"Mad Men" has a production budget of $2-$2.5 million per episode, and "Treme" has one that's slightly higher than that. For an indie film made for a commensurate budget ($3-$5 million), without the marketing firepower of a network like HBO or AMC behind it, the odds of making investors' money off of a character study or auteur-driven intellectual work are low. As a result, cable TV is slowly but effectively assuming the role once claimed by the larger indie production companies. Networks don’t run risks quite like production companies and film investors do -- they can afford to take losses on specific shows because their model makes enough money that those losses can be covered by other programs that are on the air at the same time, also affording series (like, say, "The Wire") to turn profits over time with the opporunities for DVD, syndication and international sales.
The funny thing is that while pursuing an artistically ambitious and potentially challenging film project is something that can make film investors nervous, it’s become a quality that the cable networks welcome. In a recent article addressing this trend by Patrick Goldstein at the Los Angeles Times, "Burn Notice" creator Matt Nix points out: “On cable... you can sustain a show with 2 million people watching its first airing. That means that what counts is having viewers who are passionately committed to their show. And the way to do that is to program a show that is 100% what it aims to be and allow the show runners to embrace all their idiosyncrasies, just as they'd do if they were making an independent film.”
The reason? As Goldstein correctly points out, “Advertisers today prefer upscale viewers. Even though shows like 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad' have a fraction of the viewership of a cable juggernaut like 'Jersey Shore,' they are magnets for advertisers who value the shows’ high media profile and are eager to reach their affluent, better educated viewers.”
The result is a situation where advertisers can hit their target demographics with a greater specificity -- and therefore at a cheaper rate -- than would ever come from plastering a city with billboards and posters. It’s a little bit like what YouTube is trying to do with its new 500-channel program -- target niche viewers and program content that directly appeals to their specific interests, then use that specificity of interest to sell ads at a higher rate (and an elevated cost).
The effect of all this is rather unheard of: advertising that comes in not despite a work’s artistry, and therefore higher degree of difficulty, but rather because of it. Working a showrunner-auteur into an ad-sales pitch reflects the truth that cable networks don’t only want to fill the void left by mid-range indies -- they have to. A network like AMC will never be able to compete with the majors in terms of viewership, but reaching a more premium audience is a way of evening out the playing field between them and the big channels in terms of ad revenue. This craving for original voices in TV content means that an artist is becoming prized here as was never the case in indie film, where often mini-majors buy eccentric works and then try to Trojan-horse-repackage them as the genre offerings that they aren’t. Until independent film can figure out a way to monetize artistry in an equally efficient fashion, we can expect the film world to keep losing a certain kind of auteur – and the world of TV to keep scooping them up.