Don Drapper had a blissed-out smile on that cliff at the end of Mad Men’s May 17 series finale. But transcending the loss of the show—which, along with Breaking Bad, vaulted AMC to the top ranks of original content players—won’t be easy.
AMC execs have met the challenge by steadily increasing the net’s supply of scripted fare since Mad Men premiered as one of AMC’s first originals, in the summer of 2007. With 10 different series scheduled for 2015, and a brief foray into unscripted abandoned months ago, the cabler that was the home to Sterling Cooper is focused on finding its next cultural breakout (besides the blockbuster zombies of The Walking Dead).
Charlie Collier, president and general manager of AMC and SundanceTV, spoke with B&C associate editor Tim Baysinger on the future of AMC post-Mad Men and what his plans are for SundanceTV. An edited transcript follows.
So much of AMC’s brand was built on Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Now that both shows are off the air, what is the next phase for AMC?
We’ve never been in a better position. As we’ve spent the last 2-3 years putting Breaking Bad and Mad Men in the proverbial hall of fame, we’ve never been stronger than we are right now. We have the No. 1 show in TV in The Walking Dead, and we own it. We have Fear the Walking Dead coming. Better Call Saul was the highest-rated premiere in cable history, and that’s returning, obviously.
We have more on our air and are doing more than ever before.
A lot of AMC’s new programming rolling out over the next year-plus is different types of genre fare in sci-fi with Humans), horror in Fear the Walking Dead and even martial arts with Into the Badlands. Is that diversification something AMC is going to continue to push toward?
We always want to be eclectic by design.
One of my great points of pride: The network that has Mad Men also has The Walking Dead. In a traditional non-premium model, that wouldn’t be the case. To be the network that has Hell on Wheels and also the network that’s launching Humans is very natural to me. Or to have Halt and Catch Fire, which is one of the most upscale shows on TV, be paired on the same network with something like Into the Badlands.
If you think about most ad-supported cable, what they do—and this is to their credit, it’s what they do well—and make money doing it is: when something works they tend to go vertical.
We went the other way. It’s what allows you to both keep the legacy of Breaking Bad and Mad Men alive and also go and find the next addition that was never meant to be anything like them. It’s meant to complement them and the movies that are still at our core.
With so much competition from other networks and digital services, how do you make a new show stand out amid all the clutter?
You need to also go into these saying, “different projects for different metrics.” A show like Mad Men was meant to speak to the upscale audience. You have different expectations for a Halt and Catch Fire than you do a Walking Dead, or a Hell on Wheels vs. a Humans.
If you’re going to be eclectic by design you also need to have different expectations for what “breaking out” means for those shows. One way to break out is not try to be all things to all people, but actually try to—for whoever is watching—make sure it’s one of their favorite shows.
Not everything needs to be huge but we want those people who are watching to be passionate and not be indifferent about the content.
With Better Call Saul and TURN, AMC opened a new night of original programming on Mondays. Are you still committed to making that night work?
Oh yeah. Sundays, Mondays and Saturdays [Hell on Wheels], those have been great. We’ve talked about adding a fourth night – Tuesdays – in the not-too-distant future.
The Walking Dead is heading into its sixth season this fall and now has a companion series [Fear the Walking Dead] as well. Pun not intended, but do you fear audience fatigue with zombies?
To me, the show is not about zombies, it’s about survival. It is a character drama at its core. It’s about what you would do when faced with this world that so clearly is not what it used to be and one that needs rebuilding. I think those themes are as relatable as ever. Of course it’s set in the zombie apocalypse, but I think it’s one of the best character dramas out there.
If you’re sitting in my chair and Robert Kirkman says there’s more story to tell and that he’d like to start before [in The Walking Dead pilot] Rick wakes up before the apocalypse starts, it’s a different conceit in a different world with a different set of characters. If we do [Fear the Walking Dead] right, by the end of the first season, not only will you be leading into these characters lives but you’ll be remembering that this is about survival its not about zombies jumping out of the closet.
A great character drama has as much resonance today as it did five years ago and hopefully into the future.
You recently took over SundanceTV. What is your strategy for that network?
The Sundance brand is synonymous with quality original content and creators’ passion projects and people taking creative risks. Anything that you do with Sundance, with respect to that risk-taking and nurturing the artist is really very important.
Sundance is already so far ahead of where [AMC] was when we started [getting into original scripted content]. There is such a head start vs. where we were when I came to AMC. I’m excited to be a part of it and eager to figure how to continue the best of the brand and bring some new additions as well.
Ed Carroll mentioned the similarities between AMC and SundanceTV when you were named president of the latter. What are the similarities between the two?
They are both a great blend of curated movies that speaks to their audience and originals that have an edge. What we’ve both become known for over the last decade over so is not just that which we curate but that we’ve which built ourselves as well.
Being able to have those two sensibilities, which are very different but having cores that are quite similar, is going to benefit both brands.