Before Don Draper and his associates at Sterling Cooper ever graced AMC's Sunday nights, the network's biggest coups were acquiring good movie packages on decent terms.
After the debut of "Mad Men" in June 2007, AMC was able to transform itself from a warehouse for classic movies into a destination for high-concept, award-winning shows, and as a result, a must-buy network for advertisers.
But now "Mad Men" is embarking on its final seven episodes, starting April 5, just as AMC marches into this year's upfront negotiations with advertisers.
While some media buyers worry about AMC's pipeline of shows, the network is taking the moment to pledge to become a year-round ratings power and to commit further to millennials.
"We want to tell advertisers we are a top 5 network all year long," said Charlie Collier, president and general manager, AMC. "We are focused on the elusive millennial audiences and committed to speaking to them every Sunday night of the year."
In a series of private agency lunches and dinners over the next several weeks, AMC will tell a refreshed version of its familiar pitch. While its ability to attract a large base of younger viewers will be at the heart of its upfront position, AMC will continue its strategy of creating compelling adult dramas that appeal to niche, passionate fan bases, Mr. Collier said.
More than numbers
At its peak, "Mad Men" was watched by about 3.5 million viewers, impressive for cable. The final episode of the first half of its current season drew 1.9 million viewers last year, down about 30% from the end of season 6.
That pales in comparison to the roughly 14 million people who now tune in to a very different AMC series, "The Walking Dead," but "Mad Men" placed AMC among a handful of networks that shook basic cable's image as backwater of syndicated reruns and movies. It also raised AMC's profile among Madison Avenue, which was drawn not only to the critical acclaim and industry nostalgia but the show's highly coveted upscale audience.
(AMC points out that "Mad Men" is a highly time-shifted show, with more people watching on a delayed basis. Over the first three days of viewing, 3.6 million people tuned in to the final episode of the first half of season 7, compared to 4 million for the end of season 6. "The Walking Dead" is watched by about 19 million people on the same metric.)
"'Mad Men' wasn't something we bought for the ratings, but for the cache," said Courtney Maron, senior VP-group partner, integrated investment, UM.
AMC has seen its ad revenue grow every year since the show debuted, rising 7% to $469 million last year, according to SNL Kagan.
"Mad Men" served as a tool that prompted advertisers to spend more with the network than they might have otherwise wanted to, Brian Wieser, analyst at Pivotal Research Group, wrote in a note. If presented with a program that a brand wants to associate themselves with, advertisers will be more willing to commit meaningful dollar volumes to other ad inventory the network has to offer, he added.
And AMC now earns about 38 cents per subscriber from cable and satellite operators, up from 22 cents in 2007, SNL Kagan said. Its audience's median age, meanwhile, has declined to 46.6 from 51.4 in 2007.
But "The Walking Dead" and AMC's other pop-culture breakout, "Breaking Bad," played roles in those improvements as well. Now AMC is looking more toward those shows than "Mad Men" as inspiration for its future.
Selling the end
AMC strategically held the last seven episodes of "Mad Men" out of last year's upfront, choosing to sell them in the later, so-called scatter market as a way to boost the price closer to air time. A 30-second spot in the final episode is currently fetching between $400,000 and $500,000, according to media buyers.
There are just a handful of units left, said Scott Collins, exec VP- national ad sales, AMC Networks.
For both AMC and marketers, the impact of the show is expected to percolate long after the finale.
"When we talk about 'Mad Men,' we talk about the ratings as 'live plus forever,'" Mr. Collier said, playing on ratings standards such as "live plus same day" and "live plus three."
"It will be an event on our air and forever be linked to our brand," he said. "It is so much larger than one night and brands know that."
But once new episodes are gone, Mr. Collier isn't looking to create some new version of the iconic show. Instead he is working to build out the network's nights of original programming and find new series that build on "Walking Dead's" popularity among millennial viewers.
