AMC is at a crossroads.
Although the cable network's successes in 2013 are hard to ignore — Breaking Bad ended its landmark run to critical raves and an astounding 400-plus percent growth in total viewers, and The Walking Dead remained TV's top-rated drama with a Season 4 premiere that drew 16 million sets of eyeballs — the network faced its share of setbacks. A resurrected third season of The Killing earned better reviews, but it was canceled (again) after failing to deliver an audience (it's since been revived again by Netflix). Worse, freshman drama Low Winter Sun was utterly rejected by viewers despite being paired with Bad's successful final run.
Winter TV: Get scoop on your favorite returning shows
The truth is, AMC hasn't launched a hit since The Walking Dead shambled onto the air in October 2010. (Western drama Hell on Wheels has enough of an audience to keep the show chugging along on Saturday nights, but it's rarely part of the larger TV conversation.) And the network's development pipeline, which for a period also included a non-traditional "bake-off" pitch process, delivered so little that The Killing's resurrection perhaps came out of necessity rather than desire.
Perhaps unintentionally, AMC has drawn more attention to its weak bench by green-lighting two spin-offs from its proven roster: Better Call Saul will serve as a Breaking Bad prequel featuring Walter White's shady lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), and Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman is developing a "companion series" to explore other areas of the zombie apocalypse. Plus: The decision to break Mad Men's final season into two halves airing in 2014 and 2015 smacks of the network trying to prolong the inevitable loss of one its cornerstone properties for as long as possible.
But there's a more alarming fear: Has The Walking Dead's (and to a lesser degree, Breaking Bad's) mainstream success changed the decision-making process at AMC? Has the network that built itself on small, groundbreaking shows decided to trade its trophy case full of Emmys for big-tent ratings? According to AMC President Charlie Collier and Executive Vice President of Original Programming Joel Stillerman, the answer is no.
Winter Preview: Check out all the must-see new shows
"More than anything, we talk about doing what got us to the dance," Collier tells TVGuide.com of new dramas Turn and Halt & Catch Fire, as well recently ordered pilots Knifeman, Galyntine and Line of Sight. Turn, set during the Revolutionary War, tells the story of the creation of America's first spy ring. Halt is a 1980s-set look at the personal computing boom in Texas' "Silicon Prairie." And Galyntine is a fantasy/sci-fi drama about a group of survivors rebuilding society after a cataclysmic technology-induced disaster from Walking Dead executive producer Greg Nicotero.
"Shows that just a handful of networks in the business would even entertain are much more the bread and butter of what we're doing," Stillerman says of AMC's future projects. "The game is to be eclectic by design and look for the great visionaries who we can empower to do their passion projects and big original ideas."
Of course, only time will tell if these projects will become the next Mad Men or go the way of Rubicon and Low Winter Sun. In the meantime, TVGuide.com chatted with Collier and Stillerman about saying goodbye to its staples, why the upcoming spin-offs won't be just rehashing old ground and what their failed projects have taught them to expect in the future.
Check out 25 completely unnecessary spin-offs
How did you feel overall about 2013?
Joel Stillerman: It was certainly not perfect, but [we had] a show like Breaking Bad reaching that cultural phenomenon level ... after five seasons of nurturing it from a very humble beginning. And then you have The Walking Dead firing on all cylinders ... beating football for a few weeks there in the beginning. We feel like we had a pretty good year.
Breaking Bad's numbers at the end were just incredible. Do you attribute that to any one thing?
Charlie Collier: Obviously, it starts with a great show. It starts with Vince Gilligan and his brain and his team. But we had a two-year plan. We have different but similar aspirations for Mad Men. We talked about the best way to really make sure we elevate it in every possible way. There were museums dedicated to Breaking Bad, and we took it to Comic-Con a couple years out. We really did everything we could to make sure there was fan interest.
Do you expect breaking Mad Men into two smaller final seasons to have similar results?
Collier: It's a different show. They have different target audiences, different appeal. Mad Men is the most upscale show on television, and we plan to appeal to that audience. We're already talking about the appropriate venue for those museum tours and for all the things that we'll do that are Mad Men-appropriate. They're very different tones.
Because of the different tonal aspects of the show, do you worry that breaking Mad Men into two halves will affect how the show works creatively?
Charlie Collier: Mad Men begins and ends with [creator Matthew Weiner]. Matt is absolutely part of the decision and will give you enough in each season to make you feel like you got the complete viewing experience.
Joel Stillerman: The show will certainly be calibrated because he's been in on the discussion of how to play it out since Day 1.
See where Breaking Bad landed in our Best TV shows of 2013
Breaking Bad is done, and Mad Men will soon say goodbye. What do you replace those shows with?
