'Bad' Habit

Last year 'Breaking Bad' and 'Mad Men' turned AMC into the little cable network that could

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"I can't believe 'Breaking Bad' ever got made," marvels Ed Bernero, executive producer on CBS' "Criminal Minds." "I'm not surprised that it's a great show, but I look at that and wonder, 'How the hell do you pitch this?' Who in the room went, 'That's a good idea for our network?' "

Actually, there never was a pitch meeting -- AMC executives read creator Vince Gilligan's pilot script, then met with him over drinks. Gilligan didn't think he had a chance.

"I figured I'd get a $14 Scotch out of it and that would be it, because the show was so out there," he recalls.

Yet "Breaking Bad" is exactly the sort of script AMC likes. The cable net may only have a smattering of original programming experience, but has hit the ball out of the park with its first two attempts at original series. Since "Mad Men" debuted in 2007, and "Bad" in 2008, both shows have grabbed headlines.

But when both went home with major Emmy awards last year, another honor was silently being bestowed on the network that housed both series. Suddenly, AMC -- a home for classic movies that nevertheless got diced up with commercials and censored as if on broadcast TV -- was a legitimate, award-winning, risk-taking home to new original programming.

And with the next Emmy season on the horizon, AMC has positioned itself as the first nonpremium cable channel to challenge the hegemony of not just veteran broadcast networks, but also powerhouse HBO.

Certainly, HBO remains dominant when it comes to Emmys -- last year it won 26 out of 85 nominations, while AMC took home eight wins of its 20. But legitimacy is conferred with the big, flashy awards -- series, actor, director, writer -- and considering it has just two original series, AMC has quickly become a network to watch, both literally and in an industry sense.

Good timing has had a hand in that success, AMC president and GM Charlie Collier says. "With the (broadcast) flight to reality television and less-expensive fare, networks are making choices, and are to some degree abandoning the highest form of storytelling -- movies and scripted originals," he says. "That has left a void for cable, and cable has separated itself."

Cable networks are also a form of boutique; they can cater to a specific brand, while networks are still, well, broad-casting. They're also lighter on their feet, less burdened with layers of executives making decisions.

Still, comparisons between cable and broadcast, or even within cable networks, are not exactly apples to apples, notes Elizabeth Herbst-Brady, president of Magna, a global media forecasting and investment strategy company.

"Broadcast networks are still programming multiple hours a night. It's easier to produce an hour or two that's really good than 15 hours," she says. "There was a time when the only place you could get quality programming was broadcast television. That isn't the case anymore."

An expanding cable universe of award-winning original programming is a benefit for advertisers, too, Herbst-Brady adds. "The more places to create good content, the better off we are. That means we have more opportunity to reach consumers in a variety of ways."

Gilligan agrees. "The more the merrier," he says. "There should be enough room in the TV universe for the big tentpole shows, and the more interesting shows that can survive on a smaller audience. It benefits everyone watching television that we have those choices."