Dear AMC: About that “Mad Men” delay

by Karl J. Paloucek

This could have been an open letter to AMC regarding the negotiations that have postponed the premiere of Season 5 of Mad Men. Really, it’s none of our business, I know, but as I watch all of this play out in the press, I can’t help but remember back to the time when the show was being presented to the Television Critics Association back in 2007. At the time, AMC had successfully reinvented itself as a movie destination after a brief identity crisis that saw it lose out to TCM as the premier network presenting classic film. More to the point, HBO‘s The Sopranos — on which Matthew Weiner had worked as a writer and producer — had recently signed off, leaving an incredible vacuum where “television’s best show” had been and a vast audience looking for a successor to emerge.

I remember a number of things about that particular presentation. First, the buzz about this series — it was strong, and with Matthew Weiner fresh off of his work for The Sopranos, there were a lot of expectations to be met. I also remember a general feeling of, “AMC?? Really??” — as if people were surprised that anything of real value could be generated by this network that had only just managed to reinvent its brand identity. But most of all, I remember being blown away by the look of the series and what it was trying to attempt, and by what creator Matthew Weiner said about AMC at the time: That the reason he went with AMC as opposed to HBO or another network was that they offered him total creative freedom.

That freedom, that license to fully create the world he envisioned, is what has resulted in what many refer to now as “television’s best show.” Along with the Emmys and heaps of accolades — as well as driving a surging demand for ’60s modern furnishings — Mad Men gave AMC a currency it was lacking until that time: cachet. Suddenly having television’s hottest property, AMC also had a model on which to build future successes, and a sturdy peg on which to hang its new identity as one of cable’s hottest sources for original series.

In short, the gamble that AMC took on giving Weiner creative freedom paid off in the way it had hoped, and then some. Now, a few years later, we’re in an entirely different economy than we had been in 2007. AMC and Lionsgate, the studio responsible for Mad Men‘s production have been in negotiations over the series’ future and the future of its earnings since before the end of Season 4 in summer of 2010. As Weiner told Entertainment Weekly in January of this year, “They are fighting over a very lucrative property, and who is going to pay for it to get made; it’s one of the perils of success — everyone wants a piece of it now, and they are fighting over who is gonna get the biggest chunk.”

Currently on the block in these negotiations is AMC’s request to Weiner that he axe six or so key people from the production to make the show more affordable to produce. (AMC pays more than $2 million per episode of the series.) It’s understandable that a smaller network like AMC would seek some cost-control measures and try to keep the budget in check, but with demands to remove personnel, including cast members, the network is starting to tamper with the machinery that makes Mad Men the show that it is. And doing so publicly is only going to make fans of the show scrutinize its quality that much more. If the ardent following that Mad Men has built up perceives a slump, or — still hard to imagine — that the show may have hit its shark-jumping moment, AMC will have damaged its investment in the long term for some short-term gains.

And that would really be too bad for a network that so boldly boasts that “Story matters here.”

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Photo Credit: AMC