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What is the secret of AMC's success?

New Statesman
The cast and crew of AMC's Mad Men at the 2011 Emmy Awards (Photo: Getty Images)

There may be more than one answer to the question "what do advertising executives have in common with drug dealers and the undead", but only one has three letters: AMC.

When the execs in question are those of award- munching series Mad Men, the drug dealers are led by Breaking Bad’s consecutive Emmy winning actor Bryan Cranston, and the undead are shuffling after former This Life star Andrew Lincoln in The Walking Dead, things start to make a little more sense. All of these shows have been - and continue to be - major successes in the UK whether on screen or through DVD sales, and they’re all from the stable of US cable channel AMC.

In a country where we’re used to consuming the latest products of HBO (think Sex and The City, The Sopranos, The Wire and, more recently, Boardwalk Empire or Game of Thrones) and Showtime (Dexter, Weeds, Homeland), while seeing those imports divided between our native channels, it’s easy to ignore where our favourite shows come from. However, the arrival of AMC’s latest original series, Hell On Wheels, illustrates just how far the channel has come in a few short years.

The network started life in 1984 as the American Movie Classics channel, designed to churn out films from the golden age of Hollywood all day long. It’s a bit ironic, then, that epic western series Hell On Wheels is the latest in a long line of original programming from a network that built its success on identikit Wild West movies. Perhaps even more so that it’ll be the first series on Turner Classic Movies who churn out . . . well, you guessed it.

AMC (who have conspicuously dropped the use of their full name) did dip their toe into original programming with Remember WENN in 1996, a series set at a fictional 1940s radio station, but it wasn’t until 2007 that they struck gold with a slow-moving period drama (allegedly rejected by both HBO and Showtime) that we now all know and love as Mad Men.

Charlie Collier, president and general manager of AMC, has overseen the network’s transformation, and has said that it’s precisely this desire to do things differently that has made AMC a success.

Five years ago, we had no scripted originals on our air. In the summer of 2007, we launched Mad Men and we followed that up with Breaking Bad. At the time, you had people saying, "Is AMC in this for the long haul?" We maintained, not only are we, but we are trying to do the kind of diverse projects that were really seen only on premium television. Our stated goal then, and it's still on my board now, is to produce premium television for basic cable.

The "premium" versus "basic" distinction is essentially the difference between subscriber-funded HBO and advertising-supported AMC, but, again, Collier would tell you that ignoring the conventional model is what has created some of the best television of recent times.

Here's a network that has questioned everything that networks have done conventionally and succeeded. Would anyone tell you to take a moody period piece and turn it into a serialised drama on cable? And then would they tell you to take a modern-day story about a high school chemistry teacher who deals crystal meth and make that you're follow up ad-supported lead? And the answer is no, but we did it.

Indeed they did, and after following up Mad Men with Breaking Bad, they had further success with The Walking Dead in 2010, before Hell On Wheels launched in the US in November as AMC’s second highest original series premiere with the all- important second series already in production.

That’s not to say it’s all been perfect, and, sandwiched between Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, came a re- make of The Prisoner and then Rubicon, both of which died out over here on ITV1 and BBC4 respectively.

Furthermore, AMC’s commitment to doing things differently saw them bravely take on remake duties with international critics' favourite, Forbrydelsen  failing even to beat a repeat of Law & Order on Channel 5.

Still, a quick look at current TV schedules shows AMC’s impact, with Mad Men, The Killing and The Walking Dead all currently airing here and Breaking Bad season 3 arriving shortly on DVD (14 May). Hell on Wheels could well be another hit, with an impressively cinematic scope, scenery- chewing characters and the requisite balance of sharp dialogue, gore and intrigue. It’s even got an unknown actor as the steely- eyed lead with a mysterious past - now where have we seen that before? We’re looking at you, Jon Hamm.

As for why AMC’s shows have been so warmly received over here, it might be a little too easy to look to the network’s mantra of "story matters here", but it’s Hamm himself who articulates the secret: “There are a million different channels, and everyone is doing original programming now. But part of rising above the noise is having something different to say or a different approach.”