Ed Carroll has enjoyed enviable success building bold original series that not only rack up ratings points but redefine the American culture. But those who know him well say he might’ve ended up similarly accomplished had he opted for another career path—say, telling jokes for a living. “Hysterically funny,” is how Josh Sapan, AMC Networks president and CEO, describes his right-hand man. “Just about the funniest person I’ve ever seen in a nonprofessional setting.”
Those comedic chops come into play around the office, at industry events (in one video he conceived of for CTAM, Carroll meets with Mad Men’s Don Draper and Roger Sterling to sell them on pay TV, and raises the eyebrows of the iron-livered ad men by ordering a “strawberry-peach daiquiri...with two cherries.”) and, if we’re lucky, at the Hall of Fame banquet. Frances Berwick, president of lifestyle networks at NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment, saw Carroll’s humor skills—not to mention his taste for cheesy ’80s karaoke—when both were at Bravo. “I think deep down, Ed either wanted to be a standup comedian or be in a rock band,” she says. “He has a performer’s heart.”
Carroll instead went the executive route, and as AMC’s chief operating officer, has played as big a role as anyone in ushering in this golden age of TV. While a sharp sense of humor is key for keeping the workplace fun, not to mention productive , that knack for reading the room has proven essential for figuring out what America’s next cultural touchstone might be. “Ed knows his audience,” says Sapan, “whether it’s three people speaking in a room, 300 people at a company event or 3 million people watching a show.”
Carroll, a New Yorker, got his start as a radio news director in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., covering local politics and crime. Leafing through the want ads, he spied a public relations position at Cablevision, and landed at Bravo in 1987. He later shifted to the marketing side, and helped pivot Bravo from a “rarified arts channel,” he says, with 300,000 subscribers, to a mainstream, ad-supported network with original series. Launching hits such as Inside the Actors Studio and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Bravo’s subscriber base rose to 60 million, and an affluent one at that. Along with then-president Kathleen Dore, and others, Carroll helped build Bravo into the cable powerhouse that was sold to NBC in 2002 for $1.25 billion.
After seven years atop Bravo and IFC, which he helped launch, Carroll was elevated to AMC Networks’ president of entertainment services, his purview also including Sundance-TV and lightly viewed movie network AMC. Carroll felt movies alone would not be enough to sustain AMC in an on-demand world, and started looking for a signature series.
Most everything about Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men was a dealbreaker—it was a period piece, an inside-baseball look at an industry most didn’t care about and it was serialized at a time when the successful dramas wrapped up neatly at the end of each episode.
But the storylines and characters stayed with Carroll, and he shared the script with a few trusted industry friends. “All three said, ‘Personally, I would watch it,’” Carroll says, “‘but don’t do it—it won’t be a successful piece of business .’”
Carroll went with his gut, Don Draper became part of the cultural lexicon and soon Carroll was seeing Mad Men-style fashions in the Macy’s window displays near his New York office. (“They never gave me a discount on suits,” he grouses.) AMC spent an estimated $30 million on the first season—an enormous investment for a small programmer that lacked a massive sibling studio operation. But Mad Men, between international rights and increased subscriber fees and ad rates, grew, by some counts, to be a billion-dollar franchise. “All of that walks in the doorway cut out by Ed Carroll,” says Evan Shapiro, former IFC/SundanceTV president, now NBCU executive VP of digital enterprises. “AMC became the HBO of basic cable.”
Establishing a reputation for quirky quality, AMC also became a haven for creative types to take their passion projects that did not fi t the bill anywhere else. “We wanted to do things that were different, high-quality, cinematic,” Carroll says. Breaking Bad debuted in 2008, The Walking Dead two years later. The originals were supposed to establish the AMC brand, with the movies supplying the ratings juice. Instead, the series did both, and the rest of the programming universe was challenged to up its game.
AMC gobbled up Emmys like Don Draper absorbing Old Fashioneds. Mad Men got Outstanding Drama Series honors from 2008-2011, with Breaking Bad grabbing it in 2013 and 2014. Bryan Cranston was named Best Actor in a Drama Series 2008-2010 and 2014; Jon Hamm finally won it for Mad Men this year. Not a bad showing for a network that was relatively new to original shows.
While his colleagues think Carroll, who also oversees, along with Sapan, IFC, WE and BBC America, might have made it in comedy, Carroll has long fantasized about another career—playing centerfield for the Yankees. (He idolizes former Yankee Bernie Williams for his dual skills in baseball and music.) That pinstriped ship may have sailed, but he still plays softball with the same guys he’s been playing with for decades. He may be a big shot in the TV world, but Carroll is just one of the guys on the Lock and Load squad. “Ed claims to be the best left-handed hitter on the team,” says teammate Kevin Sieger. “In fact, he is the only left-handed hitter on the team.”
Indeed, Carroll’s friends and colleagues believe him to be perhaps the most unassuming man in television. “I mean this in the best kind of way—he’s a boring, normal, working-class Joe,” says Shapiro, describing how Carroll heads right home to Long Island after work to be with his family—and work on his jokes. “That says something in this day and age.”
Racking up hits on the ballfield and in the TV world isn’t a bad life, and Carroll hopes to keep doing both for a good, long time. “It’s a fun industry, and a fun time in the industry,” he says. “I’m always mindful of the fact that this passes for work.”