Tonight’s riveting Breaking Bad finale resolved the fate of all of its main players. Except for one: AMC, the network that the series has left behind. Can it still break good without Breaking Bad?
AMC—owned by AMC Networks, which also runs the Sundance Channel and IFC—is sure to be celebrating its record-breaking ratings for the finale, expected to easily top last week’s episode, which drew a series-high 6.6 million viewers. AMC sold 30-second ads for the finale in the $300,000 to $400,000 range, up from $130,000 to $140,000 in recent episodes—and if you watched the finale, you know there were a lot of ads.
But despite the stellar ratings, AMC is now in the same position HBO found itself after The Sopranos finale aired back in 2007. With no other clear-cut heirs to Tony Soprano’s throne, the network stumbled for a couple years (with poorly-received shows such as John From Cincinnati, Hung and How to Make it in America) before finally bouncing back with hits such as Game of Thrones and critically-acclaimed series such as Girls, Veep, Boardwalk Empire and The Newsroom.
With Breaking Bad now completed and its other media darling, Mad Men, about to start its final season (more on that later), AMC has hit a similar run of bad luck. Yes, it stuck gold with its zombie drama The Walking Dead, which is a blockbuster hit (last season’s finale drew 12.4 million viewers) and returns for its fourth season on Oct. 13. But the other prestige dramas AMC has aired haven’t come close to matching Breaking Bad and Mad Men’s critical influence or ratings.
The Killing started strong and then sputtered creatively. AMC canceled it last year, only to reverse course and renew it in January. And while the third season was a creative improvement, earlier this month the network announced it was a goner. Again. Rubicon lasted only a season. The western, Hell on Wheels, has been banished to Saturdays. Finally, AMC’s newest series, Low Winter Sun, which it paired with Breaking Bad‘s final season and touted in ads as its next great drama, has been a commercial and ratings disappointment.
AMC president and general Charlie Collier knows that he has enormous shoes (and legacies) to fill. “We don’t take the passing of these shows for granted at all,” Collier told The New York Times last month. “To me, HBO still hasn’t replaced The Sopranos. It’s not going to be any easier for us to replace Breaking Bad and Mad Men. But they’re part of our DNA forever.”
A few weeks later, Collier made it clear that “forever” wasn’t just a figure of speech. AMC revealed a new strategy, which it might as well have dubbed “AMC Classic: hey viewers, you loved these shows before, now get ready to love them again!” On Sept. 11, he announced a deal to develop a Breaking Bad prequel called Better Call Saul, centered around Bad’s criminal lawyer Saul Goodman (played by Bob Odenkirk). Five days later, AMC announced a Walking Dead spinoff that Collier called “literally a no-brainer.” And the following day, the network revealed that the final season of Mad Men, originally slated to air early next year, will instead be divided in two seven-episode segments: the first airing in spring 2014, the second half not unspooling until spring 2015, which will keep Mad Men on the air—and in the various awards races—for two more years.
Critics derided the Mad Men move, and even the show’s creator Matthew Weiner admitted he wasn’t happy about his show’s sudden long goodbye. “It’s a strategy from the network and I was told about it,” he told the Hollywood Reporter a few days after the announcement. “I found a way to work with it. That’s all I can say.”
Despite its abrupt everything-old-is-new-again approach to its programming slate, AMC is still hoping that some original ideas also catch on with audiences. It has 67 projects in development, with two new shows set to debut next year: Halt and Catch Fire, focusing on computer pioneers in the 1980s, and Turn, about spies in the American Revolution. AMC is also filming a pilot for Line of Sight, starring Walking Dead villain David Morrissey as a National Transportation Safety Board investigator for the who survives a peculiar plane crash.
Can any of these new shows break through with audiences (and Emmy voters) and prove that there’s life after Breaking Bad? The network’s future, and reputation, lies in the balance. “I would love to say there’s no pressure,” AMC original programming VP Joel Stillerman told the Times, “but that would be a lie.”