AMC’s strategy to creating shows is counterproductive. The future of the network hangs in the balance.

amc-tv-channelThe decaying of a promising network is hard to watch. For one, the channel had such promise that it warranted an article of this nature, questioning its continued existence. Two, the show caliber was matched only by Emmy-adorned networks, the HBOs and Showtimes of the TV landscape. It’s difficult to reach this pinnacle, but it’s more difficult to maintain it. Necessary gambles are sometimes a part of owning a business; in television, with a bipolar audience, the challenge is that much tougher.

Currently, AMC is atop the world. Few networks can match its high-quality and record-setting range of shows. Mad Men won the Primetime Drama Emmy five years consecutively, beat only by Homeland‘s awesome first season. Don Draper is credited with reestablishing brooding antiheroes on television. Breaking Bad has roared back in the ratings in the latter half of its fifth season, averaging five million viewers and doubling the show’s audience. And The Walking Dead owns a record: the third-season finale registered 12.4 million viewers, a record for basic cable.

Rick and crew alone have made AMC a perennial force. The sixteen-episode third season posted ten million per episode, and in that, eight million of the coveted 18-49 advertising group tuned in. That’s made The Walking Dead a marketable boon and left the broadcast networks stumbling. But going into the show’s fourth season, it has maybe three seasons remaining. With Breaking Bad ending in a month and Mad Men airing the seventh and last season next fall, AMC has a collection of mediocre reality shows to accompany The Killing, Low Winter Sun and Hell on Wheels.

Numbers don’t lie either. The Pitch, a premise built on two advertising agencies competing for lucrative deals, was meant to capitalize on Mad Men‘s audience. The show retained a viewership of 45,000 in episode four. Considering that AMC is available in close to 100 million homes, those numbers are devastating. They enter cancelled territory. But not so for the network, who commissioned a second season that began airing August 15.

AMC may be wrongly approaching The Pitch as it originally did with Breaking Bad. Believe it or not, there was a time when AMC refused to carry Walter White & Co.’s fifth season. Breaking Bad had a steady audience to that point, winning awards and praise but never achieving its deserved place in television history. AMC offered a shortened eight episode season which dissatisfied creator Vince Gilligan; other companies showed interest. The channel did then renew it after much deliberation.

The move seems prescient in retrospect. Breaking Bad returned to stellar ratings in the fifth season’s second half, essentially doubling its audience. But AMC’s initial resistance troubled some who were convinced they had seen the next HBO: A network that produces quality television without ever stepping wrong. And because AMC took a risk on Mad Men when HBO and Showtime turned Weiner away, many critics wondered if AMC had lost its affinity for gambling. (Even if Breaking Bad had a stable audience up to season five.)

Life as a 1960s ad executive was interesting to some, the networks thought, but not enough to certify an attempt. HBO had been struggling to find a worthwhile premise of cultural dominance to follow The Sopranos, but Mad Men may have been dead on arrival. The channel purportedly wanted David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, to help produce the project. He passed, and at that fortunate time AMC was in the market for original programming.

Mad Men had accidental success: overall brilliance hardly attracted an audience for season one. However winning the Primetime Emmy for a Drama Series doubled the show’s ratings, where they’ve stayed consistently for five seasons now. The success proved that an intelligent production could be effective, a fact lost on most channels stooping to reality show levels. (Something that AMC has done too.) And that the public liked smart and meticulously detailed series.

Except AMC loses that force in 2014. The Walking Dead then remains the only culturally significant AMC production. Even if The Killing had a remarkable third season critically (especially when compared to the previous two), that never translated into a ratings boom. Hell on Wheels has similar ratings to Mad Men, but virtually no hardware. A collection of cheap-to-produce reality shows can’t save the brand.

Maybe AMC is in transition. AMC Networks, the parent company that also owns IFC, WE tv and the Sundance Channel, has expanded its collection of networks to seek out original programming. AMC was just the beginning apparently. Sundance’s Rectify, about a man’s life post-wrongful conviction for rape and murder, had its first season be critically celebrated. IFC has a promising comedic lineup, featuring Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen in Portlandia among other shows. WE tv will premier a scripted TV series next year, called The Divide.

AMC is in a weird place. For the channel, the company tried balancing stellar, beloved dramas with obscure, low rated reality shows. The network should stick to what it does best: Having faith in wildly innovative series and letting a show run its course. It’s worked so far, leading to awards and recognition, but a seemingly unsatisfied AMC may be jeopardizing future successes.

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