In an interview with Cahiers du Cinéma, Mathew Weiner says he is very fortunate to have the creative freedom AMC has granted him to produce Mad Men. But, he adds, without this freedom he would have refused to make the series. That vast creative freedom Weiner talks about is one of the keys to the success of the series produced by AMC, and that freedom is the result of a non-negotiable premise: a very limited budget. In the territory of basic-cable fiction, with increasingly large budgets, AMC opts for a cheaper production by minimizing marketing spending, and also, by implementing co-production strategies. The network only produced a full season of Mad Men when it got associate producer Lionsgate to meet the costs, and the same thing happened in the case of Breaking Bad, which AMC co-produces with Sony. With such a limited budget, the network can take risks and produce series that nobody has ventured to produce. It invests in creativity without expecting short-term benefits and that reduces pressure on the showrunners.
Through this strategy, AMC has obtained 29 Emmy nominations in 2011, well above the other basic-cable networks and, at this time, it has already built a brand identity that serves as a magnet to attract more talent. But what about benefits? Gradually, AMC series have acquired a cult status, so the channel has been able to sell its catalog to Netflix for a good amount of money. Moreover, it seems certain that there will be an improvement in the distribution agreements of the network – some of them expire in 2012. According to SNL Kagan, currently TV providers pay affiliate fees of only 25 cents per subscriber per month to AMC, compared to $1.08 for TNT and 60 cents for USA.
Nevertheless, the number of original series produced by AMC is increasing, so keeping a limited budget has become a problem. Some tensions have arisen between the showrunners and the network but, for now, the production model seems out of discussion. We will see if the channel will keep the balance or if it will become a victim of its own success.