AMC Networks Head on Glen Mazzara's 'Walking Dead' Exit and 'The Killing's' Surprise Return (Q&A)
CEO Josh Sapan tells THR about those pesky carriage battles and the drama that could reinvent Sundance Channel.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
For about 20 minutes each morning, AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan is focused not on programming or finances but rather his transcendental meditation practice. Finding a temporary Zen place is necessary given the 26-year company veteran’s huge responsibilities, managing a portfolio of networks that includes AMC, IFC, WEtv and Sundance Channel.
His flagship, AMC, parted ways with Glen Mazzara, its second showrunner on The Walking Dead, in late December (he has been replaced by Scott Gimple for the show's fourth season, according to multiple sources), even as the critically lauded zombie drama became the first cable series to beat all of broadcast’s fare in the key 18-to-49 demographic. Walking Dead, along with IFC’s Portlandia and AMC’s Breaking Bad and Mad Men, helped publicly traded AMC Networks’ net revenue reach $332 million for the third quarter, up 17 percent year-over-year, with advertising revenue rising 9.1 percent.
Looking ahead, the Queens-born executive -- who, upon graduating from the University of Wisconsin, outfitted his station wagon with movie projectors and traveled to college campuses to show films -- will continue to push his networks deeper into the originals space. Sundance Channel, for instance, is set to roll out the Elisabeth Moss-Holly Hunter miniseries Top of the Lake and the Mark Johnson-produced drama series Rectify, both of which will debut at the Sundance Film Festival. (AMC Networks, then Rainbow Media, acquired the channel in 2008 from a group that included founder Robert Redford; the channel maintains a close relationship with the Sundance Film Festival.) Sapan, 62, a married father of two teens, sat down to discuss The Killing’s revival, Sundance’s big push and the hot water AMC found itself in following Mazzara’s exit.
The Hollywood Reporter: Why let Mazzara go from The Walking Dead when the show is breaking records? What happened?
Josh Sapan: We love the show, and we admire and cherish the work of everybody involved who made it an extraordinarily well-crafted TV series. … In the case of Glen, we decided mutually to part ways.
THR: But other showrunners have blasted your network. The Shield’s Shawn Ryan said, “It's a real question now why good showrunners should sell to AMC.” How does that make you feel?
Sapan: We really do believe that people who make great TV shows have a rare capability, and we hold them in extraordinarily high regard. Certainly it would be preferable to have as much continuity as possible. We’ll forge ahead and hope to make great shows and be the best place to work.
THR: So those comments don’t concern you?
Sapan: We’ll do the best we can to be an environment where the best creative people can flourish. We’ll hopefully learn from everything we do.
THR: You’re bringing back The Killing after you canceled the drama this past summer. What changed?
Sapan: We loved the show and the characters. Creatively it was great, and we found a way to bring it back by making an arrangement with Fox [TV Studios] that made sense to us.
THR: With Rectify and Top of the Lake, your push into originals at Sundance mirrors your push years earlier at AMC. What’s the strategy?
Sapan: We want [Sundance] to be the home for material that’s a bit more expansive, takes a little bit more patience in some instances and is clearly more creatively driven. It’s really exciting because historically TV wasn’t known as the home for creatively driven material. We’ve had pretty good experiences with it on AMC and IFC, and I think we’ve already seen a bit of it with our Sundance miniseries Restless.
THR: You’re acknowledging a desire to be slower and narrower, but you need bigger ratings. How do you do both?
Sapan: I’d add a third: creatively driven, which is appealing because the wind is at the back of what is creatively driven on television now. Not because anyone necessarily has a better ability to judge what’s good or not but because of what’s occurred most notably with Netflix and Amazon Prime. TV syndication -- which is where the big dough [used to be] -- is there when you wander into it, whereas with subscription VOD, you have a choice of when you want to rack up episodes and binge, and that’s where you see [serialized dramas] rise to the top. The result is that we’ve seen ratings for shows like Breaking Bad go up significantly in years three, four and five. People are discovering it on their schedule -- then they’re joining your schedule. We’ve seen 20, 30, 40, 50 percent increases at a time when guest stars usually have to come in to pump up the numbers. I'm not sure if it's because of things that we're doing, necessarily, but people are being introduced to these shows. Their friends are telling them or the Internet is telling them, and they're finding them. I'm seeing it happen with a show like The Wire. I'll hear people say, 'You've got to watch The Wire,' and that's a show that's been off the air for an awfully long time. And it's interesting because it received modest interest [when it was on the air on HBO], but it's become part of the conversation now. Anecdotally, I find the same thing happening with Breaking Bad. So, these [alternative viewing platforms] are actually directly influencing scripted drama, and even certain sorts of comedy, that are a little bit less easy to immediately access.
THR: Do relatively small ratings for critical hits like Mad Men concern you?
Sapan: No. They command premium CPMs from advertisers who are under no obligation to pay premium CPMs; they do because they’re making an evaluation of what works to move their products. Where we can, we are increasingly functioning as a studio, which means we’re owning our shows.
THR: What kind of an investment is this originals push?