"While 'Mad Men' will always hold a special spot in AMC's history, it wasn't attracting a millennial audience," Mr. Collins said.
Sunday nights will now focus on speaking to millennials and "fanboys" year-round, with "The Walking Dead" and its after-show "Talking Dead," as well as the upcoming companion series to the zombie franchise. AMC will also add a new martial arts drama, "Into the Badlands," later this year.
So this year, he will be highlighting the network's foothold in the demo. For example, "Breaking Bad" spinoff "Better Call Saul" is the No. 5 show among millennials, he said, and is out-delivering seasons 1 through 4 of "Breaking Bad."
When "Breaking Bad" concluded in September 2013, there was a sense of urgency from Madison Avenue for AMC to find its next hit. This time around, Mr. Collier said he is feeling less of that intensity.
It's not hard to see why. "The Walking Dead" shows no signs of slowing down, ranking as the No. 1 show among the all-important 18-to-49 demo, while its after-show, "Talking Dead," sits among the top 10 in the demo. And the recent debut of "Better Call Saul" became the most-watched cable debut in history.
"If you had said two years ago 'Breaking Bad' and 'Mad Men' are going off, I would have said 'what are they going to do next?'" said Ms. Maron, the UM executive. But now, she said, there's more confidence in AMC's track record for producing hits.
Still, not everything AMC touches turns to gold, and there's some concern among ad buyers over the network's ratings outside of marquee shows.
While AMC renewed freshman dramas "Turn" and "Halt and Catch Fire" for second seasons, neither have especially resonated among audiences. Mr. Collins pointed out that "Halt and Catch Fire" does attract a more upscale audience, nearly on par with that of "Mad Men."
AMC's efforts to diversify beyond scripted drama were also short-lived. The network abandoned most of its reality efforts in the fall after making its first foray into the genre in 2011.
And AMC isn't immune to the ratings woes facing other cable networks. While its viewership isn't as depleted as some others, its total audience in prime time is off about 5%, averaging 1.7 million season-to-date, and the 18-to-49 demo slipped about 2% to 896,000.
The network has been able to drive ad revenue by selling originals in separate packages that can command premium pricing, Ms. Maron said. So rather than advertisers having to buy a daypart that may include a combination of originals along with classic movies and other content, they can just buy originals.
In order to continue to justify premium pricing, John Nitti, chief investment officer, Zenith, said AMC will need to prove its new series can stand up to their predecessors.
That means more than ratings. The critical success of "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" have been part of its sell to advertisers, said David Campanelli, senior VP-director of national broadcast, Horizon Media.
Mr. Collier and Mr. Collins are acutely aware of the need to showcase the network's strengths and map out for clients how AMC will become more competitive throughout the year. As a result, AMC is foregoing its usual experiential upfront presentations, like the banquet-style dinner with talent that it hosted last year, in favor of more intimate individual meetings.
"This year we felt because there is so much new programming we didn't think that type of setting was the best place to tell our story," Mr. Collins said.
While AMC ranks as the No. 5 cable channel during the fourth quarter and first quarter, when "The Walking Dead" airs, there are holes other times of the year.
AMC has started to build out Monday nights with "Better Call Saul" and plans to add more to the schedule. The network also intends to move into Tuesdays with scripted originals.
New series in the pipeline include "Humans," a sci-fi drama about robots, and "The Night Manager," a miniseries based on the John le Carre novel of the same name and starring Hugh Laurie. AMC also ordered a pilot for "Preacher" from Seth Rogan, which is based on the popular comic-book franchise.
"We have never entered into an upfront with as much breadth and depth as we have this year," Mr. Collier said.
While part of AMC's programming strategy is to go younger, Mr. Collier said it continues to approach scripted the way it has since it first acquired "Mad Men."
"We've never gone into a scripted show looking for awards or a mass audience," he said. "We start out to serve a passionate core audience." The hope is AMC will find another passion point to resonate the way 1960s adland did for nearly a decade.