Collier: When you have Mad Men and Breaking Bad, you don't replace those shows any more than CBS ever replaced M*A*S*H or HBO ever replaced The Sopranos. You put them in the hall of fame and you enshrine them, and they're there forever. That's [always going to be] part of our DNA.
But the business keeps on going. How do you maintain the reputation you established with those shows?
Collier: More than anything, we talk about doing what got us to the dance. Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead came through a very deliberate development process, and we've never had more in development. All of that is what you do to keep the future bright. But you don't replace Mad Men and Breaking Bad. That's not the objective. The objective is to put them in the hall of fame and go get your next hit.
But finding that next hit has been difficult for you. Hell on Wheels has steadied somewhat on Saturday nights, but The Killing and Low Winter Sun both failed.
Collier: I'm incredibly proud of The Killing and Low Winter Sun. [I'm] not much of a skier, but I always say to my kids, "If you're not falling down, you're not pushing yourself hard enough." The job is to take big at-bats. You're not always going to connect, but you've got to keep taking the big swings. We talk all the time about making sure our next at-bat is a big swing. If we keep doing that, and it's not easy to do ... we're taking chances that others don't take. And when you do connect, that's when you get pop-cultural relevance that Joel mentioned with Breaking Bad.
AMC orders pilots Knifeman, Galyntine
You mentioned your development slate being the network's bright future, but you have both a Breaking Bad and a Walking Dead spin-off in the works.
Collier: If you have the No. 1 show on television and you have the creator, Robert Kirkman, saying, "We should show what's going on in other parts of the zombie apocalypse," if you're in my chair, you do that because you bet on this great creator. If Vince Gilligan says, "I have the idea for a story of a prequel about how Saul become the best worst lawyer in the world," I would bet on Vince Gilligan every time. Those are no-brainers. I wasn't going to wake up the next morning and find out that Saul was living on another network. Those are truly great investments in talent and stories and characters that we believe in, with the visionaries who built them leading the way.
But do you view those shows as a prolonging of the present as opposed to moving on to the future?
Joel Stillerman: We never sat around and said, "Our strategy now has to center around spin-offs." I think we did a great job nurturing those shows; they both got to the point where they could be spun off comfortably without having to force it or feel like you're on the wrong end of the bell curve, creatively. We feel like both those shows actually have an opportunity to, creatively, really move on and expand from what they're built from. Vince is talking about really redefining the tone of what a drama can be and building around a comedic character like Odenkirk's. We're having deep discussions with Robert about what is the M.O. for the next Walking Dead that is as good and substantive as his original motivation. We're certainly happy to push those things down the field, but the emphasis still very much is on new development.
You said before that your new projects will continue doing what got you to the dance. How so?
Stillerman: [We have] things like Halt & Catch Fire and Turn, which are both way out of the ad-supported-TV mainstream. Shows that just a handful of networks in the business would even entertain are much more the bread and butter of what we're doing. We stand our game. The game is to be eclectic by design and look for the great visionaries who we can empower to do their passion projects and big original ideas.
Collier: I love the range of things we've taken on, and some connect and some don't. But we'll keep expanding that range. To have our next two series be a "Silicon Prairie" project and a story of the first spy ring in the American Revolution — you don't hear a lot about that. We're true to our mission, and it's going to continue in greater volume.
Watch the trailer for AMC's new Revolutionary War spy drama Turn
So you think these new shows are a return to what made AMC what it is?
Charlie Collier: Well, we never left. [Laughs] But again, not everything's going to connect.
Do you think that The Killing and Low Winter sun didn't connect because they dealt with more conventional archetypes?
Collier: I think both The Killing and Low Winter Sun had elements that I've never seen. A murder committed by two cops in the first act and the lead cops need to investigate the crime they committed? That had not been anything I'd seen before. The Killing ... really was a different type of character drama. We fell in love with the original version, and I think we tried a lot of things that were unconventional, but it was still a cop drama.
Joel Stillerman: The Killing was wildly unconventional at the time. ... It redefined the way you think about crime on television. It deconstructed the procedural, and that's just as exciting to us as finding something off in left field. We're not so dogmatic that a great idea can't come within a genre that's already been tackled before.
Turn is the first new show to launch this year. What elements of that show do you think will connect with audiences?
Charlie Collier: A spy story set in any [time period] has intrigue ... but on a character level, because that is the first barrier that we look at, the show explores a phenomenon around the Revolutionary War that I'd never seen in any history book. You learn in history class, "There's a king, he taxes people, they threw some tea in the harbor, and everybody picked up a gun." What's fascinating in Turn, and this is what I think will make it a great piece of television for people who might not even love spy stories, is that it's as much a story about what it took for these kids to defy their families, and in some cases their spouses, even their best friends. You had to risk everything to go fight in that war. That's another part of the story that we'll explore deeply.
