The Curious Case of AMC

Back in 2011, it seemed that AMC was at a crossroads with several of its flagship shows. Mad Men creator and show runner Matthew Weiner entered drawn out negotiations over renewing the 60s period drama for another two seasons. The issues at hand included budget cuts, allowing product placement, and increases in advertising, effectively lowering costs and increasing revenue. As Weiner eventually saw victory on all of these fronts, as well as a rumored $30 million pay cheque, Breaking Bad was battling over its episode count. Executives were trying to cut down its fifth season from thirteen to the six to eight episode range. Meanwhile, over on The Walking Dead set, the budget was slashed at $250,000 per episode, and showrunner Frank Daranbot was fired.

As Business Insider plainly pointed out during this time, “AMC Can’t Seem To Work Things Out With All Your Favorite Shows,” mainly because of money. For a cable television network, their program offerings may have been popular, unique and critically well-received, but they were pricey, large in scale, and had a lot of needs to be tended to in order to thrive. As BI acknowledged, AMC was not backed by any of the major corporations and balancing the creative interests behind their hit programs while being somewhat financially responsible. 2011 was the best of times, and it was the worst of times for the network.

In between then and now was a little scuffle with a show called The Killing, a murder-mystery drama that asked the question “Who killed Rosie Larsen?” for the course of its first two seasons. Its ratings declined over time and critical reviews were pointing to the mediocre level. In 2012, AMC cancelled the show. After Fox Television Studio, who owned and produced the show, stated that they planned on carting the show around to other networks and had the first two seasons being redistributed through Netflix, AMC announced in early 2013 that The Killing would be renewed for a third season.

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Flash forward to today, and we can see the successful aftermath of Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. The former will be closing out its fifth and final season on September 29th. AMC ended up stretching the final Walter White escapade over two summers and maintained the thirteen episode order. The latter has gone through yet another showrunner change but is set to premiere its fourth season this fall.

Outside of these programs, AMC has also been running the period-drama Hell on Wheels since 2011, and premiered Low Winter Sun, an adaptation of a British two part miniseries , this past August. I have not seen either of these shows, but I have heard decent things about both of them. I am particularly keen on watching Low Winter Sun because of lead Mark Strong and its production in Detroit, but have little interest in Hell on Wheels, despite swoon-worthy Common being on the show. Regardless of my personal opinion, their critical and commercial performance thus far has been average, and not exactly falling into the “flagship” category.

So with two of its most popular shows ending soon, one show thriving, and a few inbetweeners, where does AMC go from here?

Recent announcements on the future of primetime scripted programming at AMC give some indication of where their current strategy lies, which mainly revolves around building upon and/or stretching out the success of their current programs. With just two episodes left of Breaking Bad, AMC confirmed the long-rumored spin-off series on BB character (and one of the few people I actually like on the show) Saul Goodman, entitled Better Call Saul! for a 2014 release. The show will act as a prequel series and chronicle the resourceful, quick witted but slightly shady lawyer’s days before he met Mr.Heisenberg. Keeping in line with the spin-off theme, AMC is also developing a spin-off based on their own property, The Walking Dead.

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But it was AMC’s announcement on the future of Mad Men that really caught my attention (and motivated me to research and write about this in the first place). Just yesterday the network ordered an additional episode of the seventh and final season of the ad men escapades, bringing it to a grand total of fourteen episodes. “Great,” I said to myself. “One more hour for Weiner to demonstrate that there is something redemptive about Draper.” But it turns out that this move allowed them to pursue a “seven-and-seven” strategy, where the final season will be split into two halves and aired over the course of two summers, like what they did with Breaking Bad. So basically AMC gave themselves an extra year to do, well, a couple of things.

The Wrap believes split is occurring so that both Breaking Bad and Mad Men will have a chance at the Outstanding Drama Series Emmy, which would be a lovely send off for two monumental television shows. Rolling Stone believe its so that they can draw out the success of one of their best shows to date. A few like Hypable suggest that extending Mad Men‘s lifeline is so that AMC can build big shows for the future. Multiple media outlets have mentioned similar reasons, and I not only think that they all make sense, but that they also factored into AMC’s decision making. Do I necessarily think that it is the right move? Well, with so much uncertainty on the horizon, it makes sense, but it also assumes that the formula that worked so well for Breaking Bad will also work well for Mad Men.

