Apr 4 2014, 1:53pm CDT | by Forbes
Even by the standards of the often-glitzy television “upfront” season, the February-through-May span when networks promote their upcoming lineups, AMC’s March 27 pitch to advertisers registered as a lavish extravaganza. During a three-course, sit-down meal at a dressed-up hangar on Manhattan’s Pier 36, stars from the network’s series table-hopped, alighting to chat with small groups of 6 or 8 at a time. (“Would you care for some pinot noir?” waitstaff might well have said. “Perhaps Jon Hamm over here can pour you a glass.”) Extras portraying zombies from The Walking Dead prowled around hungrily. Nattily uniformed soldiers from Revolutionary War series Turn pointed muskets and let loose with, one assumes, historically accurate war whoops. Football-field-length screens showed footage that blended a “greatest-hits” approach with high points from Mad Men, with footage from new shows like Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul and Halt and Catch Fire. ”Everything we do on-air is about engaging passionate audiences, and tonight, everything we do is about engaging you,” AMC president Charlie Collier told the crowd.
In seeking that engagement, networks always walk a tricky tightrope. They must maximize revenue from popular properties while ensuring a strong development pipeline — a priority given that cable is not known for NYPD Blue/CSI-style runs of a decade-plus. Shows typically last for a few seasons tops. AMC has certainly proven itself as one of the most adept at wringing profit out of what works. It has powered the strong earnings of late for its parent company, AMC Networks, by leaning into its core hits, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and Mad Men.
After Walking Dead – whose meteoric success can hardly be overstated — wrapped its latest season last Sunday, March 30, Mad Men will begin its bifurcated last 14-episode run on Sunday, April 6. Despite the network’s notable strides creatively and financially, coupled with the rise of corporate siblings IFC and Sundance, the question of what’s next looms large for AMC. Between Saul, Walking Dead chat-show companion Talking Dead, and a protracted sendoff to Mad Men, some grumble that many of the network’s hours are devoted to standby brands and that when those ease off the stage, there may be little to replace them. It seems churlish (can broadcast networks be blamed for airing too much football? What would you program if you knew what would deliver big ratings?) and yet it’s a familiar lament that speaks to the dawning of a more robust fan culture in TV. Ask HBO about the post-Sopranos/Sex and the City period or ABC post-Lost/Desperate Housewives or NBC post-Seinfeld/Friends. Life goes on, and so must the TV business after great shows run their course.
Efforts to seed AMC’s hits of tomorrow, it must be noted, haven’t borne abundant fruit. Detroit-set corrupt cop series Low Winter Sun misfired last year and won’t return. The Killing, brought back after a turbulent two-season run led to a previous cancellation by AMC, didn’t stick in its encore. In addition to heavily promoted new shows like Turn, which premieres after Mad Men, and summer’s Halt, a drama based in 1980s Silicon Valley, scripted comedy is another priority, with four series planned for 2015 and beyond from the likes of Seth Rogen and The Daily Show‘s Wyatt Cenac. Unscripted programming has gotten off to a sluggish start on AMC, which took its first crack at the category in 2012. There are signs of improvement in that area, though, with arm-wrestling show Game of Arms setting a network ratings record in its premiere last month. Eliot Goldberg, who brings a solid resume from stints at CMT and Ryan Seacrest Productions, joined as head of unscripted programming last summer. I sat next to Goldberg during the upfront spectacle and as ovations greeted many video clips and diners clamored to quiz talent about their work, he said, “You see how strong the scripted brand is and that gives us an incredible opportunity,” he said. The male skew of AMC, though, and the fact that its brand identity is different from the truckers-and-crab-fishermen dominating elsewhere, presents some challenges. But Goldberg pointed to another table, where KISS frontman Gene Simmons was on hand for the network’s arena football series documenting the L.A. Kiss. We both smiled at the notion that none of the bright spotlights were falling on Simmons — at least not on this night.
Collier signaled a strong commitment not just to old standbys but to a new batch of hopefuls. ”2013 was by all meaningful measures the most successful year in AMC’s history and we are building on this momentum in every imaginable way,” he said. “AMC is introducing more hours of original programming and the most robust, diverse development slate in our network’s history.” Moments later, he was literally overtaken and presumably devoured offstage by zombies in a cheeky bit that closed out the presentation. Ad buyers in attendance, as nourished and buoyed as they were by the evening, may have hoped there wasn’t too much symbolism in the stagecraft.
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