A slew of awards, including two Golden Globes and four Emmys. Adoration from critics. A relatively small but devoted following.
Mad Men’s success seems obvious now, but when AMC picked up the period series about ad men on Madison Avenue, the movie channel went out on a limb. The property had already been turned down by HBO. Little did the premium network know — AMC was about to become its competition.
AMC has since scored three cable hits with Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, coming out of nowhere as a contender in the television world. The season-one finale of The Walking Dead had 6 million viewers, and the show’s 18–49 audience that season was the largest for a drama in basic-cable history.
Founded in 1984 as a premium cable home to beloved old films, AMC is now known for its groundbreaking original content. What are the secrets behind its success?
1. Executives knew a good thing when they saw it
HBO executives are probably still kicking themselves for turning down Mad Men, but it’s not the only project to fall through at one channel and find a home at AMC. Follow-up hit Breaking Bad was also a discarded property that had stalled at FX.
“It was dead in the water,” creator Vince Gilligan told New York magazine in 2011.
Without thinking much would come of it, he agreed to a meeting with AMC. The channel ordered the pilot and offered Gilligan the chance to direct.
The show is now in its fifth season and has garnered seven Emmys.
2. Quality is valued
AMC chose sophistication even when it cost more: Mad Men is shot on 35-mm. film, “a luxury in the cable world.” Inspired by the old movies the channel houses, AMC wanted an original series that still looked good next to classic films.
AMC invests a lot into Mad Men. A Deadline report placed production cost per episode at $2.5 million. To keep the true 1960s flavor, creator Matthew Weiner felt that a Beatles song was necessary, so the channel paid a cool $250,000 in licensing fees to use “Tomorrow Never Knows” in a season six episode.
3. Each show creates a world
Whether it’s with the weary glamour of Madison Avenue, the grim secrecy of the meth business or the darkness of a zombified future, each show draws viewers into another world. These characters are real — or seem so, anyway. The stellar scripts walk the line between surprise and familiarity. We definitely expect shockers (see Jane’s death in season two of Breaking Bad or Megan’s swift rise to main player in Mad Men’s fourth season), but plot surprises never come at the cost of betraying these worlds and their rules.
4. The writers know the art of the slow burn
AMC shows are “highly serialized,” which means they operate on long plot arcs instead of week-by-week installments.
“They say during a pitch, ‘Slow it down,’” an agent told New York magazine.
In the frenetic world of television, slowing it down is seldom considered a good thing, but AMC’s dialogue-heavy, gradually unfolding episodes do just that. The building plots give the characters a chance to grow and allow audiences to become invested. They also make the occasional shocker that much more effective.
What would Breaking Bad have been if the show’s protagonist, Walter, had changed from quiet high school teacher to ruthless drug lord in an episode or two? Would Mad Men be as beautifully heartbreaking if relationships like Don and Betty’s marriage ended even within a season?
These characters have a chance to breathe, to grow and to become part of our lives. AMC’s rise in the cable world is making for landmark television.