Sapan: It’s significant. These shows are at the expensive side of the spectrum, obviously, and the bigger the company, the smaller they are by proportion. We’re not a huge company, so each one matters a lot. We pay a lot of attention to them, and we don’t do them carelessly. I hope that we do them with the right balance of sort of editorial interest and principle, and financial discipline, which don’t always go hand in hand. I do think for a series of reasons that we are in a position where those things marry a bit, and that’s a nice place to be.
THR: In the wake of the Dec. 14 elementary school shootings in Newtown, Conn., how have you begun to think about and address the role of violence in your programming and your marketing?
It’s heartbreaking for anybody, parent or not. I just don’t know enough to know what the causes are and what might alter behavior in the future. I’m certainly reading about it like everyone else and trying to understand it better. If there’s something that we can do that would be a legitimate contribution, we’d do it.
THR: You’ve been vocal about your windowing strategy. In your mind, where does the web and these streaming services fall on the continuum of savior to killer?
Sapan: I’ll regret using this analogy, but I’ll say that medication is good if it’s used to treat issues; it’s not good if it’s abused. So it’s about how it is applied. Programmers like us use it with caution and care -- we use subscription on demand on a substantially delayed window basis -- because it has potential ill effects. I’ll stop short of saying others are abusing it, but they’re putting TV shows on 24 hours later or two days later, which has a questionable impact on the system which we live in.
THR: AMC Networks has engaged in a series of carriage battles, with the recent Dish fight getting particularly ugly. Who wins in this sort of public-perception battle?
Sapan: For the most part, they’re just unfortunate, but they’re hard to avoid because of pressures on both sides. The MVPDs [multichannel video programming distributors] are under margin pressure and the programmers need to invest more to compete, and those two things are obviously, to some degree, at conflict today. If there’s a victor -- and I wouldn’t declare a victor -- [it’s us because] I think people want the shows [that we provide].
THR: Is AMC asking too much?
Sapan: Just look at how AMC is performing today in terms of ratings, consumer appeal and then this emerging metric, which assesses what people care about most. We have a good track record for having shows that matter the most to people. That’s genuine value to a retailer, and it should be rewarded. If you look at that constellation of metrics, I think we’d come up at 75 cents [per subscriber], frankly, but history and incumbency have a role in this market. [Before the settlement, Dish had been paying about 50 cents, according to analysts.]
THR: AMC has positioned itself as a home of sophisticated drama, but you’re doing more unscripted, a genre filled with such shows as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and The Real Housewives. How do you compete but remain true to your brand?
Sapan: I think there’s a sort of brand elasticity in television, which is not to say that brand integrity doesn’t exist. Most viewers can hold two different thoughts in their head at the same time. Also, I think the shows that we put on, including Talking Dead, are fairly smart. There are commercial reasons to do it, and I think we’ve acquitted ourselves fairly well in terms of finding projects that are brand-compatible.
THR: Speaking of reality, you sold Bravo to NBC in 2002. Do you ever flip past an episode of Real Housewives and say, "What the heck happened over there?"
Sapan: No. Honestly, I think NBC has done a terrific job. We operate in business, and they’ve done a terrific job making that a better business. At the time we sold it, we had developed Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and they took it and ran with it and did a spectacular job.
THR: Do you watch The Real Housewives?
Sapan: That's not my cup of tea, but I know plenty of people whose cup of tea it is.
THR: What is your cup of tea, excluding your own shows?
I like Homeland, Louie, Girls, Veep, The Newsroom and The Good Wife, which I watch with my wife. I don't miss CBS Sunday Morning, 60 Minutes and Morning Joe, which are some of my favorite things, too. And then there are a few comedies that I have great affection for like Archer and Childrens Hospital, which are hysterical.
Sapan On His Many Collections
The man whose midtown Manhattan office is decorated with a collection of devices from radio and TV's past reveals his other hobbies.
Sapan has more than 100 lightning rods in his personal collection, making it one of the largest in the world. "I had just read Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin biography, and I became curious about lightning rods -- where they came from and how they were marketed," he says of the folk art, noting that he was intrigued by how underappreciated they are. "I did some research, and while weather vanes are collected rather aggressively, lightning rods are not." Sapan got in touch with The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, which now displays a handful of his rods in an electricity exhibit.
The exec acknowledges he has an affection for art he comes upon in junk stores -- or, worse, off the street. "I'm always impressed by how relative the appreciation of art is because I go to museums and check out big exhibitions, and sometimes it's hard to distinguish what could be a Picasso," laughs Sapan, adding that years ago he began dumpster diving at New York art schools. "They have these things called locker clean-out day, and so I contacted these schools and asked if I could collect the art that the students got rid of at the end of the semester." His collection grew too large for his Manhattan and Shelter Island homes, so he had to get a storage facility; he since has auctioned off much of it to benefit AIDS care.
He has been writing poetry for about 35 years and regularly has his work published in literary journals. "I've written about everything from love and the people I love to people's infatuation with shoes," he says, revealing that he spent time in shoe stores observing behavior for a poem on that subject. "I was interested in shoes as a metaphor. People are pretty close to obsessive [about shoes]."
Sapan is set to publish a coffee-table book titled The Big Picture: American History in Panorama through Princeton Architectural Press. The photography book will feature his collection of group photos ranging from early NAACP conventions to women's suffrage meetings. "The idiosyncratic ones are very interesting because they tell the history of America," says Sapan. "You see the emancipation of women in these photographs and the increasing racial integration."