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With 'Breaking Bad' Over and 'Mad Men' In Its Final Season, How AMC is Preparing for the Future

By Aaron Dobbs | Indiewire October 31, 2013 at 12:43PM

AMC's President Charlie Collier talks about the future of the network with two of its defining series finished or coming to an end, the recent move into spin-offs, splitting up seasons and why live TV is still important.
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'Breaking Bad'
Ursula Coyote/AMC 'Breaking Bad'

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
Charlie Collier

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.

'The Walking Dead'
'The Walking Dead'

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.

'The Killing'
'The Killing'

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.

"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."

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.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Interviews, Network Interviews, AMC, Charlie Collier, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Low Winter Sun, Hell on Wheels, Jonathan Demme