Reality Retreat: What's Behind AMC Axing Unscripted TV
A back-to-basics mentality hits cable amid soaring marketing costs and few hits
This story first appeared in the Oct. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Cable TV's subscripted landscape is getting a little less crowded. As more networks re-evaluate aggressive expansion plans and refocus efforts on where they found initial success, AMC has pretty much shuttered its reality operations — sparing only its companion talk show to The Walking Dead and Kevin Smith's Comic Book Men. The rest of its current, upcoming and potential unscripted series, including an already-ordered sophomore season of arm-wrestling competition Game of Arms and two projects Smith was developing, were wiped from the slate in early October.
After pushing into reality in 2012 with The Pitch, a real-life take on its signature scripted series Mad Men, AMC chief Charlie Collier continued to beef up his unscripted efforts in a bid to eventually fill the real estate occupied by movies with originals. At its height, its reality group boasted a staff of 10 and most recently launched a vehicle for Kiss members Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley.
But no series managed to approach the zeitgeist status of A&E's Duck Dynasty or TLC's Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Comic Book Men, which draws just north of 1 million viewers, is AMC's top unscripted performer and benefits greatly from airing the same night as Walking Dead. And it's not as though reality hits are easy to come by these days. The genre's massive expansion, which has led to derivative follow-ups and the lack of breakout hits, has been an obstacle for all networks. And while unscripted programs are cheaper than scripted fare (an average reality hour typically costs between $375,000 and $475,000, compared with as much as $4 million for a drama hour), the marketing cost required to launch and sustain a hit of any kind has become onerous in such a crowded ecosystem. "There is a complete oversaturation of content," notes a top reality agent. "Networks need to get back to having a brand identity so people know what to expect from them."
Reclaiming that identity is one reason why AMC is pooling its efforts — financial and otherwise — back into original dramas. It's an area in which the network has thrived with Walking Dead (the season-five premiere broke cable records with an 8.7 rating in adults 18-to-49) but otherwise has been looking thin in its post-Breaking Bad era. Finding a new critical flagship once Mad Men concludes in 2015 will be far more difficult than when AMC became a player in 2007. The network has begun promoting Bad prequel Better Call Saul months before its February 2015 premiere.
Managing scripted and unscripted portfolios has not been easy for cable networks primarily accustomed to focusing on one — just look at how cautiously Bravo and E! have approached scripted, an arena each will enter in 2015, and drama-heavy TNT has had mixed results with reality. But unscripted remains the most practical way to prop up a schedule. So some insiders see AMC's move as more of a speed bump than the end of the road for its unscripted efforts. "I fully expect, based on the economics of that network, that they'll be back in the reality business in two years," adds one agent. "Any network that wants to get away from unscripted isn't paying attention to its bottom line."