AMC Networks CEO Outlines Rules for Managing 'Walking Dead' Franchise

Adam Kraus
Josh Sapan

Josh Sapan's rules for franchise management are: "Never exhaust your welcome; never ever compromise creative storytelling and character; don't underfund it."

AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan on Thursday was promoting Weiner, its documentary about Anthony Weiner, though he carefully avoided the details of the sexting scandal that made the former congressman so newsworthy five years ago.

"It's very fly-on-the-wallish," Sapan said of the documentary film. "He's the guy who, well, I won't go into the details — we're in New York, so I don't have to say it ... he had staff members who were filmmakers and he invited the cameras to stay with him as he went through the stages of his run for mayor after his challenging events."

Sapan's primary point is that Weiner, from AMC's label, IFC Films, opens Friday theatrically as well as VOD, a strategy theaters normally object to, though now they accept that for some movies, word-of-mouth from those who watch on TV can actually boost the theatrical business.

"Even though it sounds illogical to say if you can watch it at home you'll go to the theater, but in fact it works," he said.

Sapan was speaking at the MoffettNathanson investor conference in New York mostly on the state of cable TV.

An analyst asked how AMC makes sure audiences don't burn out on The Walking Dead, a show that is very important to the company's bottom line.

"We think about this a lot," Sapan said.

He said AMC has franchise consultants and soon a staff person. "There really is a question of how much and when, how fast ...  how do relate to fans when the shows are not on the air?" 

Sapan used a James Bond 007 analogy.

"You know, you don't want bad casting in Bond. You don't want the next Bond to be a loser," he quipped. "That matters a lot. And if you're my age, you think, 'Oh, man, they made a mistake with George Lazenby.' But then Daniel Craig hit it. And so, people do care."

Sapan said the prequel, Fear the Walking Dead, "was done extremely well, and the audience rewarded us with their attention."

"It respects your time," he said. "If you're really deep in the vortex, you're extremely sensitive to how things are portrayed or potentially violated."

Sapan said his rules for franchise management are: "Never exhaust your welcome; never ever compromise creative storytelling and character; don't underfund it; don't ever think people don't think an awful lot about it."

Earlier, though, he acknowledged that "television is not the most important thing in life. Hopefully our families are a little bit more important, or who becomes the president."

The point he was making is that after the average person lists two or three favorite shows, the rest aren't nearly as meaningful. 

"You then become a little indifferent and you watch a little bit what you wander into or what's on, but it is very important if you can be among some people's top several. We actually use that as a bit of a mantra as to how we orient ourselves," said Sapan.

"It's a very profound subject if you're in this business."

He said there is an abundance of skeptical news surrounding the cable TV industry, and it's likely overblown.

"Does cable cost too much? Is there too much TV? Is there cord-shaving or cutting? And that is a common conversation," said Sapan. "For all the talk ... there seems to be a fair amount of vitality in multichannel video as currently constructed."

He said one reason is that cable TV isn't as expensive as some like to think, given it is usually packaged with broadband and other services. 

As it has many times throughout the conference, the conversation turned to Hulu, which is planning to become a virtual MSO, offering a skinny bundle of live channels along with the VOD it is famous for. It's a plan Disney CEO Bob Iger embraced Wednesday while Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei did not.

AMC is already a Hulu partner, though not yet for its upcoming virtual MSO product. AMC also is on Sony PlayStation Vue and Dish's Sling TV.

Said Sapan: "Our point of view, generally, has been to support new entrants into the multichannel video world.'