On Tuesday, AMC
canceled The Killing—again—after what many people considered to be an improved third season. Yesterday, the network announced that it's moving forward with a previously proposed, Saul Goodman-centric Breaking Bad spin-off (which is apparently being set up as a
prequel). Two days, two mostly predictable bits of news
from one of the more unpredictable cable channels around. And yet, all I keep
wondering is, what in the heck is actually going on at AMC right now?
After the debuts of Mad Men (2007) and Breaking
Bad (2008), AMC was quickly labeled a new power player in cable TV,
but it seems clear by now that either A.) AMC executives have a different
vision for what they want the channel to be, or B.) those execs really
don't know what they're doing. In case you've forgotten, here's what AMC's been up to in last few years:
– Engaging in prolonged and oftentimes public contract negotiations with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan
– Dragging its feet on a Season 3 renewal for Hell on Wheels because of various production issues
– More or less firing yet another Walking Dead showrunner by parting ways with Glen Mazzara, the guy who righted the series' ship after the very public ousting of Frank Darabont in 2011, seemingly over budget issues.
– Investing a whole lot of schedule real estate, if not money, in cheap unscripted programming like Small Town Security, Freakshow, Comic Book Men, and The Pitch, as well as post-show chat sessions for The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad, and the syndicated rights to CSI: Miami.
For a channel that once appeared to be positioning itself as the next HBO and the latest cable channel to dominate annual awards shows, that's a weird chain of events. And looking forward isn't such a promising exercise. The ratings for Low Winter Sun are not good, even with the monster Breaking Bad lead-in; they're sub-Killing level. We're talking Rubicon ratings here, folks. Pretend that Low Winter Sun gets canceled, joining The Killing on the scrap heap. Breaking Bad will be over forever in three weeks, and Mad Men is set to wrap things up for good in less than a year. That means, come September 2014, four of the shows AMC aired on Sunday nights just one calendar year earlier will all be gone.
If you're keeping score at home, that leaves AMC with a handful of reality programs, Hell on Wheels, the now-in-development Better Call Saul, a few interesting upcoming series (Turn and Halt & Catch Fire), and zombie king The Walking Dead. The reality programs do well enough to survive, partially because AMC needs the content. Hell on Wheels is a steady performer and it's doing well on Saturdays, but it's no longer part of AMC's prestige night of scheduling. Better Call Saul is just as likely to be a fandom-exploding misfire as it is a thriving success, and even then, it's not going to be Breaking Bad 2.0. And the new shows seem interesting on paper—Halt & Catch Fire stars Lee Pace and examines the 1980s tech boom; Turn is about the American Revolution—but AMC's decision-making and development in the years since Breaking Bad's debut don't instill me with much confidence. So really and truly, that leaves the network with The Walking Dead, which is literally the best property to be left with in this kind of situation. It's a ratings behemoth, a social media powerhouse, and a show where the "quality" doesn't matter to a large chunk of the audience.
Theoretically, AMC can ride out the post-Mad Men and post-Breaking Bad era almost exclusively on the decaying shoulders of The Walking Dead. But immediately jumping into a BrBa spin-off is only going to bring on the unfair comparisons, possibly further damaging the network's brand in the future. Not every situation is the same, but it's telling that we haven't seen HBO try to spin off its big properties, nor have we seen such a tactic at FX. The worst part of this is knowing that, if Better Call Saul or the other new shows also fail, AMC could possibly even shuffle toward a Walking Dead spin-off. Walking Dead: Miami?
In general, the network's development strategy hasn't, from the outside, seemed particularly great. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead were all developed with other networks or channels and mind, only for their respective creative forces to get desperate and try their luck at the little channel that could, or perhaps wanted to. So really, AMC kind of lucked into them. I don't want to take away from the executives who gave those shows the greenlight, but it's not like AMC developed them from opening pitch to pilot in the traditional fashion. Since then, the network has become a smorgasbord of late-aughts cable television tropes. Male anti-heroes? Check. Period pieces? Got 'em in spades. "We need to do our Deadwood!" "Now we need to do our Wire!"
Moreover, the public spats with various well-respected producers, particularly with regard to money and control, have likely already damaged AMC's reputation among the people who should matter the most to them: Hollywood talent. If you're an established or up-and-coming writer or producer who's turning to television in 2013—the kind who has fascinating ideas that don't fit into the current economics of Hollywood's more global-focused blockbuster system—why would you pitch to AMC, except as a last-ditch effort? You already know they're willing to let negotiations get out, and to get at least somewhat ugly. That's not a good sign for you, Young Screenwriter With a Cool Idea. Low Winter Sun's Chris Mundy and Turn's Craig Silverstein are very solid writers, but their respective histories with Criminal Minds and Nikita aren't quite the same as Weiner and Gilligan coming from The Sopranos and The X-Files.
To be fair, this kind of thing can happen. AMC certainly didn't expect to become the Next HBO almost overnight and suddenly, its choices were magnified. It's not easy to sustain Emmy-dominating programming, or to find the next populist smash, let alone to do both at the same time. Yet, that's also where AMC sort of went wrong, or at least found itself underprepared. Is the channel going to try to make more shows in the vein of The Walking Dead, which chase a bigger audience? Or does it want to keep producing lower-rated awards bait? Those things aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, but some idea of a strategy would be nice.
And for a shocking amount of time now, it's appeared as if AMC has no real idea of how it's going to sustain itself as a channel. With a couple of critical dynamos and the most successful cable show of all time on the schedule, they've had time to think about it. But now, time is running out. The network's new slogan, an attempt to put a vague-colored coat of paint on its slapdash strategy, is Something More. Unfortunately, that moniker already feels completely ironic.
If you were an AMC exec, what would YOU be trying to do right now?