In an era often heralded as a golden age of television, few networks have made the notion of “quality TV” as central to its brand identity as AMC. The strategy was sparked by the critical adulation which greeted the debut of Mad Men in 2007. Almost overnight, AMC could boast “Story Matters Here,” instead of its previous slogan, “Mid-Afternoon Repeats of Rambo III Happen Here.”
In its first season, Mad Men aired on Thursdays. But when it returned for its second season in 2008, it was moved to its current home on Sunday.
Now, when it comes to both critically-acclaimed TV dramas and Sunday night programming, HBO has led the field for more than a decade. This dominance dates back at least to The Sopranos, which aired its first-run episodes on Sundays between 1999 and 2007. Since then, HBO has made that day the home of its most prestigious programs, including The Wire, Deadwood, and Boardwalk Empire.
By moving its newfound critical darling to Sunday, was AMC positioning Mad Men as the natural successor to this lineage? And, by extension, was it positioning itself as a challenger to the HBO crown?
Since Mad Men and fellow Sunday denizen Breaking Bad took the nation’s water coolers and awards ceremonies by storm, AMC has been famously deliberate in adding to its roster. Though it has played in different genres, the network has insisted on only developing what it considers to be first-class dramas. As a sign of this, AMC has restricted its first-run original programming to Sunday.
Other basic cable channels which have become known for original series - FX, TNT, USA, etc. - have consistently programmed throughout the week. AMC considers itself to be playing on premium cable’s turf, not that of its basic cable brethren.
Could this restriction impede, rather than nurture, the development of the AMC brand? Does positioning every show as the new Mad Men or Breaking Bad (and, by implication, as a Quality Drama in the Sopranos/Wire tradition) set the bar unreasonably high? Could a complex show like Rubicon have developed a larger following with less pressure to succeed immediately? Would a misfire like The Killing have been less savaged had it been presented as a slightly-denser crime procedural, rather than as a genre-shattering masterstroke? Or do audiences in an age of digital distribution even attach such associations to a time slot any longer?