Feeding the Beast: AMC Expands Its Upfront Menu
Steamed Asparagus Wrapped in Galloni Prosciutto di Parma, Aged 18 Months
On a limpid April evening in what was once the northernmost spur of Manhattan's Little Italy, celebrated chef and bon vivant Mario Batali is charming the custom-tailored pantaloni off a room full of people who normally only get together to sell and buy TV ratings points. As executives from AMC Networks and GroupM huddle together around the tables in the dining room of Nolita's Chefs Club, knives and forks clutched in almost rapturous anticipation, Mr. Batali provides a detailed account of the production of aceto balsamico (balsamic vinegar) that's as gripping as an episode of "The Sopranos."
While a weapons-grade balsamic requires as many as 25 years of aging in wooden barrels before it can pass muster with the shadowy regulatory entity known as the Consortium, TV networks don't have the luxury of waiting for alchemy to take hold. This September marks Charlie Collier's 10th anniversary as the head chef at what is now one of the most dominant players in the basic-cable gastronomy, in which "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" thrust the network into the zeitgeist and "The Walking Dead" became a ratings-gobbling phenomenon. Since Mr. Collier transitioned from the world of ad sales to calling the shots at AMC, the channel has earned a seat at the table with TV's upper crust, a status upgrade that's not lost on anyone in this particular corner of the Puck Building.
In lieu of a formal upfront presentation, AMC has hired Mr. Batali to cook dinner for a selection of GroupM executives that includes Managing Partner Lyle Schwartz and key buyers from Mindshare, MediaCom, MEC and Maxus. Less a setting in which to haggle and move money around than an opportunity to break bread (and bust chops) with longtime friends and trusted business partners, the event is private, although AMC has invited one reporter to pull up a chair and mangia.
Despite having to follow Mr. Batali's act, Mr. Collier manages to turn up the burner on the whole loquacity thing with an overview of AMC's recent accomplishments. Among other things, the flagship now accounts for at least one-third of all scripted original cable impressions in the 18-to-49 demo, and the median age of the viewers who flock to that content is 38, or 17 years younger than the broadcast average.
"These are fans that watch with urgency," Mr. Collier says. "They watch live or near-live, and they have rewarded us, and your clients, with the most precious thing a viewer can give you: Not just their time, but their attention and their loyalty. We always talk about continuing to earn your investment, and that is how we do it. You've been incredibly supportive and we try to reward you by giving you product that truly builds engagement with your clients' advertising."
As AMC is sold alongside its much smaller sibling nets -- together, IFC, SundanceTV, BBC America and We TV in the first quarter delivered half the flagship's 18-to-49 impressions -- AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan takes some time during the dinner to showcase critics' darlings like BBC America's "Orphan Black," "Rectify" on Sundance and the upcoming IFC comedy "Brockmire," which stars Hank Azaria as a legendary sportscaster in riotous decline. (The "Brockmire" clip, in which Mr. Azaria channels a seemingly Tourette's-stricken Marv Albert, got a lot of laughs.)
"We know that you're very busy and have millions of options, and are very busy particularly right now. So we thank you very much," Mr. Sapan says. "We're grateful for you coming out on a school night and we're very grateful for your support."
Ramps and Ricotta Ravioli, Tossed in a Three-Minute Marinara
For all the world champion talkers in the room, perhaps nothing speaks with more authority than the clips Mr. Collier unspools at the tail end of his presentation. The teaser for the upcoming David Schwimmer and Jim Sturgess drama "Feed the Beast" is more than a little germane, given that the show largely takes place inside a restaurant, but as contextually relevant as that happens to be, the clatter of flatware stops altogether when the full-on delirium of the "Preacher" trailer kicks into high gear.
A bone-rattlingly violent, merrily profane and wickedly fun adaptation of the long-dormant cult comic book series of the same name, "Preacher" tosses every genre convention into a Cuisinart and cranks the dial to Surprise Me. Developed by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and "Breaking Bad" writer/co-producer Sam Catlin, "Preacher" is clearly being groomed as AMC's next big hit.
Again, this dinner isn't the sort of occasion that allows for establishing CPMs and ratings guarantees, and Mr. Collier is studiously trying to avoid making any predictions as to how the show will fare in its debut this Sunday. For all that, AMC does't have much of a poker face. "I'll just say this," says Mr. Collier, right before the cutdown begins. "If your clients like big, event television, you should pay attention to 'Preacher.'"
He'll go on to say that he believes "Preacher" is "the best pilot we've done since 'Breaking Bad,'" adding that he anticipates the show will prove to be a "breakout success," which would go a long way toward ensuring that AMC meets the goal it set a year ago, when it told GroupM that it would maintain its position as one of ad-supported cable's top five networks in the 18-to-49 demo.
"I'd say the rates they're asking [for 'Preacher'] are a reflection of how much confidence they have in the show," says an exec whose agency was wined and dined by AMC days before the GroupM event. "And the demand tells you what the clients think of the show, or at least the premiere, anyway. It sold out fast enough."
"Setting a guarantee on a show like this is a very tough one for us," says AMC Networks President of National Ad Sales Arlene Manos. "Part of our reputation in sales at least is that we really don't over-promise. They can count on us to deliver what we say we're going to deliver and take it really seriously, the confidence that they place in us. So it may come out higher than we think it's going to come out, and we'll adjust accordingly."
Arista alla Porchetta, Florida Style, with a Side of Creamy Kale Gratin
Just three takes into the scene and David Schwimmer already knows that the words on the page are perhaps a bit too finely wrought to convey his character's mounting sense of rage.
"Your boot may be on Dion's neck, but it's not on mine. Get--" Momentarily flustered, Mr. Schwimmer catches himself before offering the director a wry smile. "I was gonna say, 'Get the fuck out of here.' Can't say that."
