Before it even began, 2015 was pivotal for AMC. The network was set to end “Mad Men,” the show that put it on the original-programming map, in spring. Its most recent original scripted efforts — two period dramas featuring respected but not exactly superstar talent — had been renewed despite mediocre viewership and mixed reviews. Its upcoming slate was an ambitious mix of spinoffs and genre series. If the new shows failed, no shortage of people would be lining up to sound the funeral toll for AMC.
Instead the opposite happened. Freshmen “Fear the Walking Dead,” “Better Call Saul” and “Into the Badlands” drew the first, second and third highest rated debuts of any scripted shows in cable history, respectively. In live viewing plus three days of playback, according to Nielsen, AMC’s regular original entertainment programming drew an average in 2015 of 3.9 million viewers in the advertiser coveted 18-49 demographic, more than any other broadcast or cable network. A make-or-break year trended make.
“We had quite a lot headed into the year that we were excited about,” Charlie Collier, president of AMC, SundanceTV and AMC Studios, told TheWrap. “But at the same time it was an unusual circumstance.”
The three 2015 freshmen performed ratings-wise far better than previous newcomers “Turn” and “Halt and Catch Fire” did in 2014. (A fourth, U.K. co-production “Humans,” did not, but it did earn a Season 2 renewal.) In addition to big viewership numbers, “Better Call Saul” drew the critical and awards-voter recognition that the network was accustomed to getting for “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men.” Bob Odenkirk, reprising the character he played on “Breaking Bad,” drew Primetime Emmy Award and Golden Globe nominations for his work on “Better Call Saul.”
But AMC’s 2015 success was built on the foundation of television’s most-watched scripted series.
Of the year’s 50 highest rated cable episodes in the 18-49 demo, 38 belonged to AMC. The top 16 were episodes of “The Walking Dead,” 16 more were episodes of shows that aired after “The Walking Dead.” The remaining six were episodes of spinoff “Fear the Walking Dead.”
Midway through its sixth season, zombie drama “The Walking Dead” remains TV’s most formidable non-football program. The Nov. 29 midseason finale drew 18.3 million total viewers and 11.8 million in the 18-49 demo — down just 6 percent and 8 percent respectively from the previous year’s fall finale, which was the most watched in series history.
That continued success is being exploited strategically by AMC. “Better Call Saul” and martial-arts drama “Into the Badlands” premiered in the post-“Walking Dead” timeslot, guaranteeing big ratings. That each series saw its ratings drop by more than half when “The Walking Dead” stopped airing in front of it was expected, according to Collier.
“As a platform for not just like-minded series like ‘Fear the Walking Dead,’ but also other original series that are focused on the millennial or fanboy audience, it’s a great way to expose new content and new creative visions to an audience that is already predisposed to exploring that sort of content,” Collier said of “The Walking Dead.” It’s “TV 101,” he added, “to expose your new content behind the largest audiences in your stable.”
Heading into 2016, expect AMC to continue to build around its prize property. Asked whether the network is planning another “Walking Dead” spinoff, Collier said only “We have nothing to announce, but the definition of a great day when you’re sitting in my chair is when [‘Walking Dead’ creator] Robert Kirkman or one of the other creators at the center of our universe call and say, ‘You know, I have an idea.'”
What is known is that the New Year will see new AMC projects featuring big-name talent. “Preacher,” adapted like “The Walking Dead” from a successful comic-book series, boasts a pilot written by executive producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Miniseries “The Night Manager” will star Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston. Drama series “Broke” hails from Clyde Phillips, who executive produced “Dexter” and “Nurse Jackie” for Showtime.
That level of established talent represents a different approach from the one that led to the premiere in 2007 of “Mad Men,” the network’s defining original scripted series, one that had no name stars attached and came from a first-time creator-showrunner in Matthew Weiner.
“I’m a big believer in event television, and I’m a big believer that the best stuff does rise to the top,” Collier said. “Way back when there were three networks, it seemed like everything had its own opening night on Broadway.” In a marketplace that this year featured 409 scripted series across television and streaming services, it is more difficult than ever for a new show to stand out. Well-known talent, like a big lead-in, can bring viewers in to sample a fledgling show, giving it a better chance to survive — and maybe become a future network building block.