That sort of statement may strike many as unfair. After all,
"Mad Men's" home base, AMC, is a cable network, and doesn't need
outsize ratings numbers to make its business work. One can argue
that a high-quality drama like "Mad Men" helps AMC negotiate higher
subscriber fees from the cable systems that carry it. And it
creates an image for the cable outlet that would otherwise take
millons of dollars and many, many years of marketing.
The trouble? The numbers for the highly anticipated, heavily
promoted "Mad Men" return aren't terribly spectacular for cable,
either. The season finale of "The Walking Dead," also broadcast on
AMC, snared nearly 9 million viewers, according to Nielsen, and a
regular episode of USA's "In Plain Sight" last week attracted
slightly more than 4 million. Heck, a rerun of "NCIS" on USA last
week generated nearly 3.9 million viewers.
For all the attention "Mad Men" gets from overly academic
critics who can't bring themselves to write about History Channel's
"Swamp People," you'd think the show would bring in an audience
more akin to "American Idol."
In fact, "Mad Men" appeals to a narrower niche, and as such,
seems to have more ad dollars wafting through its plotlines than it
does in its commercial breaks. In 2010, the last year original
episodes of the show aired, marketers spent just $1.99 million in
support, according to Kantar. That's flat with 2009 and down from
the $2.8 million advertisers spent on the show in 2008.
In the TV business, those amounts are paltry: The amount of
money spent on an entire season of "Mad Men" on AMC would get you
just seven or so 30-second spots on ABC's "Modern Family."
We're not questioning the quality of "Mad Men." It's clear
creator Matt Weiner has put his soul into this program, which is
less an examination of the Madison Avenue of the past than it is an
intense psychological scraping of the attitudes and events that
shaped our postmodern U.S. society. The audience is likely highly
intelligent, earns a larger-than-usual income, and has the scratch
even in our post-recession world to buy an iPad or expensive bottle
of liquor (or perhaps buy clothes at Gap Inc's Banana Republic, which offers
fashions inspired by the drama).
But that 's not enough to sustain a publicly traded media
company forever. When AMC launched "Mad Men" in 2007, it was viewed
as the opening salvo in a new quest to use the highest quality
programming to snare attention, drive subscriber fees and challenge
everyone from News Corp.'s FX to
Time Warner 's HBO to the usual CBS/ABC/Fox
crowd. Instead, AMC has found the role of programmer to the elite
to be a challenge, even as it strikes a pop-culture chord with such
fare as "Breaking Bad, "The Killing" and "The Walking Dead."
What AMC has learned is that top-quality programs also cost top
dollar, and that it's hard to make money on such stuff unless you
also produce the show and can control its sales into international
and syndication markets. AMC doesn't produce "Mad Men" -- that 's
Lionsgate -- or "Breaking Bad" (Sony Pictures Television) or "The Killing"
(Fox Television Studios and Fuse Entertainment). It does own
"Walking Dead," however, a signal that the company sees the writing
on the wall now that the network has gotten TV viewers to take more
Simply put, AMC now must show more care in the way it programs
itself. For its fourth quarter, parent-concern AMC Networks had to
write down $18 million when "Rubicon," another AMC program that won
some measure of critical acclaim, didn't muster supportable ratings
and had to be canceled. When you aim to make "The Sopranos" with
every drama you launch, the margin for error becomes
Besides, if "Mad Men" were as powerful a force in TV as all the
attention suggests, wouldn't we see more like it amid the
still-proliferating song-and-dance shows? Other recent attempts at
so-called "retro" TV drama -- think NBC's "Playboy Club" or ABC's "Pan Am" --
AMC has recently appeared to veer away from the brand that "Mad
Men" helped it establish. It's difficult to see how acquiring
reruns of "CSI Miami" or launching reality programs like "Comic
Book Guys" or "The Pitch" help the network stay true to
the mission of luring audiences who, as AMC President Charlie
Collier described them in a press release Monday, want "unexpected,
unconventional and uncompromising television." Let's be honest:
There's little in "CSI Miami" to bolster AMC's marketing slogan,
"Story Matters Here."
But it's easy to understand how airing a "CSI" in syndication
keeps AMC on a better business path. If it continued airing "Mad
Men"-like programs and nothing else, AMC would likely win plaudits
and the thanks of viewers starving for stuff meatier than drunken
housewives and police procedurals. But a network on that course
might not be around for very long.
Story matters, and so too does "Mad Men." But so does making a
Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV
Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and
changes within the industry. Follow him on