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AMC

…because nobody even remembers that those letters once stood for American Movie Classics. “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” transformed the channel from a broadcaster of edited-for-TV movies to the brand name for groundbreaking original series. What seemed like a huge gamble on risky material has paid off, as the audience numbers for shows like “The Walking Dead” now challenge traditional network ratings. AMC was also savvy to embrace new technologies, selling their series rights to Netflix and iTunes as a way to cultivate loyal viewers.



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AMC is what it is for one reason: original programming. However, this wasn’t always the case, as the network originally positioned itself as kind of a light beer version of HBO. It makes sense then that AMC would have imitated HBO’s success with original programming, especially after financial considerations forced the channel to start airing commercials during its broadcasts. If the intention was to model itself on HBO, AMC was in exactly the right place at the right time when HBO made the now infamous decision to pass on “Mad Men” despite the fact that the show’s creator had been a top writer on HBO’s signature series (“The Sopranos” ICYWW). Perhaps other networks like Showtime followed suit because they assumed HBO knew what it was doing, but AMC was willing to take a chance. HBO’s gigantic creative mistake may have planted the initial seed for AMC’s success, but one hit series alone would not have revolutionized cable programming. In fact, a more nearsighted approach could have seen AMC release a bunch of “Mad Men” clones, trying to reproduce the formula in different time periods. Instead, the network smartly realized that a show like “Mad Men” resonated because it was dark, sophisticated drama oriented towards a more mature audience. The follow-up success of “Breaking Bad” catapulted AMC as the destination for serious programming, providing a real challenge to the dominance of HBO and Showtime in this arena. And AMC deserves credit for sticking to this model – even a comic book adaptation like “The Walking Dead” feels light years away from the Marvel Universe. While AMC, like any channel, has had some misses, even some of its relative disappointments have done well – you probably didn’t realize that “Hell on Wheels” ran for five seasons, or that HBO poached the writer of “True Detective” from the staff of “The Killing.” By avoiding generic content in favor of outside the mainstream material, AMC has reinvented not only itself but the entire cable landscape.

It’s not inconceivable that the divisions between network, cable and even streaming services will entirely disappear within the next decade or two. If that happens, AMC can take a fair share of the credit. The early impact of its original programming basically obliterated the distinction between basic and premium cable channels; sure, you still have to go to HBO for a full on close shot of a penis and excessive f-bombing in your scripted series, but this doesn’t exactly make AMC’s shows feel watered down by most standards. Perhaps more impressive (at least from a business standpoint) is AMC’s ability to compete with traditional networks. In addition to the surge in advertising revenue over the last decade, the channel has also been able to attract viewers in proportions that make CBS jealous. The fact that a paid cable show like “The Walking Dead” has been the most watched show on television is evidence enough that AMC could close the gap on broadcast networks, or at least pose a legitimate threat to their decades of dominance.

Of course, AMC has been able to draw larger audiences than traditional networks because it embraced technology as a way to enhance distribution. While many other channels were clinging to the idea that the viewers were watching increasingly complicated shows live every week or would buy the DVDs to catch up if necessary, AMC sold its rebroadcast rights as a means to boost its total numbers. There are only so many shows the average viewer can watch in a week, so the network was smart not to rely on this for their audience. In doing so, they were able to cultivate audiences over time, so that by the later seasons of “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” the live broadcasts essentially became the equivalent of event television. So far, this strategy has proved to be a smart merging of old and new distribution models, but it also hints at a more important change in media consumption. The audience will be where it wants to be, not where broadcasters tell it to be at a certain time each week. If you want a lot of people to watch original programs live, you have to provide more options for them to view the series as a whole. While this could mean sacrificing some ad revenue in the short term, the long term benefits of having marquis shows and establishing a bond with viewers outweigh the losses. Besides, once upon a time AMC got by without ads, and this type of forward thinking might allow it to do so again.

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