Nostalgia 2.0: AMC and the Development of Original Retro Programming

Curator's Note

In the season one finale of Mad Men (2007 – ), series’ protagonist and suave ad man Don Draper delivers a memorable and moving pitch for the Kodak Carousel. Recently, a re-edited version of the sequence (which accompanies this post) appeared on YouTube in which the Kodak Carousel has been replaced by Facebook’s new Timeline app. Although an obvious anachronism, the Facebook re-edit does raise some interesting questions about AMC, a network that specialises in “old media”, and its relevance within an increasingly “new media” industry.

During his pitch, Draper emphasises the twin lure of newness and nostalgia, a blending of past and present evident in Mad Men and the way in which AMC has begun to operate. Launched in 1984 during the midst of multi-channel expansion, the network originally specialised in the programming of classic American cinema. However, due to significant developments since its launch, AMC has had to revise its programming strategies accordingly. Specifically, the recent proliferation of technologies that enable the archival and repetition of television (DVD box sets, online streaming, etc.) have had a potentially detrimental effect upon the value of “old media,” the staple for networks like AMC.

In response to these changes, AMC has seemingly heeded Draper’s advice, pursuing a more balanced mix of old and new. Indeed, since the mid 1990s the network has produced a growing number of retro-style productions. Although Mad Men is the most notable example of this trend, it was preceded by the critically acclaimed Remember WENN (1996 – 1998)a thirty-minute dramedy about a Pittsburgh radio station in the 1940s and The Lot (1999 – 2001), a series charting the trials and tribulations of a fictional film studio in the 1930s. For AMC, these retro style productions act as both content and promotion, offering viewers something new whilst keeping within the original retrospective remit of the network’s brand. Even contemporary set series such as Rubicon (2010) and The Walking Dead (2010 – ) have drawn numerous comparisons with the kind of classic cinematic fare upon which AMC has built its brand.

What is particularly interesting is that these retro style programmes have spawned a wide range of “new media” paratexts including iPhone apps, Twitter profiles, and various other exclusive online materials. AMC may specialise in “old media” programming but they are clearly embracing this “new media” environment.


Great piece, JP.

The Mad Men Twitter accounts are particularly intriguing to me. I believe that fans had been running "fake" accounts for characters and eventually, AMC decided to take control of them. I know that the day I started sending emails that was being followed by Peggy, Don and Roger, I laughed. But the feeds themselves aren't that interesting, which makes me think about the actual purpose. They're not that funny and they're not particularly informative either. Is AMC just doing this to "take control" of their content? Is there a way that they could be more...compelling?

Hey Cory, I was really intrigued by the Twitter accounts too. But as you point out, they were less than entertaining. There was an interesting blog written by the person who initially (and somewhat ironically) assumed Don Draper's identity. You can read it here. It's also interesting to note that the person behind @DonDraper is in marketing himself!

From what I understand about the whole affair, AMC were (understandably) concerned that tweeting from the 1960s would be incongruous with the period setting of the series. After initially seizing control of the accounts they eventually decided to return them to their original owners who have been free to tweet ever since. I'm sure we'll hear a bit more on this in the final post of the week so maybe we can discuss it more then.

On a more general level, I'm interested in how AMC manage to reconcile the retro-style of their programmes with the contemporary promotional and distributive opportunities/demands of TVIII. Apparently product placement has been a particularly important strategy for AMC but series such as Mad Men obviously prohibit the inclusion of certain lucrative advertisers - it's unlikely that we'll ever see Don Draper jotting down ideas on his iPad. The network have even had problems getting product placements into their contemporary series. For instance, Microsoft wanted the characters of The Walking Dead to do an internet search using Bing. However, the network were quick to point out that in a post-apocalyptic zombie world, the internet probably wouldn't be around. More on that here.

Anyway, looking forward to reading your post later in the week!  

Terrific note, JP.

I was thinking that Breaking Bad may be the series more distant from that AMC retro style and, perhaps for that reason, it has a larger presence in social networks and "new media".

What do you think about that?

the trend towards nostalgia seems very strong... a lot of the movies of my youth are either being remade or revived as "prequels" and "sequels". and I feel like the same is being done with TV shows. while the zombie and vampire shows and movies are not necessarily "nostalgia", they're still trying to recreate the popularity of these genres from an earlier time. 

I suppose these generations are the ones with money to spend on these things now (not me, I'm a starving grad student), so it makes sense to lure them to movie theaters with the promise of being able to relive their youth while updating that vision into their oldth.

oh and using these new-fangled interwebs things not only make us feel like we're "connected" to the content and characters, but also provides a place for us to display our "expertise", and engage in arguments over accuracy, and misremembered lines and scenes. 

whatever it is, it works. yeah, I forked over money to see Tron: Legacy. sigh. 

wonder when sci fi shows like LOST and Heroes will become popular again?

great post, thank you. 

Rossend, Breaking Bad does seem to be the exception to the rule. Although it isn't retro in the way that Mad Men or even The Walking Dead might be considered to be, it's certainly cinematic and for that reason still fits with the AMC brand. As you note, Breaking Bad has a fairly significant presence on social networking sites but this seems to me to be a case of a general fan-generated buzz rather than a concerted transmedia effort by the network. AMC could conceivably have the characters of Breaking Bad tweet given that it is set in the present. What is interesting is that they don't really seem to have pursued this option - they do have accounts for Hank and Marie Schrader and, although they are endorsed on AMC's website, it's not clear as to how official they are.

Sava, thanks for your comments. Nostalgia certainly seems to have become a more popular television "genre" (if we can even call it that) of late. Although AMC are most associated with this kind of programming, the major networks have really invested heavily this season, producing a number of retro-style/nostalgic series such as Pan Am (ABC) and The Playboy Club (NBC).

First off, Don of all characters recognizes the utility of nostalgia as a selling point.  Never one to dwell in the past (despite Dick's trips to California...), Don uses his kids' photos to demonstrate the appeal of new technology.  He's bringing the past to the future in a way that rejects the idyllicism of the past and positions it as dependent on technology's future.  Only through the ways of the future can we come to understand the past.  One scene in particular comes to mind: when Don is shooting home movies of his kid's birthday party and captures what looks to be a tense scene between two adults.  Home movies are visually the quintessential medium of nostalgia, but here is a memory no one would cherish--a man hitting on someone else's wife (if I'm remembering the scene correctly).  I'm guessing Mad Men, like Don, queues up signifiers of nostalgia (home movies, photos, beautiful vintage clothing) in ways that address the drastic difference between beautiful memories and stark reality, thus pushing us to embrace the present/future.

The Walking Dead also queues up nostalgia through icons of the past (most notably in recent scenes in the farmhouse, up to and including ancient surgery techniques with a well-placed lightbulb), but without the push to the future.  I'll save this analysis for someone more versed in zombie-ese than I am...

Lastly, I think broadcast networks have been selling nostalgia for quite some time but with mixed results: Swingtown, Detroit 187, That 70's Show, Hawaii Five-O, Charlie's Angels, etc.  Theoretically, these types of shows appeal to audiences who see them as the "good old days" or remind them of their childhood, etc. 

I'm not sure that AMC has quite figured out how to use the past to sell the future, even if Mad Men has.

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