When AMC launched in 1984, the letters stood for “American Movie Classics,” and it quickly became the TV destination for film lovers featuring uncut, commercial-free films, mostly from the first half of the 20th Century and frequently hosted by George Clooney’s dad. In the mid-’90s it was joined on the cable dial by Turner Classic Movies, which began buying up film libraries, playing a role in AMC’s 2002 move to an ad-supported model. The channel began airing more contemporary — and arguably not so “classic” — movies, making those letters more icon than acronym.
Today theatrical movies still play a major role in AMC’s overall schedule, especially in stunts like the now-running “AMC Fearfest,” but in 2006 the channel began a push towards original programming with the Walter Hill-directed Emmy-winning miniseries “Broken Trail.” Over the following three years, AMC premiered “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead.”
“Mad Men” changed everything for AMC, winning the “Best Drama Series” Emmy for each of its first four seasons. Showtime’s “Homeland” took the 2012 prize, before “Breaking Bad” brought the trophy back to the channel this year. AMC remains the only basic cable channel to win Emmy’s most coveted prize. Meanwhile, the astounding numbers for the “Breaking Bad” finale, topping 10-million, seemed almost quaint when “The Walking Dead” fourth-season premiere attracted total audience and key demographic numbers that the broadcast networks would envy. AMC renewed the series this week for a fifth season, surprising no one.
Charlie Collier became General Manager of AMC in 2006 after holding senior roles in at Court TV, Oxygen Media and A+E Networks, focusing on advertising sales, brand development and audience engagement. He was named President of the channel in 2008. In the fifth of a regular series of interviews with network heads, Indiewire spoke with Collier about the importance of the live TV event, their split-season strategy and life after “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men.”
How do you feel the expectations of TV audiences have changed over the past five to 20 years, and how does AMC’s original programming fulfill those expectations?
Audiences want today what they’ve always wanted, which is to be entertained by high quality content. That hasn’t changed, but that said, I think there is more of tolerance now for stories and character arcs that play out over multiple episodes or even multiple seasons. Viewers are willing to make the investment of time and the investment in quality when it’s there. I’m a huge believer in the live television event. The water cooler television event is still incredibly relevant.
That said, there’s no question that shows are more available and accessible today through marathons, DVRs, VOD, electronic sell-through and online services, and that also helps build receptivity to the longer range dramas because they’re just not going to air once and then disappear. Viewers don’t have to feel like they’ll miss the boat, and so they obviously can catch-up. There are so many different pathways to get back to that water cooler event.
This shift in how audiences consume television seems to have occurred concurrently with this development of a more serialized and sophisticated type of storytelling in TV. How do you see this progression continuing and how does AMC approach these adjustments?
I think technologically, there’s a desire for control and on demand viewing, and that’s not going away anytime soon. At the same time, the rise of social media and the way it enables communal moments is another force that actually focuses back on the live event and shared water cooler experience.
One of the reasons we’re shifting to an ownership model for a good deal of our content — for example, we’re the studio and the network for “The Walking Dead” — is because that gives us the flexibility to not just meet viewers wherever they are or want to be, but also to make sure that we control the way we get them back to the event programming. If you look at the traditions of our industry — the cable industry specifically — it is restructuring around that mobility through authentication, and I think that’s a concept that is quickly becoming pervasive and enabled across a range of platforms and devices.
You’ve mentioned the “live” or “water cooler” event a couple times now, which is especially interesting in light of the recent final run of “Breaking Bad.” Here’s a show that didn’t have the highest viewership numbers it’s first three to four years, but certainly exploded during its final eight episodes.
That is exactly what I was talking about. What is so remarkable about the “Breaking Bad” phenomenon — and [the amazing] results from “The Walking Dead” premiere — is that we see all these viewing methods as part of an eco-system that starts with the live event and immediately thereafter begins this series of catch-up opportunities that drive back to the following week’s event.
What is the specific value that you think comes from the live-watched TV event, since it seems like its importance continues to diminish among non-sports programming?
We hear about the parties that are drawn around the “Breaking Bad” finale or the premiere of “The Walking Dead,” and even if you can’t make it to a party, the beauty of social media is that you really are watching as a community. The more people do that, the more that they get positive feedback from that communal event, and the more I think they’re inclined to catch up for the next one. I give a huge hats off to our entire marketing, promotions and on air teams who really take the live event as the first opportunity to reach viewers, but then actually go to work even harder to make sure the next one is equally powerful.
