VOD and digital platforms help make original drama series viable
“Good shows have a much greater chance over time in finding an audience that connects with them and stays with them because there is not a compressed time where one must discover them,” said Josh Sapan, president and CEO of AMC Networks, at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Media, Communications and Entertainment Conference on Wednesday in Beverly Hills. “If you haven’t seen ‘Breaking Bad,’ ‘Low Winter Sun,’ ‘Mad Men,’ you can catch up, and that’s what people are doing and that is giving a huge boost of support for dramas.”
During the discussion, Sapan in particular cited VOD platforms on cable and services like Netflix as key in helping a number of AMC shows grow from season to season as more people discover them or are introduced to them. Because of those platforms, “They have a tendency to build over subsequent seasons,” he said.
“We don’t judge a show in five episodes because that’s not how consumers are consuming them,” he said. “There’s a pattern of consumption and referral that happens over time.”
Ratings for “Breaking Bad” (pictured above) and “Mad Men” in their first two seasons “were modest,” Sapan said. “The shows were good, but (ratings) grew,” with those for “Breaking Bad” up 50% in season four and still climbing in its fifth and final season, airing now. “That’s a testament to technology,” Sapan said, and the further adoption of streaming services and digital VOD “that’s been financially rewarding” for AMC Networks — especially in other countries.
As a result of those nontraditional platforms, AMC Networks has been able to better compete with broadcasters and cable rivals, especially when it comes to drama.
“It’s a better environment to be doing what we’re doing, and that’s based on technology,” Sapan said. “The increasing ubiquity in the availability of these shows and the introduction of them on on-demand platforms has been a fundamental boon to drama and a fundamental boon to the ascendancy of great drama. The competitive frame is more challenging, but we’re a more attractive place to be.”
Sapan said AMC’s “foot is on the pedal” to develop new shows. “We will spend and continue to spend to create new shows,” he added.
With “Breaking Bad” ending its five-season run on Sept. 29, AMC is considering ways to further capitalize on the show’s popularity with fans.
“It’s something we think about a lot,” Sapan said of the Vince Gilligan-created series. “We’ll explore additional ways to more directly monetize whatever opportunities may come directly from the show. That’s an ongoing undertaking and ongoing exploration.”
Future moves could include spinning off characters into their own series. Shortly after the Wednesday discussion, AMC announced that, through a licensing deal with Sony Pictures TV, it will spin off the Saul Goodman character into the tentatively titled prequel series “Better Call Saul,” which will star Bob Odenkirk.
“We will certainly be happy to do that,” Sapan said. “It would be nice if that could occur.”
AMC will continue to air the show’s episodes across multiple platforms. “Breaking Bad” will “live on for those who have not been introduced to it,” Sapan said.
AMC continues to be protective over “The Walking Dead,” which AMC owns. The series has enjoyed a ratings surge with each new season; the fourth will debut Oct. 13.
“The show has to continue to be great and has to continue to be well crafted” in order to grow, Sapan said. “We do treat it with great care.”
“It really is a great story and is well done,” Sapan said. The key to making it work has been its plots, he added. “Story trumps zombie.”
“That’s why it has the audience that it does,” Sapan said.
Because AMC owns the series, “We are the beneficiaries of its consumption on multiple platforms around the globe and on whatever else it may spawn (including licensing deals, consumer products and homevideo releases with lavish packaging),” he said. “We look at every element of it to make sure it is as consistent and true to what ‘The Walking Dead’ is.”
As patient as AMC may be, the network canceled drama “The Killing” for a second time. It owns the 38 episodes of the show and has the right to air them across all platforms the way “Breaking Bad” airs on Sundance.
The show’s third season rated higher than new cop drama “Low Winter Sun,” and Sapan said the cancellation “was done with some reluctance. We did make an evaluation that was made over a long period of time as to whether the show was ultimately sustainable and the best economic thing we could do from a resource point of view. It was not an easy decision and ultimately a business decision that caused us not to go forward with it.
“We think it’s a wonderful piece of TV as crafted by the people who made it,” he added. “The lead cast this season was nothing short of spectacular.”
Among the new shows coming up for AMC will be Revolutionary War drama “Washington Spies,” from “Nikita’s” Craig Silverstein, which the network is “very encouraged” by after seeing its pilot.
One marketing challenge will be selling it to viewers. He compared it to “Mad Men,” saying that “the logline doesn’t do it justice.” After saying “Mad Men” is “set at an ad agency in the 1960s, then what?” he said. “It’s not that easy to describe what it is.” “Washington Spies” is just as much a character study as Matthew Weiner’s series, Sapan added.
Also ordered are Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers’ “Halt & Catch Fire,” set in Silicon Valley during the personal computer boom in the 1980s, and the sci-fi series “Line of Sight,” from “Brotherhood’s” Blake Masters.
These shows are being introduced as “Breaking Bad” and “The Killing” end this year and “Mad Men” winds down next year.
Sundance Channel has doubled viewership from 27 million to 50 million since AMC purchased the channel four years ago.
Sapan said AMC Networks has “put some money” into adding more dramatic programming to the network as it moves to become a channel fully reliant on advertising revenue on Sept. 30 — after the cabler started as a mini-pay TV service before evolving into a digital quasi-basic TV service, then a more realized basic service that’s ad supported.
While the move is expected to make it a more attractive and valuable vehicle that can command more attention, the opportunity to monetize the network’s programming isn’t as robust as that at AMC given the more indie film pedigree at Sundance.
“We’ve been working on that for four years,” Sapan said. “In anticipation of that, we began doing more original programming.”
As a result, it’s focused on airing more miniseries that “are a little different” like “Restless,” “Top of the Lake,” “Rectify” and the upcoming “The Red Road” and “The Honorable Woman,” which will star Maggie Gyllenhaal.
It will “step up a bit” and spend more to market the shows “if we think a series has an opportunity to be a real shot in the arm for Sundance,” like “Rectify,” Sapan said.
IFC will add two new comedies, produced by Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller and Odenkirk, while WE TV will add its first scripted series, “The Divide,” alongside the network’s nonfiction reality shows.