TheGrill: AMC Networks Chief Josh Sapan Says You Can’t ‘Science Your Way’ to Great Content (Video)

Analytics aren’t everything, says the executive during TheWrap’s media leadership conference on Tuesday

Last Updated: October 9, 2014 @ 10:56 AM

AMC Networks’ official motto might not be “good things come to those who wait,” but it might as well be.

Josh Sapan, president & CEO of AMC Networks, appeared at TheWrap’s conference TheGrill at the Montage Beverly Hills on Tuesday, emphasizing the need to give shows the room to grow, and to let the craft of storytelling dictate content.

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Sapan would know. AMC has thrived due to slow-burn series such as “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” — now in its final season — which didn’t come out of the box as huge hits but grew to thrive as they went on.

And don’t expect Sapan to take a page from Amazon or Netflix and build content around data-mining and analytics.

“It sure doesn’t seem like you can absolutely science your way with deep molecular [precision] into creating a great story,” Sapan suggested. “In terms of the creative process, I’m not sure it’s at all the central element.”

“I think it’s perhaps misguided to look for results too quickly,” Sapan offered during the panel, which was moderated by TheWrap’s editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman, adding that advances in technology, such as the ability to binge-view “suggest and invite” more patience.

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Still, Sapan conceded, “it’s not easy to balance” the urgency of monetizing content with the need to take a breath, noting, “Of course theres the economic consequence of having to make episode after episode.”

Sapan stressed the importance of storytelling to AMC’s success, saying that he pays attention to story “as much as I can.” While scrutinizing storylines is “not the biggest part” of his job, Sapan said, “It is ultimately at the very core of what will bring us success or lack of success.”

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“At the core of what we think will make us successful … is terrific original storytelling and content,” Sapan asserted.

With “Breaking Bad’s” end last year and “Mad Men” heading toward its conclusion, Sapan said that AMC Networks will continue with that story-guided philosophy.

See photos: The Scene at TheGrill 2014: TheWrap’s Media Leadership Conference

“Really, what sort of brought us to the party remains what we keep our eyes on — a desire to do great storytelling,” Sapan said.

Sapan also addressed the issue of binge-viewing and the subsequent word-of-mouth it brings, which were instrumental in helping “Breaking Bad” grow from lukewarm ratings to a bonafide hit by the series’ end.

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“I think that matters an awful lot; it really, really, really matters,” Sapan said of the “permanent instant access” that technology has brought about. While delayed viewing is “a subject of tension” among advertisers, Sapan said, viewing on Netflix will drive audiences to watch a series in linear time if the show creates enough of a sense of urgency in viewers.

The “permanent instant access” that’s been created extends past television, Sapan noted.

“Young people are finding their way to Hemingway — well, he’s long been dead. He’s been off the air for quite a while,” Sapan joked.

Sapan noted a particularly intense — and perhaps anonymous — example of data mining run amok.

“I read that Amazon is going to do something called anticipatory shipping, and I thought, ‘What the hell is anticipatory shipping?'”  Sapan joked. “Which is to say,  ‘I know you better than you know yourself  … so it’s just going to come to your goddamn doorstep. You don’t have to feel or decide, because i’ve got my hand on your pulse and I’ve got my hand on every part of your body with such clarity that it’s just going to show up on your doorstep.'”


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