Meditations in an Emergency: The Trouble With AMC
A 1960s ad executive with a clandestine history, a chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin, and a former sheriff who prowls post-apocalyptic Georgia are the three conceits that make up the driving force behind American Movie Classics (AMC). These programs helped the channel elevate the medium for creative storytelling and people began taking cable television more seriously. Previously known as a nostalgic classic-movie network preordained to sit out television’s creative revolution, AMC became known as a purveyor of refined and dramatic television. The network’s palate for novelistic storytelling shifted the perception and expectations of its audience, and declared its rank among the most important of cable networks, although its triumph may be short-lived.
In recent years, a new golden age of television has laid the groundwork for television storytelling. At the forefront was Home Box Office (HBO), a subscription-based channel with its complex and expressive subject matter on programs like “The Sopranos” (1999–2007), “Six Feet Under” (2001–2005), “The Wire” (2002–2008), and many others. AMC signed on the air in 1984. It became a venue for black-and-white films (mostly made before the 1950s) in a commercial-free and unedited format. Its audience was primarily men and women aged 25–54 who knew it as the channel to watch a spaghetti western marathon in the early afternoon, and then again in the early morning. Its primary competition was Turner Classic Movies (TCM), the “superior” classic movie channel run by CNN founder Ted Turner. AMC, as the second-tier network, was susceptible to falling off the cable listings.
The choice to air original programming was a defense mechanism, said Rob Sorcher, an executive hired in 2002. In July of 2006, a western miniseries “Broken Trail” with Robert Duvall aired to 10 million viewers, a high watermark for AMC. (Sepinwall). “AMC doesn’t need to worry about ratings at that moment of time,” recalled Sorcher. “What AMC needs is a show, a critically acclaimed and audience-craved show that would make us undroppable to cable operators.” (Sepinwall, 303). The variation in content meant a change in the competitive landscape; the network now fought for viewers with channels like FX, another revolutionary cable network known for its unprecedented programming, and even subscription-based networks like HBO and Showtime. The directive to start original programming spurred AMC to become the fastest-rising network in America.
Christina Wayne, a screenwriter for the channel, found an offbeat pilot script that other networks had turned down. The script was titled “Mad Men” (2007–present), and it was a period drama about a busy day in the life of Don Draper, a charismatic, adulterous ad executive in the 1960s. The show focuses on the agency’s business and how Don balances work, his messy sordid personal life, and his married life. “Mad Men” became the first cable show to win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series, and has since won the award four times consecutively. The Emmy wins marked the significant transition and passing of the torch from “The Sopranos,” for which “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner co-wrote 11 episodes. (Sepinwall).
Another AMC program, “Breaking Bad,” (2008–2013) is about an undervalued chemistry teacher with severe self-esteem issues. He is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and chooses to support his family by cooking methamphetamine. With a premise this morbid, it’s plain to see why other channels would turn this pilot down. HBO and Showtime weren’t remotely interested. The CEO of Sony Television called it “the single worst idea for a television show [he’d] ever heard.” (340, Sepinwall). The show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, whose writing credentials include “The X-Files,” was dubious about letting the show air on AMC. He knew it as the channel exclusively for old movies. He suggested, “Why not just send it to the food channel? It’s about cooking, after all.” (342, Sepinwall). Meanwhile, AMC executives Sorcher and Wayne wondered how they would follow up the success of “Mad Men” when they ordered the “Breaking Bad” pilot. The show marched on for five seasons, delving into the megalomania and dual personalities of Walter White, alias Heisenberg, as he slowly transforms from milquetoast into murderous antagonistic kingpin of the Albuquerque drug world. “Breaking Bad” maintained the pinnacle position in the pantheon of extraordinary television by sweeping the Emmys, earning the award for Best Drama in 2013, and snagging an unprecedented 10.3 million viewers for its finale. (Greenwald).
AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” is a post-apocalyptic story of police officer Rick Grimes in Atlanta, Georgia. Grimes is in his element when skewering torsos and crushing skulls. The artistic ambition is largely absent. Nonetheless, messy viscera can draw numbers too. “The Walking Dead” earned 16.1-million viewers for its season 4 premiere, the largest audience in the show’s history and now the most-watched broadcast for the 18 to 49 demographic in 2013. (Greenwald). In fact, its ratings make it basic cable’s most-watched drama series in history. Despite being on its third show-runner in four seasons, “The Walking Dead” is a lucrative asset for the network. Ratings are unlikely to drop as long as the show fills its weekly quota of mangled carnage. AMC has made it to the winner’s circle of television with its programming, but they are now at a crossroads.
“Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” in particular, have set a precedent for an age of television criticism. Grantland.com’s Andy Greenwald and Molly Lambert, Alan Sepinwall of HitFix.com, and columnists for “The New York Review of Books” have carved a career out of recapitulating episodes. These writers tease insight out of AMC’s content, seeing evasively simple shows as the underpinning for a larger tale and philosophical meaning. “Breaking Bad” became a meditation on the inherent potential for evil and an eloquent illustration of the search for happiness when money is of no concern. “Mad Men” was studied as an exploration of authenticity in advertising and the incongruity between perception and reality.
With the reputation of being known as a quality television network comes the burden of sustaining it. Knowing its new audience to be more reflective and introspective, and with a new market for the speculation and analysis of television, AMC responded with recapitulative shows “Talking Dead,” and “Talking Bad” that reassessed episodes of “The Walking Dead” and “Breaking Bad,” respectively. Without “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men” would have been an anomaly for AMC and the network would lack the stature it has today. If a network can produce a variety of established television shows, it can become a prolific venue capable of generating quality drama. Instead of a one-night stand, the network assumes the highly desirable aura of a destination of choice. This brings us to the state of AMC in 2013.
With a proven track record of artistic freedom, AMC has viewers predisposed to sample any dish they now serve. This puts the network in a particularly advantageous position over others. Now, the aim is to keep it going. In the season one finale of “Mad Men,” Don Draper pitches a slide projector, the Kodak Carousel, to a client. He flips through slides of his emotionally detached family and says to his guests, “Nostalgia literally means, ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” Right now, AMC executives are probably feeling nostalgic themselves. “Breaking Bad” has just ended and “Mad Men” is nearing its final season, which they’ve chosen to stretch into two seven-episode runs over the next two years. They are as ravenous as the eponymous zombies in “The Walking Dead” for new ideas to retain their hard-earned demographic. “I would love to say there’s no pressure,” said Joel Stillerman, head of original programming for AMC, “but that would be a lie.” (Carter). In 2010, AMC had received 500 pitches for 500 different pilot scripts. (Idov). As of August 2013, the network has 67 projects in development, the most in its history. (Carter). Two pilots for AMC have already been slated for release in 2014: “Turn,” a period piece about spies during the Revolutionary War, and “Halt & Catch Fire,” about Texas’s “Silicon Prairie” of the early ‘80s. The network has taken its chances and has littered the channel with a plethora of cancelled shows, such as the government-conspiracy drama “Rubicon,” pressurized-Twin-Peaks-photocopy “The Killing,” and the comically low-rated gritty “Low Winter Sun.” “Hell on Wheels,” a subversive period piece about the building of the transcontinental railroad, made its way to Saturday nights, the graveyard for cable television shows.
Now, network executives are paddling water to avoid circling the drain. They are relying on the past successes of “The Walking Dead” and “Breaking Bad” through derivative spin-offs and companion shows. A tangential series “Better Call Saul” will detail the backstory of the disreputable, cheeky criminal lawyer Saul Goodman from “Breaking Bad.” This notion recalls another “Mad Men” aphorism: “Mourning is just extended self-pity.” These are signs of a network struggling to keep its competitive window open while coasting on its laurels.
The tragedy for AMC is that a good drama is hard to find. To find something that’ll fit right, the network needs something provocative and intelligent. In a column titled “The Zombie Network,” about the competitive state of the network in 2013, Andy Greenwald wrote, “AMC is in the very strange position of having everyone compliment it on its delicious dinner party when, back in the kitchen, the cupboard is shockingly bare.” (Greenwald). AMC’s shift as a cable network venue, from classic films to innovative and groundbreaking creative drama, was unanticipated. They took chances on shows that other networks had turned down, and their investment could not have been more fruitful. However, this may be the twilight of AMC’s creative stretch, as the executives stagger onward, hungry for new prospects – ideally, something with brains.
Carter, Bill. “With 2 Hit Series Ending, a Transformed AMC Is at a Crossroads.” New York Times 4 Aug 2013, n. pag. Web. 4 Nov. 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/05/business/media/with-2-hit-series-ending-a-transformed-amc-is-at-a-crossroads.html?pagewanted=all>.
Greenwald, Andy. “Zombie Network: The State of AMC.” Grantland. 15 Oct 2013: n. page. Web. 4 Nov. 2013. <http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/9829683/the-state-amc>.
Idov, Michael. “The Zombies at AMC’s Doorstep.” New York Magazine. 15 May 2011: n. page. Web. 4 Nov. 2013. <http://nymag.com/arts/tv/upfronts/2011/amc-2011-5/>.
Sepinwall, Alan. The Revolution was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever. San Bernadino, CA: 2012. Print.
This essay was submitted to a Journalism 201: Media & Society class at the University of Oregon on October 19, 2013.