How ‘Mad Men’ Helped Build AMC Into a Cable Powerhouse

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As with most revolutions, you often don’t realize something is brewing until it builds to maximum capacity. That was the case with AMC’s (NASDAQ: AMCX) Mad Men. The series debuted in 2007 and has now blossomed into one of TV’s most dynamic series. Nothing about the show is done by accident, everything is meticulously planned out and as the first half of the show’s final season prepares to wrap tonight, that has never been clearer.

The past
For something like Mad Men you really do have to look at its beginnings for maximum impact. In 2007 cable TV was really coming into its own with networks like FX, USA and TNT unleashing hit after hit. What nobody knew however was that a channel known for running American movie classics (AMC) would soon be a major player in the scripted program business.

Previous to 2007, the network’s strategy was simple…air old movies. Yet it was looking to experiment with something new after one of its first big scripted hits was well-received.  The 2006 Western mini-series Broken Trail, which starred Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church surprised analysts and audiences. In fact, the program’s success at that year’s Emmys probably should have been a sign of what’s to come, but AMC’s business model was still more film than TV so the public didn’t really notice. Yet executives noticed and soon viewers did as well when the network debuted Mad Men.

‘Mad’ and ‘Bad’
The series has never (and likely will never) be a ratings juggernaut. While network sibling The Walking Dead regularly hits double-digits in millions of viewers, Mad Men has never hit half of that (at least live). Instead, what it did do was capture critical acclaim the likes of which we may not see again for a long time. Remember, Mad Men is often cited with helping begin the smart TV revolution and network executives will often overlook poor ratings if the series becomes a cultural touchstone (and an Emmy favorite).

The point, though, was that finally people were beginning to talk more about AMC…even if it was asking what channel it was on their cable box because nobody knew how to find it. When the show returned in season two, it moved to Sunday nights and jumped from 1.2 million viewers to 2 million viewers, which while not a lot in the grand scheme, it was almost a 50% spike…so on paper it was a big win.

The idea now was to build around the series to increase viewership and the next series in line was Breaking Bad. Now to say Bad’s debut didn’t go smoothly is an understatement, as AMC slotted it against playoff football featuring two big media markets; it got slaughtered.  Again, though, the Emmys came to its rescue and the show survived and thrived.

Three’s company…and a crowd
Suddenly AMC now had two hit shows…granted audiences weren’t really watching either; but critics were. The buzz surrounding the two shows grew and it got to the point where viewers couldn’t ignore the word of mouth. Even though Bad was still a little ways from breaking through, Mad Men was beginning to hit its prime.

While the network’s next series Rubicon confused viewers to the point they turned it off, all was forgotten when The Walking Dead exploded that Halloween. So by the time 2010 ended AMC had three hits and when 2011 rolled around the buzz was deafening. The problem was Mad Men was nowhere to be found as contract disputes over renewals led to Men taking an extended hiatus for over a year. The problem was that when a deal was eventually reached, it negatively impacted Bad and Dead.

While it’s never been officially confirmed just to what extent, many suspect the concessions the network made to renew Mad Men led to an expedited exit for Breaking Bad and budget cuts so bad on Walking Dead that it led to showrunner Frank Darabont exiting the show. The irony in the whole thing was that while Mad Men returned to record numbers, so did Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead (and to a greater extent). To the public it looked like the network essentially backed the wrong horse and now was scrambling to save face.

Split on the split
As expected though the network weathered the storm of bad publicity and quickly rebounded with all three shows striking a balance. Yet in what was the equivalent of poking a sleeping bear, AMC then revealed last year it would split Mad Men’s final season in half….with part running in 2014 and the rest in 2015. While the network cited this was done to mirror the success it had with Breaking Bad and help send the show off right, audiences saw right through it.

With Bad nearing the end of its Emmy eligibility and The Walking Dead not able to break through, the network wanted to ensure it had an extra year of Mad Men in the can to help keep the network in the awards race while it tried to launch its next big drama. Although what angered audiences more was that “mirroring” comparison as anyone who watched Breaking Bad knew it moved at a faster pace and anyone who watched Mad Men knew it could get lapped by a snail.

The truth, is from a business perspective you have to understand AMC made a smart call.  This is the network’s flagship drama and it’s been ultra-protective of it since the beginning, so why would it stop now? This is the show that got the network to the dance, so you can bet its “all-in” strategy wasn’t questioned internally for a second. Remember, as I said, everything about Mad Men is meticulously planned out, and that extends past the plot.