What do you consider the characteristics that define an AMC series, and are there specific qualities you look for in a pitch?
Across all of our shows, we want to bring viewers something they can’t see anywhere else. Our tagline is, “Something More.” That really is what we’re trying to deliver every time we put an original series on the air, and actually even when we elevate our movies. There’s a lot we do to really have our viewers say back to us: AMC delivers something more. There was really nothing on TV like “Mad Men” when it became our first scripted series. You can say the same thing about “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead,” “Hell on Wheels” and even the new series we ordered for 2014 called “Halt and Catch Fire” and “Turn” as well as the pilots we’re working on now.
More frequently, we’re seeing people from outside the world of television — filmmakers, playwrights, longform journalists, radio producers — developing series. What is AMC’s approach to seeking out new voices for your scripted projects?
This is true on both sides of the camera. If you look at “Mad Men” with someone like Jon Hamm, or on “Breaking Bad,” the casting of Bryan Cranston seems obvious now, but it was pretty untraditional at the time. The terrific folks in my development and programming teams, and obviously the brilliant creators of both of those shows, really were trying to bring something to the air that you hadn’t seen before.
Fast forward to today, and Jonathan Demme directed a brilliant episode of “The Killing” last season, and he just finished directing our next pilot called “Line of Sight.” What a remarkable array of unexpected talent really coming to the fore: people being made stars through basic cable television shows, certainly in the case of Jon Hamm, which is terrific, and he deserves every bit of the recognition; and then to have someone like Jonathan Demme to come and do television, it is a great example of what you’re talking about.
How about in terms of creators and writers: Is AMC actively seeking people who haven’t previously worked in television?
We’re seeing projects come from all of the areas of the world that you mentioned. We want to be the place where the best in the business bring us their passion projects, regardless of whether they’re well-known names or perhaps out of an unusual portion of the world, and we want to create an environment at AMC where people feel like their next show belongs at AMC. It’s really important to us that we’re speaking with the most talented people in the business and that we’re showing them that we’ll take the chances and creative risks that have gotten us some of the series we have been fortunate to have on our air so far.
Does the participation of filmmakers like Jonathan Demme and Rian Johnson (who directed three episodes of “Breaking Bad”) come from your staff or the individual productions?
It’s obviously a collaborative effort. We’ve got some incredible showrunners and executive producers who are positively looking to elevate these shows. Our development team and programming group are always reading, watching and trying to meet the people in the community who will bring our creative executions to the next level, and frankly, it’s our mandate.
How did you feel about the ending of “Breaking Bad” and the diverse reactions to it among critics and fans?
I was thrilled that Vince [Gilligan] ended the series on his own terms, and it really was what he had hoped to do. I think he did a brilliant job.
You recently announced spinoffs to both “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead.” Does either show, especially “The Walking Dead” spinoff, have a specific premise, or are you just committing to exploring both of these worlds?
Obviously spinning-off “Breaking Bad,” what so many people argue is one of the greatest series in television history, and then spinning off the highest rated show on television right now, both of those were not difficult decisions. While it is the early days of development, finding out what’s going on elsewhere in the zombie apocalypse has been something we’ve been asked about since season one.
But there is a long television history of hugely successful shows spinning-off series that don’t receive the same love and admiration. Is there a sense of what these shows will be yet? Are you hoping to capture the exact same tones and ideas, or go in different directions? Or is it still too early in the development process to say?
Well, to your earlier question about bringing great talent together, Robert Kirkman, the creator of [“The Walking Dead”] comic book and the original series, has so much more story to tell, and he’s excited to jump in. [Executive Producers] Gale Ann Hurd and Dave Alpert, all the folks who covet the original series as much as we do and also feel there’s more story to tell are involved and active in the development process with us, so we feel great about it.
You’ve also developed an interesting strategy of half- or split-seasons, which you have now utilized or announced for all three of your biggest series. What were your main reasons for pursuing this strategy?
I think we’ve seen results from “The Walking Dead” and “Breaking Bad” — and we obviously hope the same for “Mad Men” — that presenting the series in this way really has played in to some of the questions you asked me earlier about event television. “The Walking Dead” is a perfect example: We come out in fourth quarter, and we support it with a premiere in and around AMC Fearfest.
Then we have a finale and take a break; Sunday nights are turned over to playoff football and the Super Bowl, and we come back with a second premiere and finale opportunity right after that. So for the viewer who again has a lot of choices for what to watch, what we’re always trying to do is put the best stories in the right places to see them succeed.