This is a big assumption. Although the Mad Men fan base is dedicated and loyal to the show, the seven-and-seven strategy made more sense for Breaking Bad because of the pace and plot of the show. Mad Men finales have always left me thinking, but Breaking Bad episodes (not just finales, I mean week-by-week episodes) have always made me physically and psychologically unstable. Weiner will have to create one hell of a narrative and, at the split, a cliffhanger, to maximize the benefits of this method. But even if he under performs, there is reason to the Mad Men madness.

Overall, AMC’s strategy is a bit questionable to me. I have a few doubts, many of which relate to the assumption that built-in audiences equals success. We have seen this assumption fail countless times in the television and film industries. This is usually due to the fact that the adaptation or spin-off just does not compare to the original product. I think that this will be less true of the proposed The Walking Dead spin-off as, based on fan speculation, a spin-off would work in similar parameters that the original does, as it will also be based on the comic book series. In this sense, it seems like it could work more as an extension of the existing universe.

However, there is a bit more risk for Better Call Saul. Saul is an intriguing, entertaining and most importantly, a popular character, but I am failing to see the strength in his characterization that could carry a whole show. This is not to say that Bob Odenkirk will not be able to do the job (I cannot picture anyone else doing it), but I just cannot see Saul being the focal point of a show for multiple seasons. This show is not going to be Breaking Bad. It is a prequel series. And yeah, I am sure it will feature crookery, drug lords, many stories about how Saul met “the guy who knows a guy who knows a guy”, easter eggs such as how he obtained a Hello Kitty phone, sheepish smiles and hopefully Huell, but is that enough to satisfy existing audiences or to draw in new viewers? Will AMC be pushing for the comedy angle more than the drama?

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Maybe the push for the Breaking Bad spin-off is because they are not as confident in their other programs being developed for the 2014 season. This includes Turn, a period drama that is centered around a group of friends who form a spy group called The Culper Ring that eventually plays a significant role in the American Revolution. The second new show, Halt & Catch Fire, seems to revolve around the 80s computer/tech boom. I have little expectation of Turn, although I am a fan of lead actor Jamie Bell. Halt & Catch Fire seems like it will please Generation Y viewers, as it may track the sort of rise and fall of the computer/tech industry during that time. I foresee something along the lines of The Social Network, only with aviator frames, beards and ugly sweaters. Based on preliminary information, I am not overly excited about either of these properties.

But looking ahead other shows that are being developed, I think there are three contenders that may uphold the storytelling and integrity that AMC has so carefully built its brand upon over the past few years. The first is Raiders, which follows a U.S. Navy commander who embarks on a mission in Africa during World War II that will (according to Wikipedia) “bend the arc of history.” The second is a currently untitled sci-fi dystopian drama being helmed by former Fringe and Sopranos writer, Jason Cahill. I only really picked this one because of personal bias…I love dystopian stories. But I think AMC would do well with dystopian. And third, Line of Sight, which follows an investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board who survives a mysterious plane crash and sets off to unravel the incident. While I cannot say much about Cahill’s project, I do think that Raiders and Line of Sight have the potential to offer compelling stories that are unlike other AMC programs but will draw in wider audiences who are fans of sci-fi, drama, and historical pieces. 

With Mad Men scheduled to end its run in 2015, AMC has plenty of time to play around with its investments and figure out which gamble makes the most sense. This is the only reason why I support the extension of Mad Men. While I am still a little surprised that The Killing will likely not see the light of day again given the success of its third season, I think that the network should focus on ways to reinforce its branding rather than just rely on existing properties. This should mainly occur with new programming, as I even have my doubts about extending The Walking Dead universe. Furthermore, they should be looking at developing two or three of the programs I have listed faster, for the 2014 season, because they seem to be better bets than Turn and Halt & Catch Fire  (I acknowledge that  this is purely speculative on my part). When we look back at 2011 and the results of those tumultuous times, it appears that AMC made the wise decision to back its creative talent rather than just let them go. It made sense at the time.

But at this crossroads, I think it is time for the network to invest more of its capital and brains in new works that will extend their brand’s longevity in the primetime television market. I think it will create better value for them, and also make them a bigger contender against their corporate-backed competitors, such as HBO and FX. Obviously there is substantial risk in doing this with brand new properties, but I think the network needs to carefully consider and compare fan demand and fan preferences when it comes to their planned spin-offs against brand new programs. Assuming the audience will not move on can be just as dangerous as enticing the audience to move on. AMC boasts that it offers “Something More,” and I think it needs to demonstrate this beyond its flagship properties, and beyond what they have picked up for full seasons, particularly for next year.

What do you think is the better investment? What are your thoughts on AMC’s strategic plan?

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