you, when you cut to a commercial in this show, viewers are going to be watching that commercial,” Sorcher, a former ad copywriter, boasted to the New York Times in 2006. That model was soon abandoned, and Sorcher left the company in 2007. (Wayne left to establish her own production company in 2009.)

AMC’s new executive vice-president and general manager was a young executive named Charlie Collier. A cable-TV veteran with a Columbia M.B.A., Collier looks disorientingly like Breaking Bad co-star Bob Odenkirk. He gets rightful credit for his creative judgment, but he is no arty idealist. It takes only a few minutes of conversation with him to notice that his favorite word is “scaling”—M.B.A.-speak for re-creating one success in perpetuity. Where others saw a great show, Collier also saw a scalable business model.

Mad Men premiered on July 19, 2007, with GoodFellas as the lead-in. The first season averaged 925,000 viewers—a so-so number for basic cable. But just a few episodes in, the chorus of critical adulation began: revolutionary, exceptional, groundbreaking. The show’s audience was unusually upscale, with a median household income among 25-to-54-year-olds exceeding $100,000. At the 2008 Golden Globes, Mad Men won honors for Best Actor (Jon Hamm) and Best Drama. The 2008 writers’ strike reduced the Globes from a prime-time extravaganza to an awkward on-air reading of the winners, but the AMC party that night lasted well into the morning.

Even as the Mad Men team celebrated, AMC’s follow-up act was being hatched. Improbably enough, it was a pitch-black drama called Breaking Bad, about a ­cancer-­stricken chemistry teacher who turns to cooking crystal meth. Written by The X-Files’ Vince Gilligan, and in turnaround from FX, “it was dead in the water,” says Gilligan. His agent suggested a plan B: “Do you know AMC?”

“Yeah, I watch old movies on it,” Gilligan cracked. “Why don’t you send it to Food Network? It’s a show about cooking, after all.”

Gilligan agreed to a meeting, thinking “it would be a nice $14 Scotch and that’s it.” Instead, AMC not only ordered the pilot but offered Gilligan, who’d only had two episodes of The X-Files to his credit, to direct it. AMC liked the relatively subversive idea that the show’s protagonist would gradually become its antagonist. And the show fit the channel’s series-driving-movies concept perfectly. AMC launched Breaking Bad’s second season amid a monthlong festival of “antihero” movies—Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and the like—called “March Badness.”

At first, Breaking Bad seemed star-crossed. Its premiere had run against an ultrarare NFL double overtime; and because of the WGA strike, the first season had to wrap up in a mere seven episodes. Ironically, the short season and the long hiatus couldn’t have served Breaking Bad better. It took on the status of a hard-to-find gem, with many fans discovering it on DVD between seasons one and two. The second season’s premiere was watched by over 40 percent more viewers than the first season’s average. By the time the third season rolled around in 2010, Breaking Bad had four Emmys and a growing reputation as TV’s best drama since The Wire.

One acclaimed hit series was arguably a fluke. Two back-to-back was something else. “Every channel has its breakout moment,” says AMC’s senior vice-president of original programming, Joel Stillerman. “HBO had it with The Sopranos, USA had it with Monk. But you’d be hard-pressed to find it in the first two shows that the channel did.” AMC had found its niche. We’ve heard of director as auteur (Scor­sese, Spike Lee, et al.), producer as auteur (Spielberg, Lucas), even studio as auteur (Pixar). In an even more specific way than HBO or Showtime, AMC was becoming TV channel as auteur.

The one original series AMC currently has on air is The Killing, a Seattle-set adaptation of a Danish hit dramatizing a two-week murder investigation over the course of a season. It’s a police procedural, with added matte sheen, ponderous pauses, realistic yet subtly stylized cinematography, and the distinct feeling of a luxury product. In other words, it’s an AMC show.

Four years after the debut of Mad Men, the essence of what makes an AMC show has been distilled into something of a formula. It’s a highly serialized (meaning long arcs, not “plot of the week”) drama that falls into an easily relatable genre while making a fair claim to transcending it. “One of our criteria,” explains Stillerman, “is things we can look at and see a rich cinematic history without doing much heavy lifting.” Viewed that way, AMC’s choices of original series make almost too much sense. The Walking Dead was a logical extension of the network’s annual Fearfest horror-movie marathon. The Killing opens up a trunkful of dour crime dramas (its premiere’s lead-in was Se7en). And the upcoming Hell on Wheels, set during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, will help dust off the Broken Trail–eraWesterns. Similarly, the shows in AMC’s development hopper include a space-travel epic and a car-racing show. Last year, it wanted a boxing project (imagine all the reruns of Rocky you could schedule around it).

The Killing’s showrunner, Veena Sud, calls AMC’s style “slow-burn television.” The entire pilot episode of The Killing, which ends with the discovery of the body, would be the stuff of two pre-title minutes on Law & Order. This is top-down policy. “They say during a pitch, ‘Slow it down,’ ” one agent says incredulously.

“The Walking Dead tripled ratings. If someone brought them Rubicon today, they wouldn’t greenlight it.”

Another AMC trademark is its near-­total indifference to star power. “The conventional wisdom, when you rep movie stars or superstar filmmakers on the David Fincher–Aaron Sorkin level,” says one prominent Hollywood agent, “is take them to HBO. HBO pays off. If you walk in with Will Smith, they’ll buy the pitch. Anytime you walk in with anybody important, they’ll buy it.”

AMC, on the other hand, this year alone passed on Boss, starring Kelsey Grammer with Gus Van Sant attached to direct the pilot (the project went to Starz). It turned down a J. J. Abrams pitch for a noir show one insider compares to Sin City. A high-profile pass Stillerman won’t name (it was Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards) “was a very solid piece of material, needed a little work. But they wanted us to commit straight to series. And we were going to be deliberate developers. And a very good piece of talent walked out the door, because someone else was willing to order six or eight episodes right away.” That someone was, interestingly, Netflix, in its first foray into original programming. “It won’t make me happy if it becomes a piece of landmark TV,” notes Stillerman. “But that’s how it is.”

The network got its first official HBO scalp last year. The company that produced The Killing was shopping around another Danish adaptation, The Man With the Golden Ears, about a record executive with a complicated family life. HBO wanted it; AMC got it. “We wanted to honor the relationship we’ve established with The Killing,” says one of the deal’s architects. When I asked HBO co-president Richard Plepler to comment, he went out of his way to play down any competition. “We obviously think we have more than our fair share of first-rate programming,” he said. “But there’s plenty of room for others to do good work as well.”

In 2010, AMC received about 500 pitches and 500 submissions of already-written pilot scripts. That doesn’t count the kind of spontaneous buttonholing that still goes on in lobbies and elevators. “Everyone has a ­reality-show pitch now,” Collier says. “I live in Connecticut, where it’s mostly finance, and I’m the TV guy, so I get noticed. They get me on the train platform.” Recently, a stranger shoved a DVD into Collier’s hands as he was walking down an AMC hallway. It was for a reality show about a radio station in Alaska, vaguely reminiscent of Remember WENN. “We didn’t go with it,” Collier deadpans.

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.

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.”

The Zombies at AMC’s Doorstep