Obviously we saw the benefits with “Breaking Bad” in letting viewers really savor the end of a series and catch up through a wide variety of platforms including on our own air through marathons, VOD and other vehicles. Every show is different, but we’re pleased we’ve been able to work with each show to do something special for all involved, starting of course with the viewers.
In the case of “Breaking Bad,” it was an expanded final season of 16 episodes and many events on-air and off that served to send that iconic series off in style. With “Mad Men,” we’re adding a 14th episode to give viewers a bonus episode and an even 7-7 split for this final season. And of course we’ll be working closely with Matthew and the entire team to give this unparalleled series the sendoff it so richly deserves.
You’ve provided some showrunners with a great deal of freedom, but you’ve also found yourself in a few public spats with others. “The Walking Dead” has had three showrunners going into its fifth season, and “Hell on Wheels” got a new showrunner before its recently completed third. How would you describe your ideal relationship between a showrunner and network?
We’re very pleased with where we are on “The Walking Dead” and “Hell on Wheels,” but obviously every show and every situation is different. We’ve never entered into changes lightly, and everything we do is with the intention that it’s in service of the audience and in the best interests of the show. We’ve also been fortunate to work with some of the best showrunners and creative talents in the history of television — Matthew Weiner and Vince Gilligan, to name two — who brought their passion projects to AMC viewers, nurtured them on our air over five-plus seasons, and ultimately, both will have seen their remarkable series to conclusion on AMC. We take great pride in these unique partnerships, and we take our relationships with these, and all our showrunners, very seriously.
Your scripted series have been locked into a Sunday night schedule, which has become the most competitive night of television, probably in the medium’s history. This year, you moved “Hell on Wheels” to Saturdays. Is the intent to keep programming Saturdays, which most networks stay away from these days?
Programming Sunday with scripted original series of quality year-round, being able to move “Hell on Wheels” to Saturday and dedicating Thursday to unscripted programming and events represents a significant positive change for the network. Moving “Hell on Wheels” for us was a totally logical and strategic decision. Historically, Saturdays have meant Westerns to AMC viewers, so we saw a unique opportunity to create an all-day experience for our loyal Western fans with a 15-hour thematic lead-in to an original series in their favorite genre.
While Saturday is widely considered tough sledding for TV shows, we just completed the third season of “Hell on Wheels,” and not only did the audience for the show on Sunday follow it to Saturday – averaging 3.3 million viewers a week, with live plus three days of time shifting (something being on Saturday night also aided) – the show delivered double our previous prime time average on Saturday. We’re very pleased.
Various media analysts like to focus on, “What’s next for AMC?” “Breaking Bad” is gone; “Mad Men” nears its end, so they wonder if AMC can still present the next critical, transformational series? What’s your reaction to those stories that seem to appear every few months, and while it’s impossible to predict with certainty, do you feel you’re currently developing your next “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men”?
I’ve been asked this question a lot, and my answer is always the same: These shows, specifically, are irreplaceable. They will always be a part of AMC and always receive appropriate credit for making AMC what it is today. That said, iconic programming has come and gone from many networks that have more-than-remained successful and dynamic businesses.
CBS will never replace “M*A*S*H” and “All in the Family,” nor will HBO ever technically replace “The Sopranos” or “Sex in the City.” But both have done very well not by replacing those specific creative initiatives but by continuing to do the work that got [those shows] to the network in the first place. We will do the same.
We have a number of projects in development that we’re excited about including two new series next year – “Halt and Catch Fire” and “Turn” — but explicitly looking for the next “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men” is never the way we will approach it.
Regarding “Halt and Catch Fire” and “Turn,” this was the first time you’ve picked-up two pilots to series in the same year. Can we expect a ramping up of production, with more instances of two or more original series on air at the same time as you recently had with “Hell on Wheels,” “Breaking Bad” and “Low Winter Sun”? And when can we expect to hear about the futures of “Hell on Wheels” and “Low Winter Sun”?
We’ve been ramping up our development process going back several years. We have more than 60 projects in development right now, across scripted and unscripted, and we will continue to aggressively develop new content.
We haven’t announced premiere dates yet for the second half of “The Walking Dead” or for “Mad Men,” “Turn” or “Halt and Catch Fire,” and we haven’t made any pickup decisions for existing series as of yet, with the exception of a fifth season of “The Walking Dead”; that was the textbook definition of a no-brainer. But we could potentially have multiple new series on at the same time in 2014, similar to 2013. We expect to have more to say across the board here over the next several weeks.