In 2007, HBO was in transition: "The Sopranos" was wrapping, and two shows that made the premium channel the hottest thing in programming, "Sex and the City" and "Six Feet Under," had already faded to black.
The channel needed to find new "water cooler" shows to replace the ones that had helped kick off television's golden age — or else it risked losing its edge in the fiercely competitive cable landscape.
Today, AMC Networks is in a similar position with its flagship channel. The two shows that critics often mention in the same breath as "The Sopranos" — "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men" — are looking at the final curtain. "Breaking Bad" begins its last season on Sunday and "Mad Men" is due to wrap up in 2014.
But AMC Networks President and CEO Josh Sapan assured analysts on Thursday that the company is well-positioned to endure the end of Walter White and Sterling Cooper & Partners. In particular, he pointed to the continued strength of "The Walking Dead," which is the top-rated scripted series on television.
"We hope that zombies really do live forever — or at least for a decade," Sapan quipped.
To that end, Sapan said the company was actively developing new shows like the cop drama "Low Winter Sun," which premieres this month. He added that AMC has two new series premiering next year — the computer prodigies drama "Halt and Catch Fire" and the Revolutionary War spy thriller “Turn" — that have earned a strong reaction from advertisers.
"Not everything will hit, but we think it's a good moment for us," Sapan said.
The AMC chief, who also oversees the Sundance Channel, We TV and IFC, said the biggest challenge was not that there are more players like Netflix and USA aggressively getting into the original content space. Rather, he said it was finding a show that offered the perfect alchemy of attracting new viewers to AMC at the right price.
"There’s not a limited commodity of great TV shows … our greatest interest and challenge is the identification and development of great content with great people," he said.
Sapan didn't just discuss the future of AMC, he touched upon the future of the television industry as a whole by wading into the ongoing debate about cable pricing.
Earlier this week, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes said he doubted that cable subscribers would ever be able to pick the channels they want on an a la carte basis. However, he did predict that cable programming will come in smaller packages.
The issue is a controversial one. Fighting over retransmission fees has led to tense standoffs between cable companies and content creators, including the current CBS blackout on Time Warner Cable. Currently, media companies package content to cable providers so they are forced to pay for less popular channels.
Sapan said he did not know what the future holds for pricing, but argued that AMC's strong sales on platforms like iTunes and content deals with streaming services like Netflix show it has diversified its revenue streams in way that will leave it well-equipped for any new world order.
The best strategy, he stressed, was to "have stuff that people really like, really want, really identify with and really value."
In AMC's case, that means lots and lots of zombies.