AMC serious about its series


AMC's two-series, 20-nomination Emmy windfall Thursday has helped cement the buzz that's rapidly transforming it into the toast of television. But it's instructive to note that a mere couple of years ago, this was exclusively a movie channel. And not its own movies, either.

Before it came to stand for the All-"Mad Men" Channel, AMC was short for American Movie Classics. Remember?

"Actually, the truth is that our core business is still movies," AMC executive vp and GM Charlie Collier said between hoots and hollers Thursday at AMC's offices in New York. "Really, what 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad' represent are brand builders and calling cards that work great side-by-side with the best movie library in TV."

Yes, and HBO is just a movie network, too.

The AMC transformation began in 2006 with first its original project, the Western miniseries saga "Broken Trail," starring Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church, whose premiere tripled the network's previous top audience. It went on to haul in 16 Emmy noms last year, winning four (including for best miniseries and for Duvall's performance).

AMC followed up with its first original series, "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad." But what's most remarkable about the series is not the 16 nominations for "Mad Men" (including for outstanding drama) and four for "Breaking Bad" (including one for lead actor Bryan Cranston) but that the shows are on the air at all. They have put AMC on the map in a way that no network ever has before with its first pair of original series, bringing a one-time afterthought the kind of hip cachet once reserved for the HBOs and, more recently, the FXs of the TV world.

"Mad Men" — which rolls out Season 2 on July 27 — sleekly tells a story of early-1960s ad men in New York along with the cigarettes they chain-smoked, the booze they tossed down during working hours and, not least, the women they objectified with cavalier hubris. It's the kind of period piece that TV was not exactly clamoring to snap up; indeed, it was rejected sight unseen by HBO and languished for nearly seven years until AMC resurrected it. "Mad Men" went on to become the Emmys' most-nominated drama series after having won a pair of Golden Globes in January (for top drama and lead drama series actor for star Jon Hamm).

"I think it shows what can happen when a network gives you a huge amount of creative freedom," creator/executive producer Matthew Weiner said. "For an artist, it's just a dream."

Then there is "Breaking Bad," the tale of a high school chemistry teacher dying of lung cancer who decides to become a crystal meth chef to earn a big-time financial score for his family before kicking the bucket. It almost goes without saying that this kind of twisted subject matter would be an impossible sell to 99.9% of the TV networks.

"AMC took the kind of chance with our show and with 'Mad Men' that no other network was willing to," "Breaking Bad" creator/exec producer Vince Gilligan said. "It took a lot of guts. This network could have fallen flat on its face trying what it did."

The fact that neither "Mad Men" nor "Breaking Bad" generated better than lukewarm ratings numbers doesn't much deter the network, Collier insisted.

Next for AMC is the reinterpretation of the 1960s cult series classic "The Prisoner," a six-hour original miniseries project starring Jim Caviezel and Ian McKellen.

"It underscores our continuing commitment to quality on both sides of the camera," Collier said. (partialdiff)