What are some of the "big swings" coming out of your development pipeline?
Collier: Knifeman is a hugely original take on what could be considered the familiar medical genre, but it's hardly like anything I've seen before in that space. In terms of supporting talent and being with people we know and trust and wanting them to keep bringing us their passion projects, we have Greg Nicotero and Galyntine. [We're betting] on him to create a world that is really as ambitious as anything I think we've done in the recent past.
Joel Stillerman: Conceptually, they're way out of left field and also very large-scale pilots. I'll have to do the research to see if we can say this for a fact, but I'm pretty sure Galyntine is the first time that somebody's done a big fantasy adventure piece without source material. So, this is world-creation with no road map. These guys came in with this idea that they had thought out to a degree that you rarely hear. ... We've all seen the brutal dark version of the post-apocalypse; we have a show on our air that explores that. The great thing about Galyntine is that it actually goes one step further and imagines not only the end of civilization, but also the beginning of the next civilization. It's not a super-dark, "I want to blow my brains out after I watch the show" kind of piece. It's actually a traditional hero's journey, where civilization is starting to put the pieces back together. We thought that was a really original choice on looking at the future.
You spoke before about creative vision. You've had long partnerships with Matt Weiner and Vince Gilligan, but you've had major showrunner turnover on Walking Dead and Hell on Wheels. How would you characterize your relationship with the creative community at the moment?
Stillerman: Showrunner relationships are incredibly important and challenging. Every decision we've made, we've made because we believed it was in the best interest of the show. They're not always the most popular ones, and sometimes they're the ones that end up in the press, which is unfortunate. It's never fun. But we do apply a very simple framework to the discussions. And if there are decisions, [it's] what's best for the show. If you do that, ultimately your decisions are understood, and I think by and large our relationship with the creative community is really solid. [Editor's note: Collier and Stillerman could not comment on pending litigation by former Walking Dead showurnner Frank Darabont, who is suing AMC for profits.]
AMC orders "expanded" fourth season of Hell on Wheels
How do you feel about the way Netflix has impacted the business model? In many ways, binge-watching has helped some of your shows.
Collier: We have had a great relationship with Netflix. We still look at the day the show airs as the event. We believe in the water cooler event. 2013 was a great year because we had many of them. The second that is ended, we believe the ecosystem for the next week or the next season continues. ... We now nurture [shows] right up to air and then start again the next day to try to get people caught up by the next week or caught up by the next season.
You guys have several unscripted series on the air and several more in development. How important are those shows to your business?
Stillerman: It is important to our business, and we're in it to succeed. We feel very strongly about shows like Small Town Security, which, granted, haven't set the world on fire from a ratings point of view, but certainly moved the needle creatively. And for that reason, it's gotten a lot of recognition. ... There's great producers behind this show that do really, really brilliant stuff. We want to send a signal, just like we did with the early scripted shows, that says we're a place that will take those chances.
Charlie Collier: If we connect on unscripted, I think it will be at the same level. We'll take some creative swings that are big swings by ad-supported metrics. Then we'll find the compelling stories that make you want to know more about these people. That shouldn't change regardless of the medium.
Your next swing is Game of Arms from the Deadliest Catch producers.
Stillerman: Those guys are great producers. Deadliest Catch is a really great piece of television, certainly a landmark piece of unscripted television. So, if they can bring that quality of storytelling to the world of arm wrestling, which is a truly bizarre, interesting, layered, complex sub-culture, we'll be very happy.
So if 2013 was a great year with some hiccups, what do you expect of 2014?
Charlie Collier: More success, more hiccups. I'll say it again: If we're not falling down a little bit, we're not pushing hard enough. What I never want us to be is a place that falls into ordinary.
Stillerman: Or complacent. [AMC] has never been complacent. Not one day I've been here have I even sensed a hint of it. When Mad Men came along and became a landmark show right out of the box, there was never one moment where anybody said, "OK, we're good. Now we'll go find a nice down-the-middle piece of television." They came back with Breaking Bad and after that The Walking Dead. So, the DNA of the company is very much "push the envelope." Don't be complacent, don't ever be formulaic. We have a great zombie show, which we are spinning off, but it's not like we went out and looked for 10 more of those. We went out and looked for things that would continue to do what every show has done for us up to now, which is continue to brand the network as a place where deep originality is really the key.
Other Links From TVGuide.com