It's May 2, a few weeks after the GroupM dinner, and AMC is winding down production on its third new scripted project of the spring. The "Feed the Beast" cast and crew are shooting scenes from the series' final episodes on a soundstage inside Queens' Kaufman Astoria Studios, a stone's throw from where "Sesame Street" is filmed. As Mr. Schwimmer tries out an alternative that is just as colorful ("Hey, this is my home! Get the fuck out of here!"), it's not hard to imagine that the next episode of "Sesame Street" will be brought to you by the letter "F."
Standing opposite Mr. Schwimmer inside the "wine cellar" of the Thirío restaurant is Michael Gladis, who plays the urbane mobster and exodontia enthusiast Patrick "The Tooth Fairy" Woichik. Swirling what appears to be a migrainously tannic balloon glass of Amarone, the actor quietly exudes a sense of impending calamity, and Mr. Schwimmer responds to this by adding a little quaver in his voice as he tells the gangster to get lost. The scene, which will command no more than 60 seconds of airtime, requires only a handful of takes, including getting camera coverage from various angles.
With that in the can, the "Feed the Beast" crew prepares to decamp for an on-location shoot over on the opposite corner of Astoria, in an ersatz cemetery hard by the Hell Gate Bridge. "It's really just a park, not anyplace they'd actually bury someone, or at least not in any official capacity," Mr. Schwimmer jokes. Meanwhile, having wrapped his last scene on the call sheet, Mr. Gladis has the rest of the day to himself. Before stepping out into the afternoon, he has a few Polaroids taken for the sake of maintaining wardrobe continuity. "Talked about wine, threatened a child's life … all in a day's work," he deadpans.
While the original plan was to premiere "Feed the Beast" leading out of the 2005 Will Smith theatrical "Hitch," AMC changed course, electing to take advantage of the elevated TV usage that occurs on Sunday nights by launching the show on June 5, following the second installment of "Preacher." "Beast" slides into its regular Tuesday 10 p.m. slot two days later, where it will look to more fully establish Tuesday nights as a destination for AMC originals.
AMC's first stab at turning Tuesdays around has been a critical, if not popular success, as the John LeCarré espionage drama "The Night Manager" hasn't fostered the same massive stateside turnout as it did this winter, when it premiered in the U.K. on the BBC. Through the first four episodes, "The Night Manager" has averaged just 819,000 live-plus-same-day viewers and a 0.2 in the adults 18-to-49 demo, giving it only a slight advantage over the AMC originals "Halt and Catch Fire" and "Turn: Washington's Spies."
"We couldn't be more excited about 'The Night Manager;' it really is event television," Mr. Collier said. "To launch a new night with Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston and John LeCarré, and follow it up with a series that feels tonally that it can be that smart and that upscale and really that watchable. There is a method to the madness."
The more eyeballs AMC can round up on Tuesdays, the greater the opportunities to start pulling in a higher volume of ad dollars on what has long been a sleepy night for the network. According to iSpot.tv estimates, Tuesdays in 2015 accounted for just 5% of AMC's overall ad sales revenue, making it the second weakest day on the network's calendar behind only Wednesdays. On the other side of the ledger, Sundays -- home to "The Walking Dead" and "Fear the Walking Dead" plus, previously, "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" -- accounted for more than half (52%) of AMC's total sales haul in 2015.
All told, the AMC Networks in 2015 booked $945.3 million in ad sales revenue, up 24% versus $764.6 million in the previous year and up 43% from $662.8 million in 2013. Among the top brands that bought time on the flagship channel in the first quarter were Geico, Lincoln, Apple, Sprint, DirecTV, Audi, Verizon, Subaru, Samsung Mobile and State Farm.
Maple and Mascarpone Cheesecake
Back at Chefs Club, Mr. Batali is demonstrating his facility for turning everything in his kitchen into a lyrical metaphor for another wholly unrelated thing. "Ramps are justly famous for their seasonality," he says, in a meditation on his almost deceptively minimalist ravioli dish. "In a country where you can get strawberries on Christmas Eve and watermelon in February, you can't get ramps when they're not in season. So we celebrate them because they represent the evanescence of something truly ethereal and delicious."
As it turns out, the chef's onto something with the whole scarcity bit. As Scott Collins will say later in the evening, certain buying opportunities are beginning to disappear. "As you know, we're rolling out more originals in second and third quarter, and so we are looking for a greater investment in those originals," says Mr. Collins, exec-VP of ad sales, AMC Networks. "We are not looking for growth in our fourth- and first-quarter scripted originals and we are actually looking to retract our dollars in our movie ROS [run of schedule]. We just don't have as many GRPs [gross rating points.] We have far fewer hours of movies to sell."
A few days later, Mr. Collier will say that scarcity has been a huge part of AMC's growth narrative, as the demand for shows like "The Walking Dead" has far outstripped the supply, which obviously has had a galvanizing effect on pricing (especially in what some are calling the strongest scatter market in recent memory). But growth can also come from successfully managing clients that get priced out of certain inventory.
"It's not just a matter of growing the top-end CPMs in order to be broadcast-relevant, but to take those who were paying less and show them the value, so they can either say, 'You know what? Maybe I shouldn't be there anymore' or 'Let me step up,'" he says.
Oh, but AMC will take your "Walking Dead" money. AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan earlier this month told investors that the show's "value as an ad vehicle has not been fully realized, and we think there is more pricing upside," which suggests that the average unit cost is about to soar past the $500,000 per 30-second spot the sales team secured in the last upfront. Mr. Sapan's sentiments were echoed later in the call by CFO Sean Sullivan, who predicted that AMC would secure "significant pricing increases for 'The Walking Dead' in the upfront."