Don't Blame Matthew Weiner for 'Mad Men' Delay

Mad Men season 4 still

Pay the man. It's that simple.

With news that Season 5 of Mad Men won't debut until 2012 because of negotiations between series creator Matt Weiner and AMC, all kinds of speculation is leaking out. And right now it's just speculation because until the two sides publicly talk about what's going on, I wouldn't trust a word that anonymous sources are leaking to people who regularly get the facts wrong.

But whatever the price tag Weiner's asking for, whatever the changes he's being asked to make -- more commercial time or reduction of characters allegedly among them -- it's all beside the point now. AMC and Lionsgate balked two years ago at Weiner's salary demands and here we are again. Apparently there's been too much distance -- and too much success --- at AMC to remember where they were before making Mad Men.

They were nowhere.

AMC was a second rate movie channel (and that's being generous) until Mad Men put it on the map. No Mad Men, then probably no Breaking Bad (which itself was partly a free gift from FX). So any discussion of Mad Men's worth goes far, far beyond the value of the actual show as it relates to the money it brings in.

Just the amount of hype Mad Men has generated for AMC is worth every penny Weiner is asking for, because it created brand awareness in one of the most crowded and competitive businesses. Even if AMC spent $15 million in 2007 trying to point viewers to where it was on the dial, most probably wouldn't have found it or cared to go looking. Mad Men not only gave them a reason to search, it's greatness continued to generate what was essentially free advertising and a repeated hammer to the head of late adopters.

How much is that worth? Mad Men is AMC's seminal hit, its tallest flag on a crowded map of cable channels. What's more, the quality of the series never lagged. It got better. It got more and more hype. It created stars. It became a pop culture phenomenon. It won Emmys. How much is that worth, AMC? Maybe someone should go count the headlines. Measure the magazine stories and compare that to the price for an ad. Count all the times the stars were on talk shows or in photographs. Do a search for how many times AMC has been mentioned since summer of 2007 and then compare that to how many times it was mentioned prior -- go back a decade if you need to. Mad Men may not be the most watched series on television or even on AMC, but it's the greatest loss-leader in the history of television. While that was happening, Weiner was under his old contract. Underpaid? Relative to the industry and his impact on it -- hell yes.

What has happened since the last contract? Well, Breaking Bad has given AMC a one-two punch (in any order) of the best two series on television. As great as Breaking Bad is, it doesn't generate the same hype as Mad Men, despite its healthy ratings. AMC has had some misses, to be sure -- the remake of The Prisoner didn't work and Rubicon didn't catch fire. But Breaking Bad and then the massive hit that was The Walking Dead really established the channel. The Killing, AMC's next effort, is fantastic (but nobody knows yet what the ratings will be like). Regardless, it's pretty clear that AMC is a major player in high quality scripted drama.

And yet the niche channel is clearly forgetting that none of this would be possible without Mad Men. I don't begrudge Weiner anything he's asking for because in all likelihood, this is his biggest ticket. The former Sopranos writer is extremely talented and will no doubt go on to other successes. But like David Simon, the creator of The Wire who moved on to Treme, it's not about how brilliant one person is. It's about catching lightning in a bottle and cracking that bottle over the head of the culture in a way that essentially lives on in history books forever. Now that is hard to repeat. So don't begrudge Weiner whatever it is he's getting for four brilliant seasons of Mad Men.

The key here is not to blame him. AMC is already making it look like it's all Weiner's fault. People who don't care about negotiations or the minutia involved will only be upset that they won't get to see Don Draper and company until sometime in 2012. They'll be looking for blame. Perhaps Weiner should, as AMC has already done, release a statement giving some insight to his side. He's already going to have enough pressure -- as there is each season -- to make Season 5 as brilliant as the four previous. And if he doesn't, what will people say about his pay raise? That's a lot of pressure, especially for a man who doesn't like to delegate and whose fingerprints are all over everything in the show.

By the way, there is no Mad Men without him. It's his baby. And if anything, people should be less worried about monetary figures and more worried that the hassles of negotiating are going to make Weiner cut the series short by a season or two. It would be hard to blame him if he did. For a channel that has done so much right, it's a shame that AMC hasn't realized that Mad Men isn't just a series you negotiate over. It's your reason for being.

Pay the man.

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