Tuned In

Walking Dead?; or, Can AMC Afford to Budget-Cut Its Way to Success?

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The Hollywood Reporter has a couple of interesting news items about AMC network right now. The first is a short news brief from this morning, reporting that AMC—the cable group including IFC, Sundance, WE and AMC network itself—showed a higher profit in its first quarter as an independent company, with both profit and revenue up from a year ago.

The other is a long and juicy Kim Masters investigation into the ouster of Frank Darabont as showrunner of The Walking Dead, which puts pretty plainly that AMC is trying to squeeze as many pennies as possible from the budget of what is by far its best-rated show.

I recommend reading the whole thing, but in a nutshell, the piece charges that AMC fired Darabont, suddenly and hamfistedly, scant days after sending him out to promote the show at Comic-Con; that it has squeezed the budget on Walking Dead by $650,000 an episode from its first season; and that it has strongarmed the cast from speaking out in Darabont’s defense. (“They’re on a zombie show. They are all really easy to kill off.”)

As has been pointed out before, it’s been a year of trouble for AMC, which has had public budget squabbles over Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. (Not to mention fan complaints over the finale of The Killing, which was at least a creative and not a financial controversy.) And this latest dustup points up a bizarre pattern: it seems almost as if AMC is compensating its shows in inverse proportion to their ratings. Mad Men, with huge critical acclaim, but low ratings, came back with very few budgetary concessions and a $30 million deal for creator Matthew Weiner. Then the higher-rated Breaking Bad broke into the news with reports that AMC was considering an abbreviated final season for it to save money. And now it seems the squeeze is really coming down on Walking Dead, one of the biggest hits on basic cable.

The simple explanation is that AMC is trying to clamp down on The Walking Dead because it can. Unlike Mad Men and Breaking Bad (from Lionsgate and Sony studios), The Walking Dead is owned by AMC, meaning not only that the network claims a greater share of risk and reward but that it doesn’t have a third party fighting it on budget cuts. And much as I love Mad Men, let’s be frank: I don’t blame Matthew Weiner for trying to get as much for himself and his show as he could—he’s not in the charity business any more than AMC—but by getting to the AMC piggy bank first, Don Draper and company only upped the apparent pressure on AMC to cut costs.

Should there be that much pressure at all, at a network that to outward appearances has had spectacular success in just a few years? AMC is competing on HBO’s ground in terms of Emmys and buzz; but it does not have anything like HBO’s billion-plus programming budget, and it has to get by on ads and relatively paltry carriage fees, not subscriber ducats. (The often-unspoken question behind much of the coverage of AMC’s rise since 2007 has been: how exactly can they afford to do this?)

But the network is now raising a question that sounds like the national budget debate: can it cut its way into prosperity? As today’s report shows, AMC the company is still making money. And AMC the network’s entire business strategy depends on being seen as a home for high-quality drama—like it or not, it can’t just put on six Real Housewives and call it a day. The network, if its management is at all competent, must know that it’s gathering more and more negative buzz; if Walking Dead has an off-season and the narrative becomes that it happened because AMC cheaped out and fired Darabont, the perceptions could turn around even farther. And the intangible perception of quality has been key to AMC’s tangible success the last four years.

Of course, perceptions can be turned back around too. But as the network of zombies must know, even if it’s possible to rise from the dead, it’s much preferable simply to stay alive in the first place.