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10.28.10

AMC: TV's Hottest Network

Jace Lacob examines AMC's success, speaking to the Mad Men channel's top executives as they dive headfirst into the horror genre with Sunday's The Walking Dead.

A cold wind blows through Hollywood Forever cemetery as AMC hosts a premiere afterparty for its newest series, The Walking Dead, an end-of-the-world zombie drama based on the comic book by Robert Kirkman. Inside the Cathedral Mausoleum, waiters splattered with fake blood weave in between plastic-draped corpses while smoke drifts across a post-apocalyptic campground.

The impressive scene is a far cry from AMC's low profile a few years back. Now available in 96 million homes on basic cable, the channel launched a Robert Duvall-starring Western miniseries Broken Trail to an astonishing 10 million viewers back in 2006, a record-setting run that signaled a new player had arrived on the scene. The channel followed Broken Trail's success with such network-defining series as Mad Men and Breaking Bad. With Mad Men, AMC became the first basic-cable channel to win a best series Emmy, which it has now done three years in a row in the outstanding drama category. ( Breaking Bad's lead, Bryan Cranston, has the same three-year streak as best dramatic actor.) The Cablevision-owned network's estimated revenue for 2010 is $496 million, according to SNL Kagan.

Four years after Broken Trail, AMC is debuting its first in-house production, The Walking Dead, launching Sunday in the U.S. and in 120 territories around the world the following week, about the aftermath for the survivors of a global zombie apocalypse. It will be followed sometime in 2011 by serialized crime drama The Killing, an adaptation of hit Danish series Forbrydelsen, starring Big Love's Mireille Enos.

The morning of the Walking Dead premiere, the mood surrounding AMC President and General Manager Charlie Collier and Joel Stillerman, senior vice president of original programming, was anything but gruesome. Over breakfast at the hotel Shutters by the Beach in Santa Monica, Collier giddily showed off photos of the promotional campaign for The Walking Dead, in which zombies descended on major cities across the world, proudly pointing out a shot of zombies in front of London's Big Ben on his phone.

The show appears to be a shift in genre for AMC, known for its complex dramas, but the horror of The Walking Dead connects not only to the network's annual October programming block Fearfest—which, now in its 14th year, offers such films as 28 Days Later, Friday the 13th, and The Shining in the two weeks leading up to Halloween—but also to the network's general approach to programming. Collier and Stillerman maintain that their philosophy extends to all genres, the key connector being that AMC offers the best possible storytelling. Despite the kudos for its original series, the executives seem to see AMC as being primarily a movie channel with original programming, albeit one that offers the best of the latter.

"We are trying to create premium television on basic cable," said Collier.

For Collier and Stillerman, viewers aren't narrow in their tastes; those who like action movies also enjoy espionage flicks or comedies.

"We have this channel that is both challenging and yet more interesting by virtue of the fact that it is relatively inconsistent," said Stillerman. "The challenge is how to create original programming that picks up where [our films] leave off and extends the brand."

The shows that the network has on air span several types, from the 1960s New York of Mad Men and the Southwestern grittiness of Breaking Bad to the contemporary, politically charged paranoia of Rubicon. And now the (literal) horror and (metaphorical) humanity of The Walking Dead.

“We nurture projects like no one else,” Charlie Collier said.

Despite the rabid adoration of its cult audiences, AMC's shows have yet to break out for the masses, and not all of their offerings have been a smash hit with critics and viewers. ( The Prisoner last year premiered to scathing reviews and shed viewers throughout its three-night run.) However, while Mad Men's devotees watching the linear broadcast of the most recent finale only numbered around 2.4 million, the show is consistently one of the top season-pass sellers on iTunes and attracts the highest concentration of affluent viewers of any show on TV, says Collier. ( Rubicon, which ended its first season with 1.04 million viewers, is No. 2.)

At AMC, said Stillerman, smart business can overlap with "passion projects."

