AMC is getting an image problem – but hopefully only an image problem.
Just months ago, it engaged in lengthy, public negotiations with Matthew Weiner, whose "Mad Men" brought the network almost instant respect for its original programming when it debuted in 2007.
Last week, it lost Frank Darabont as the showrunner of its biggest hit, "The Walking Dead." And this week it finds itself negotiating over the fifth and likely final season of the critically adored "Breaking Bad," even as the show dramatically ups its viewership.
Also read: 'Walking Dead' Gets a New Showrunner
The network is getting a new reputation to go along with its existing one for top-notch drama — this time for messy negotiations. The high profile of its shows has attracted unusual scrutinty of its talks.
In an interview with TheWrap, AMC President Charlie Collier (pictured above with "Breaking Bad" stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul) said people don't need to worry about the fate of their favorite shows — because the bold, risk-taking spirit that got them on the air in the first place still pervades.
"Even when we've had tough and public negotiations," Collier said, "we always did it with a goal in mind which was to serve the viewer premium television."
He said the network has succeeded so far by ignoring convention, and can keep doing it.
"Here's a network that has questioned everything that networks have done conventionally and succeeded. Would anyone tell you to take a moody period piece and turn it into a serialized drama on cable? And then would they tell you to take a modern-day story about a high chemistry teacher who deals crystal meth and make that you're follow up ad-supported lead?
"And the answer is no, but we did it."
AMC established its scripted drama credentials with the debut of "Mad Men" in 2007 and "Breaking Bad" the next year. "Mad Men" won three consecutive Emmys for best drama, and "Breaking Bad" star Bryan Cranston matched that with three best dramatic actor Emmys.
But current talks over the fifth and probably final season of "Breaking Bad" became tense enough at one point that the show approached at least one other network, FX, about a possible move.
While he declined to talk specifics, Collier said he is optimistic a deal will be reached to keep the show on AMC — just as the network struck a deal with Matthew Weiner (right, with Collier) to keep him running "Mad Men" through its seventh and final season.
But getting to the Weiner deal was tough. At a low point in the negotiations, he was asked to eliminate six characters over three seasons — an example of the kind of cost-cutting that could make a real difference in the quality of a show.
But none of the darkest scenarios came true: Weiner ultimately received a $30 million deal that didn’t require him to cut any actors or make other concessions once requested by the network, including more overt product placement.
Darabont, meanwhile (below right with Collier), left amid speculation that he felt reined in by budget demands. And the "Breaking Bad" creators approached FX after they were asked to run just six to eight episodes next season. AMC has since budged on the request, and the tone of negotiations has improved.
There's no sign yet of the behind-the-scenes disputes diminishing AMC's shows. But there are near-constant complaints that AMC shows take too long between seasons, which some blame on the negotiations.
"They have more trouble than any cable network getting shows signed and back on the air," said a person familiar with the process of negotiating with AMC. "At a certain point, it hurts the continuity."
Weiner has said he could have launched the fifth season of "Mad Men" this year, but the network opted to wait until 2012. The fourth season of "Breaking Bad," meanwhile, didn't return until July, which kept the show off the air for a year during the Emmy eligibility period and denied Cranston a chance to win a fourth consecutive Emmy.
Collier said the scheduling decisions are strictly strategic and unrelated to negotiations. He noted that the decision to premiere "Breaking Bad" in July — when it faced little competition — helped it hit new highs in total viewers and key demos.
He also said that the successful negotiations with Weiner prove the network will work in good faith on a deal to keep "Breaking Bad" on the network. But Weiner's deal has led some to speculate that AMC may be trying to cut costs on other shows to make up for the cost of "Mad Men."
One executive at another network suggested the network is feeling the stress of expanding from just two shows. While "The Walking Dead" has thrived, other shows have had mixed success: "Rubicon" was canceled after one season, and many viewers swore off "The Killing" after its open-ended finale. AMC's latest show, "Hell on Wheels," debuts this fall.
"It's easier when you have just two children," the executive told TheWrap. "Now they have more and they've given one child the whole enchilada."
Collier says the "Mad Men" deal has nothing to do with negotiations over other shows.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," he said.