AMC now major drama player

'Mad Men''s win triggers new trend of success

AMC is looking to be a major player in the cable landscape with a success formula built on an unlikely combination of “Mad” and “Bad.”

Some of those in the Hollywood community did a double take on Jan. 13 when AMC’s “Mad Men,” the satirical dissection of Madison Avenue backstabbing (circa 1960), took the Golden Globe for best TV drama of the year.

“Mad Men” bested such high-visibility competitors in the drama category as “House,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and Showtime’s sexy costume epic “The Tudors.” And more than one broadcast network has inquired about buying some runs of “Mad Men” to fill primetime slots while the writers strike drags on.

“I’d call the Golden Globe a transformative moment for the entire network,” says Charlie Collier, executive VP and general manager of AMC.

Kevin Beggs, president of programming and production for Lionsgate TV, which produces “Mad Men,” says the award was “a put-you-on-the-map development. It said that AMC is for real.”

This winter, “Mad Men” will have to share the AMC spotlight with a second high-profile scripted series, “Breaking Bad” (see review, page 39), which bowed Jan. 20. Focusing on a 50-year-old chemistry teacher who turns to crime to support his wife and son after a diagnosis of inoperable cancer, “Bad” is a Sony Pictures TV production, written and directed by Vince Gilligan (“X-Files”) and exec produced by Mark Johnson (“The Chronicles of Narnia”).

“Mad” and “Bad” are only the beginning: AMC is funding script development for at least four series pilots, including one about a man with multiple-personality disorder, another dealing with a prison escapee’s life on the run, and a pair of what look like serious, old-fashioned cowboys-vs.-Indians shoot-’em-ups.

In short, these are heady days for a 23-year-old network that started out as American Movie Classics, a modest operation churning out a schedule filled mostly with movies (many of them anything but classic) and short subjects produced between the early ’30s and the mid-’70s. (A disclaimer: Peter Bart, editor in chief of Variety, is co-host of “Shootout,” a weekly Sunday morning series on the cabler.)

AMC was popular throughout its first 15 years, particularly with older viewers, at least in part because it didn’t interrupt its movies with commercials. The first major transformation of AMC came in 2001 when it started emulating the ad-supported networks by breaking up the movies with blocks of 30-second spots.

But to get Madison Avenue’s attention, AMC had to begin swapping out the older-skewing titles in favor of movies from the last two decades. AMC has lowered its average primetime age from 53.1 in 2002 to 49.2 last year, which is not exactly young, but well below such competitors as Hallmark Channel (a geriatric 67.1) and Lifetime Movie Network (54.0).

The strategy of fresher movies caught on with advertisers and viewers. AMC’s cash flow ballooned from $124 million in 2002 to about $230 million last year, according to SNL Kagan. And the Nielsen report card was just as encouraging: AMC’s primetime average of 771,000 total viewers in 2002 grew steadily, winding up at 1.05 million in 2007.

All of these newfound advertising dollars spurred AMC to start pushing into scripted development. Part One of its first original miniseries, Robert Duvall starrer “Broken Trail,” harvested a staggering 10 million viewers in June 2006. No AMC movie in its history had even come close to such numbers.

Commissioning original scripted series was the next step, and Collier says his goal by 2009 is to schedule three original series and one event miniseries every year to supplement the lineup of theatrical movies, which will continue to dominate AMC’s lineup for the foreseeable future.

Derek Baine, senior cable analyst for SNL Kagan, says he’s not surprised AMC has drawn up a blueprint to supplement its movie schedule with expensive original series.

“AMC has cash-flow margins of more than 50%,” Baine says. “That puts it among the top tier of basic cable networks.”

Even though advertising has provided the rocket fuel for AMC’s profits, Andy Donchin, senior VP and director of national broadcast for media buyer Carat, N.A., says: “AMC is good news for my clients because it takes only limited inventory. That’s positive in a cluttered environment for 30-second spots” on broadcast and cable TV.

Ed Carroll, president of Rainbow Entertainment Services, the parent of AMC, says the network sets aside an average of only 12 minutes for commercials in an hour (10 for AMC and two for the local cable system). At least 75% of the other networks carve out more time for blurbs, he adds.

AMC keeps its programming expenses low, Carroll says, by refusing to engage in bidding wars over first-network-window theatrical movies with USA, TNT and FX. He says AMC has no problem running movies that are 10 or 20 years old or older, because “our viewers know that we put a lot of time and thought into how we package and schedule the titles.”

“AMC has a movie-focused programming strategy,” Collier says. “We don’t just schedule movies, we curate them.”

Collier says AMC drew 1.8 million viewers to the premiere episode of “Mad Men” on July 19 because it used a heavily promoted showing of Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (1990) as lead-in. An AMC slotting of “The Matrix” led in to the kickoff of “Breaking Bad” on Jan. 20.

One of AMC’s regular programming stunts is to highlight an anniversary of a well-known title. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” got a 30th anniversary sendoff under the “AMC Celebrates” umbrella. The network constructed another 30th-anni special around “Taxi Driver,” Collier says, inviting director Scorsese and cast members including Jodie Foster and Cybill Shepherd to do some on-air interviews about the cultural impact of the movie. Collier adds that the 35-year-old “Jeremiah Johnson” broke out in the Nielsens during a heavily promoted Robert Redford month.

The problem with older movies like these is that they don’t draw as many young viewers. While networks that are heavy users of movies in primetime, including USA, TNT, FX and Spike, finished in the top 10 among adults 18-34 and 18-49 last year, AMC came in 25th (A18-34) and 19th (A18-49).

Not surprisingly, a considerable 57% of the viewers of “Mad Men” are 50 years of age and older. “Breaking Bad” is also likely to draw more older than younger viewers.

Brad Adgate, head of research for Horizon Media, says “Mad Men” has a shot at using the promotion from its Golden Globe award to ramp up its visibility, citing “Hill Street Blues” and “Cagney & Lacey” as two series that got off to poor starts in the Nielsens but became ratings successes after winning key Emmy Awards.

“Mad Men” is going to need all the help it can get. During its 13-episode rookie year last summer, it averaged just 1.09 million viewers.

Instead of a cancellation notice, AMC awarded the show a second-season renewal last fall, at least in part on the chance that the Golden Globes and Emmys would march in line with all of the critics who singled out “Mad Men” for praise. (The Emmy nominations won’t come out until the summer, but the Globe could be a harbinger.)

As for a possible run on a broadcast net during the writers strike, the downside of such a deal is that AMC would lose its jealously guarded exclusivity.

But Carroll says the upside is that it “could help us to grow the audience for the second season” of “Mad Men” on AMC. “But,” he adds, “we’d need the assurance of a broadcaster that it would provide promotion” for the network showing of “Mad Men.”

And the broadcaster would have to put up with lots of pressure-group complaints over the cigarette addiction that has seized almost all of the “Mad Men” characters.