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AMC Has a Lot on the Line With ‘The Prisoner’

With a new creative team, the pressure’s on to see whether the channel can maintain the bar of high quality.

Once a sleepy basic-cable movie channel, AMC has led a truly blessed life since it plunged into the realm of original scripted programming back in 2006 with the western “Broken Trail.”

A surprise Emmy winner for best miniseries that year, the Robert Duvall-starrer put the Rainbow Media-owned channel on an awards and critically acclaimed winning streak that continued with the regular-series launches of “Mad Men” in 2007 and “Breaking Bad” in 2008.

On Sunday, AMC will take its next shot — the premiere of a three-part miniseries event “The Prisoner.” But there’s more on the line than just another new show.

Especially with so little in the channel’s hamper, the pressure’s on to see whether the channel’s high quality bar can be maintained.

It’s not a given.

For one thing, the creative team behind "The Prisoner" is different than the one that oversaw the launches of AMC’s successes.

A remake of Patrick McGoohan’s classic 1967 U.K. series — and starring Ian McKellen and James Caviezel — the international co-production was set in motion several years ago, back when Rob Sorcher was AMC’s executive VP of programming and production and Christina Wayne his right-hand.

But both are now gone, with Sorcher heading entertainment for Turner’s Cartoon Network.

For his part, AMC president Charlie Collier, who has been around since September 2006, represents continuity. But a somewhat new creative team — under the direction of senior VP of original programming and production Joel Stillerman — has been put in place since "Broken Trail," "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" were developed and launched.

Of course, there has been plenty of overlap — Stillerman and Wayne were around during the initial phases of "The Prisoner’s" development, while Stillerman’s team has more than sustained "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad."

But what comes next from AMC will come from the new regime.

A new generation of sophisticated, high-end-viewer-targeted dramas is being gestated under the current regime, including the think-tank-based espionage thriller “Rubicon” and comic-book adaptation “The Walking Dead,” both slated for next year.

“The pressure and the stakes are much, much higher than when they launched ‘Mad Men,’” a rival network programming official told TheWrap. “A lot more people are watching now.”

Collier continues to emphasize that movies are the channel’s bread and butter, but concedes that it’s the Emmy-laden “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” that have changed the standard by which the channel is measured.

“They’ve put us under a different consideration set for viewers and advertisers and affiliates,” Collier said.

Winner of the last two Emmy drama-series trophies, media attention given to “Mad Men” actually belies a series that averages less than 3 million viewers.

The show’s ratings were up sharply in the just-completed season 3, with 1.1 million viewers aged 18-49 tuning in for last Sunday’s campaign finale, an impressive 56 percent uptick in the primary audience demo over last years closing episode.

But "Mad Men’s" slim viewership, at least by most network standards, is enhanced by other factors.

The show commands premium sponsors, including BMW. And with half of the 25-54-year-old audience reporting income of more than $100,000, it also gets a premium price for its commercial time.

Of course, “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” supply only 13 episodes a year. AMC clearly needs to have more than 26 weeks of originals to bolster its movie-laden schedule, particularly with other basic cable channels aggressively expanding their original programming schedules.

“In this day and age, you can’t rely on two original series,” Brad Adgate, programming analyst for Horizon Media, told TheWrap. “They have to replenish their pipeline with other original series.”

Adgate believes the hard part for AMC — developing an original programming style and brand — is already behind them.

“At least they know what style is going to work for them,” he noted. “They know what kind of shows the ‘Mad Men’ viewer is watching when they’re not watching AMC. They now have a whole body of research from which they can draw conclusions.”

Yet Collier insists that upcoming offerings, including “The Prisoner,” will be tonally unique from both “Mad Men” and Breaking Bad.”

“We’re not trying to serve the exact same audience,” he said. “‘Mad Men’ delivers the most upscale audience on television, but the reason why we developed ‘Breaking Bad’ was that it was an incredible way to target men. We pair it up with movies that deliver the same thing, and we have a powerful mechanism for advertisers and affiliates to superserve that male audience."

In keeping with that theme, Sunday night’s debut of “The Prisoner” will be preceded with the full airing of the similarly dystopic-future-oriented “Matrix Trilogy.”

It’s the same complementary strategy that was employed back in 2007 for the pilot episode of “Mad Men,” which followed a showing of Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” — a film, Collier told TheWrap, that portrayed a “Mad Men”-like world of guys drinking, smoking and getting away with pretty much anything they want.

“This weekend, we’re going to super-serve the sci-fi audience,” Collier explained.