Cable networks will save themselves by focusing on what they do best

It’s time for AMC to refocus with shows like “The Walking Dead.”
It’s time for AMC to refocus with shows like “The Walking Dead.”
Image: AP Photo/AMC, Gene Page
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Cable networks are learning the hard way: the best way to thrive is by sticking with what they do best, not expanding their palette.

Last week, AMC announced it was backing away from unscripted programming, and canceling almost its entire reality slate. That same day, USA abandoned its plans to expand into original comedy, and decided instead to refocus on drama. Those surprising moves were in part explained by a Wall Street Journal report that the US top 40 most widely distributed cable channels in 2010—USA and AMC included—have lost an average of 3.2 million subscribers, or more than 3% of their distribution, during the last four years, as consumers have starting “shaving the cord” by opting for smaller, cheaper bundles of channels.

Intent on not being shaved out of existence, networks are refocusing on keeping their core audiences happy, rather than trying and attract new viewers. “In an environment of exploding content options for viewers,” AMC said in explaining its decision, “we have decided to make scripted programming our priority.”

Both USA and AMC have enjoyed great success over the past several years with original dramas (Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Walking Dead for AMC; Burn Notice and White Collar for USA). But, eager to draw more viewers, both began pushing into other genres, whether they made ideological sense or not. An AMC executive told me back in 2012 that the network decided it needed to emulate the success that other networks had with unscripted programming, which is considerably cheaper to make than Mad Men and Breaking Bad. “It’s a risk,” he admitted. “But we have to try.”

Unlike broadcast networks, which routinely deliver a mix of drama, comedy and reality programming to viewers, these cable networks are learning that they can’t be all things to all people. Especially with consumers gravitating to smaller cable bundles, USA and AMC need to be defined by what they do best, not what they’re doing second-best.

That helps explain the sudden about-face for both networks, which just months earlier were trumpeting their respective moves. In May, AMC crowed about its upcoming unscripted slate: “These three new series represent AMC’s continuing push to find truly original ideas and explore fascinating worlds,” Eliot Goldberg, AMC’s senior vice president of unscripted programming (a position that doesn’t seem like it will exist for much longer) said at the time. Meanwhile, back in January, USA Network President Chris McCumber was enthusiastic about using USA’s syndicated episodes of Modern Family to help launch original comedies, vowing that the network would be in the comedy game for the long haul. “Comedy is tough. You have to have patience,” McCumber told me. “We have a lot on our plate right now, and it’s really, really exciting.”

In both cases, the networks damaged their core business by taking their eye off the ball. USA hasn’t launched a successful drama since 2011’s Suits (its dramas that have made it to a second season, Graceland and Satisfaction, have had middling ratings). And yes, AMC still has a gargantuan hit in The Walking Dead, which returned Oct. 12 with its most watched episode yet: 17.3 million viewers, a figure AMC estimates will jump to 22 million after time-shifted playback is factored in, which would make it the most-watched original series episode in cable TV history. But AMC hasn’t come up with anything close to a critical or commercial hit since Walking premiered in 2010, which is why a lot rides on its spinoffs of Breaking BadBetter Call Saul, in early 2015—and, yes, The Walking Dead.

At the same time, AMC’s reality shows have also been diluting its stellar reputation. While promoting his low-rated series 4th and Loud in July, Kiss band member Paul Stanley told reporters, “The fact that we are with AMC gives us such an advantage because it puts us in a completely different realm than most people would expect. So perception means that we are quality, we are with winners.” But that goes the other way too: those reality shows—about taxidermy, competitive arm wrestling and an Arena Football League team owned by two members of the band Kiss—weren’t quality, which sullied the AMC brand far more than it helped Stanley.

AMC and USA’s sudden retrenching should also be a red flag for E! and Bravo, two reality-heavy networks that are also trying to move beyond their core programming and branch into scripted series for the first time. Or even for Netflix, which will be debuting a talk show with Chelsea Handler in 2016 even though it’s unclear whether the genre will be compatible with the streaming service (has anyone ever binge-watched a talk show?).

After all, audiences have already spoken: they want their cable networks to start acting like cable networks again, not broadcast ones.