Turn off the Lights

A Study of AMC: Part 1 of 2

With the recent airing of The Killing's season finale, as well as Breaking Bad's fourth season premiering in a few days, I thought it would be appropriate to take a look back at where the network has been. With their drama series, AMC has found both critical acclaim and ratings success if never exactly in the same show. But the network existed for years before the likes of Mad Men and The Walking Dead came about. So in the first half of this two part article I'll be examining the life of AMC leading up to the network's greatest triumphs, and the two shows that began their meteoric rise after a long history filled with successes and failures.

Started in 1984, and originally known as American Movie Classics, for its first years the network dutifully aired films from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Pleasing the older crowd and young film buffs alike with its unofficial motto, “No color. No commercials.” The network worked with film societies to help preserve, as well as broadcast, the blockbuster films and lesser known gems of the past. Going so far as to hold an annual Film Preservation Festival, AMC cemented itself as a sophisticated movie channel that went above and beyond in their love of film.

In 1996 the network released its first original series. (Yes, believe it or not Mad Men wasn't their first show.) Remember WENN, was a dramedy following the lives of the employees at a Pittsburgh radio station in the 1930s. Though the series was canceled prematurely during a regime change at the network, it was regarded highly by critics throughout its four season run. It was replaced with another '30s period piece, this time choosing a film production studio for the setting. The Lot never earned much attention from critics or viewers, however, and was pulled after its second season. AMC saw changes of varying success over its first eighteen years, but it maintained the sense of dignity it had built by staying true to its theme of focusing on America's historic past.

That all changed, however, when in 2002, network executives were forced to scrap the classic motion picture format and begin airing more modern movies chosen to draw in both a larger and younger crowd. The need for advertising revenue brought about the changes, as advertisers demanded movies that would resonate with their target audience. After shedding its full name – as well as any sense of individuality – the network struggled to establish an identity as more than just a home to commercial laden movies that were edited to a pulp before broadcast. At a time when nearly every cable channel had a specific audience it was catering to, AMC was faceless; it was just another random movie warehouse. For five years that would be their fate, until deciding to take a chance on another original series. A decision that would not only establish a new identity for AMC, but win them even more acclaim than the hit films of Hollywood ever had.

In July of 2007, the pilot episode of
Mad Men aired and the critical response was almost unprecedented. Though Remember WENN had garnered success with critics, it was nothing compared to the tidal wave of praise that swept over the network for the new period piece set in 1960's Madison Avenue. Lauded for the opulent settings, powerful acting, and the brilliant poignancy of its writing, Mad Men was an overnight success. Lightning struck twice when in early 2008 Breaking Bad, a gritty look at a chemistry teacher's dark path into Meth production, received as much love from critics as Mad Men.

Though neither series found much of an audience, the sheer buzz about them was leading to more attention than AMC had ever known. The low ratings were all but forgotten
and certainly forgiven come Emmy time when the two series took in eight wins combined for the network. Those awards included the top drama spot for Mad Men and television's highest acting honor for Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston (honors they would go on to claim respectively for the next three years). It didn't stop at the Emmys either. With Golden Globes, WGAs, and SAGs, the two series brought home about a metric ton's worth of trophies for their freshman seasons. Needless to say, AMC now had a new face.

In a single year, AMC managed to turn itself around. Dusting off the reputation as a run-of-the-mill movie network, it reestablished itself as a place for refined programming. They could take more pride in this recent success as well, having done it through their own original series and not by dusting off old film canisters. Now AMC was being compared to the likes of HBO as a source of provocative, well-made programs. But with each success must come failure. And failure was right around the corner.

In Part 2, AMC original programming hits a speed bump. The network also gets its first taste of commercial success, with a series that goes on to set records most thought AMC would never achieve.


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