Name-checking the channel's two most well-known auteurs, he said: "There is no way Mad Men gets made with anybody else other than Matt Weiner. Vince Gilligan is every frame of Breaking Bad."

Looking ahead, AMC will make the move to original scripted Web series—they've just closed a deal this week for their first—and is open to doing more in-house production, as they did with The Walking Dead, for which Stillerman quickly set up AMC Studios, creating the logo himself on the fly. Each of their deals has been more progressive than the one before in terms of content ownership stakes. And establishing their own studio grants AMC full ownership of the projects they produce in-house, allowing them to further monetize their content via licensing deals, merchandising, and foreign sales. ( The Walking Dead, for example, will air on Fox International Channels around the globe.)

About AMC's deal-making approach, Collier said: "What was so attractive about [ The Walking Dead] is that it is a genre piece [and] horror travels well." Plus, it further expanded the caliber of talent that AMC is working with, which includes The Walking Dead writer/director Frank Darabont ( The Shawshank Redemption). (There are others, too: Law & Order: SVU Executive Producer Neal Baer, has a drama project, Pushers, in development at the network; Hank Azaria is developing a hybrid live-action/animated comedy.)

It's been roughly a year since the pilot script for The Walking Dead landed on Collier's desk, a narrow window of time considering the long development process at many cable networks.

"We are nimble and not in the quantity business," said Stillerman. "It leaves you open to move quickly when you find the right one. We are also extremely flexible because we don't have a traditional studio partner. There are challenges involved with that, but it also means we are unencumbered."

Next year, AMC will follow up the six-episode first season of The Walking Dead with The Killing, written by Veena Sud ( Cold Case) and based on a Danish television series that emptied the streets of Denmark during its high-rated finale. Stillerman refers to the series as "video crack," an addictive puzzle comprised of huge cliffhangers at the end of every episode, interwoven storylines, and a compelling look at how murder affects both the victim's family and the central detective on the case, who becomes obsessed with solving this crime.

"Our goal is always to do the best stuff and reach the broadest amount of people," Stillerman said. "A crime drama might have been out of the question three or four years ago, but now we can embrace it."

The fate of Rubicon, meanwhile, remains up in the air, though Collier indicated a decision will be made in the next two to three weeks. Despite garnering the highest-rated launch for AMC to date this summer, the conspiracy thriller had a hard time attracting viewers on a weekly basis. Still, don't count it out.

"We nurture projects like no one else," Collier said. "Season 1 has been a great success. I think it is a remarkable piece of television. Our job is to make sure we can continue to scale and fit it all in."

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As much as AMC has grown over the last few years, confronting the hegemony of HBO and Showtime over "quality" cable programming, their continued growth brings with it some inherent struggles.

"The greatest challenge for us comes with managing change," Collier said. "Because once you have success, the drug is to replicate and continue to do the same thing."

"The amazing benefit of having Mad Men and Breaking Bad is pretty evident," added Stillerman. "The only downside, to the extent that there is one, is where do you go from there? You have to make sure that we are not the channel that used to have Mad Men and Breaking Bad… Over time, we would very much like to see AMC start to get the kind of credit that HBO got for being purveyors of the best original stories on television. That is a long-term proposition. It doesn't happen overnight."

"I think that will take us into other formats," said Collier. "It will take us into unscripted… A lot of things you would never have expected four years ago for AMC to be talking about. We can credibly go there with our head held high."

Right now, AMC programs its originals only on Sunday evenings, where it competes with the likes of HBO, Showtime, and the broadcast networks, however the channel could expand to other nights if the right projects come along.

"Absolutely," said Collier, though he pointed toward the high concentrations of household viewing on the night. "It has never been about quantity or trying to fill anything for us. It has always been about quality and trying to make sure what we do couples well with what we do at our core."

Besides, there's another upside to programming Sundays.

"Somebody has to save the planet from Desperate Housewives," joked Stillerman. "As long as they are on the air, we will be on Sundays."

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Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment websites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.