Consider, for a moment, the lightning rod. (Lord knows Josh Sapan has.) A grounded metal rod affixed to the top of a structure, it’s meant to protect a home or building by absorbing a lightning strike. In the 19th century, a decorative addition was made—ornamental glass balls were added to the tops of many rods. If lightning struck, the balls would often shatter to pieces, indicating everything still worked to perfection.
Sapan knows all this, being (unconfirmed, but assuredly) the world’s largest collector of antique lightning rods. But why, beyond what he suggests is his “genetic predisposition to collect things”? He saw his first ones and, “I thought they were attractive in a way that industrial arts are attractive as opposed to fine arts.” To Sapan, there is true beauty in technology and utility. And, one might suggest, there is beauty in a piece of electrical equipment’s ability to disrupt, influence, protect, enlighten and, for a thrill, send something shattering into the air. As president and CEO of AMC Networks, the comparisons to what he does for a living—and does very well—are hardly lost on Sapan.
“It’s a subject of interest to me—when technology, content and story and artfulness come together,” he says. “I do think the technology influences or invites the form and it is great when the form takes greatest advantage of the technology and brings something novel to the consumer or viewer.”
Sapan recognizes that his career takes best advantage of this two-pronged circuit of technology and content. And he has for decades excelled—as very few in the industry have—at acting presciently on trends, turning inconceivable risks into pop culture-defining successes and bringing a rare degree of definition of network brands into a programming world where standing out is often as difficult as navigating through quicksand. It’s those qualities that make Sapan a worthy addition to the list of Brandon Tartikoff Award honorees.
“Josh is a visionary, and the fact that he’s willing to take a risk and bust out of norms and the way we ‘have always done things’ is why he’s accomplished so many of the things he has,” says Ken Lowe, chairman/CEO of Scripps Networks Interactive. “Look at all these brands he’s built over the years.”
Lowe cites the stable of options under Sapan’s purview: AMC, weTV, Sundance, IFC, BBC America and earlier in his career (and notably) Bravo. There’s also the feature film label IFC Films and Sundance Selects. The successful series associated with these brands boggles: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, Rectify, Portlandia, Inside the Actors Studio and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy among many others.
“We’ve had very good fortune putting ourselves in the hands of people whose vision is pretty complete and then becomes realized,” Sapan says. “We believe that creative authorities will give us the deepest and the best work.”
It’s a lesson he says he learned in part from Chuck Dolan. Working for Dolan at Rainbow Media, running AMC and Bravo for several years and then rising to COO and then CEO in 1995, he admired that Dolan “knew before it was well-documented that people would have tremendously enhanced choice and, therefore, have the most affection for what was most personal to them, which should be honored or programmed to.” It was Dolan, after all, who created the programming powerhouse initially named Home Box Office.
Since then, much has changed and much hasn’t, with Sapan at a central point in the evolution. “There are now 1 gazillion options,” he says. “You need to be at the top of people’s hit list and that makes the job ever more commanding. What hasn’t changed is: good is good, great is great, mediocre is mediocre and bad is bad. I do think it was true then, and early, that great creative material, story, character and narrative arc resonate and work.”
Sapan saw that early. A lover of game shows as a kid, he was also drawn in by Have Gun Will Travel, captivated that star Richard Boone would, in each episode, be the guy in the smoking robe who, once solicited for a job, would turn into the smart tough guy in black. “I admired that he had two sides to him, the juxtaposition of that,” Sapan says. It’s a sensibility that’s all over the hits that define Sapan’s networks, perhaps most notably Mad Men and Breaking Bad. The former’s pinpoint attention to era, shading of character and incisive look at advertising may be the most celebrated show of Sapan’s era, especially how it came to define AMC as a home of unique quality—and given its status, initially, as a big risk.
That’s certainly where the Sapan-Tartikoff comparisons most take root. “If Brandon were alive,” says Lowe, “I believe he’d say if there was an award like this, Josh is the kind of guy who should receive it. I had a chance to get to know Brandon and I see some similarities [with] Josh—and they’re all positives.”
Sapan seems happy to deflect that kind of praise. He writes poetry that’s been published. He’s a collector of many things, including old panoramic photos (his 2013 book, The Big Picture: America in Panorama, curates fascinating ones) and old and new cross-platform hits.
AMC Networks under Sapan is thriving, with programs that help define our era. The Tartikoff award is a fitting honor for a man who continues to catch lightning in a bottle.