Emmys: How AMC Became HBO's Nightmare

 Kagan McLeod

For the first time since its landmark series The Sopranos ended an illustrious eight-year run in 2007, HBO is officially back in the drama game with not one but two fierce Emmy contenders: the lavish Boardwalk Empire and fantastical Game of Thrones.

Too bad there's a bloodthirsty competitor named AMC close behind.

The secret to AMC's recent domination of the Emmys is a well-studied formula whose data has been drawn directly from HBO's own stellar record: You win awards not with scads of cash but with character-based shows that aim high, fit the brand and attract talent. Veena Sud, showrunner of AMC's new Emmy hopeful The Killing, follows those practices. "Always assume that your audience is smarter than you are," says Sud.

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Back in 1999, HBO was the smart upstart that gave the networks nightmares with The Sopranos, which won two Emmys for best drama, earned more than 100 nominations and helped drive networks ABC, NBC, Fox and CBS out of the winner's circle (save for Lost, 24 and The West Wing).

Now AMC is delivering that nightmare to just about everyone -- a trend that started in 2008 with the debut of three-time drama winner Mad Men.

"Mad Men came in under the radar," says former Sopranos executive producer Terence Winter, whose current HBO epic Boardwalk Empire is considered a front-runner for this year's drama Emmy. "It was on a network no one had ever heard of, aside from movies."

Then came AMC's Breaking Bad -- a gritty critical favorite and two-time nominee with a three-year lock on drama actor in Bryan Cranston -- though a production delay makes him and the series ineligible for the 2011 race.

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And now, says Dan Weiss, co-creator of HBO's other Emmy hopeful, Game of Thrones, "The zombies are creeping up!"

He's referring, of course, to creator Frank Darabont's The Walking Dead, AMC's latest Emmy party-crasher, which debuted in the fall with 5.3 million viewers, making it the network's biggest hit yet.

And most recent to join the canon is AMC's Twin Peaks-like Killing, which stands to get a boost by its nomination for best drama by the Broadcast Television Journalists Association in its first-ever Critics' Choice awards ceremony June 20, four days before Emmy voting closes (see sidebar, p. 74).  

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"AMC has more nominations for our awards than any other network," says BTJA president Joey Berlin of its inaugural nomination ballot. "Our Critics' Choice movie awards have pretty similar tastes to that of Oscar voters. So I think our TV awards may be similar to that of the Television Academy."

AMC's early presence in this year's Emmy race is so formidable, it's already helping to chip away at the confidence of some of the very creative minds in whom HBO invested millions to help resurrect its place in the genre.

"I'm very skeptical that we'll be part of that grand contest," admits Thrones co-creator David Benioff, an accomplished screenwriter (Troy, The Kite Runner): "We don't consider ourselves to be a front-runner. We're a dark horse at the moment. I think the race will probably be between AMC and Boardwalk," he says.

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How on Earth did it come to this -- that a network most known for airing old-movie marathons became Emmy juggernaut HBO's biggest threat?

Its first stab at an original drama, 1996's Remember WENN -- a radio station-set series created by Rupert Holmes, the guy who wrote the "Pina Colada Song" -- wasn't memorable at all after its four-season run. A decade and many Tarzan movie airings later, AMC made its name in 2007 by scooping up Sopranos vet Matthew Weiner's concept for Mad Men -- which, in a tasty twist of fate, HBO had passed on.

If AMC needed a model for its success, it needn't look any further than the network it stands to trounce this season, HBO. Here are the key lessons it learned:

Make TV dramas as good -- or better than -- movies

Like HBO, AMC courts the smartest audiences instead of the biggest, as old-school broadcasters must. It attracts awards and builds buzz. "We think of Game of Thrones as a movie that lasts 60 to 70 hours," says Weiss. "You envy features. They only have 120 pages of script -- we have over 600."

Also, as HBO taught AMC, it can pay to take risks on what Winter calls "something a little off-kilter."

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