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The 2013-14 Upfront

The Man Who Turned AMC Into a Creative Empire

Starting with Mad Men

Photos: Jeremy Goldberg

Because he is the president of the network and because Jon Hamm has momentarily stepped out to take a call while a photographer adjusts the lighting, Charlie Collier is allowing himself a quick peek at the contents of Don Draper’s desk. As with seemingly every piece of office equipment that was manufactured in the United States in the late 1960s—the sturdy Bakelite telephones, the locomotive-shaped Swingline staplers, the cigarette machines with the plastic knobs that retract with the force of a pinball machine’s spring launcher—there’s an inherent physicality to the drawer that must be negotiated before the desk gives up its secrets, a certain sturdy resistance to be overcome.

Inside the drawer are expense reports for the account executives at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The forms have been filled out meticulously, documenting boozy lunches at Italian Pavilion and the usual run of taxi fares and dinner tabs. Each bears the signatures of Don Draper and Joan Harris.

A second drawer is filled with office stationery. “I’m sitting there in Don’s chair and there’s all this ‘From the desk of…’ letterhead,” Collier marvels. “I mean, it’s buried in the drawers! In the drawers! Never to be seen! That’s the degree of detail that’s at work in the show.”

In a series that is constantly interrogating the notion of authenticity, the only ersatz touches you’ll find on the Mad Men set are the liquor (water and food coloring), the cigarettes (herbal) and the telephone numbers, although even those unseen digits are rendered with an eye toward period detail. In keeping with the old naming convention for exchange codes, every prop phone bears a “KLondike5” at the center of its dial, which translates to the prank call-thwarting TV standby, “555.”

Now in its sixth cycle (the season premiere aired April 7), Mad Men bestowed instant credibility—if not always the ratings—upon the network formerly known as American Movie Classics when it bowed in July 2007. In so doing, it allowed Collier to transform himself from an ad sales wunderkind to one of TV’s pre-eminent programming executives.

Since then, AMC has rolled out five original dramas, six unscripted efforts and a miniseries. Among its most notable shows are the seven-time Emmy Award-winning Breaking Bad and television’s top-rated series in the all-important 18-49 demo, the glum and gory zombie apocalypse strip The Walking Dead.

The March 31 Season 3 finale of The Walking Dead scared up a record 12.4 million viewers, of which a tidy 65 percent were members of the dollar demo. Dead’s 6.4 rating demolished everything in its path. When the dust settled, the third season averaged a 5.6 in the demo, putting it out of reach of top-rated broadcast series like CBS’ The Big Bang Theory (5.4) and NBC’s The Voice (4.4).

These garish deliveries, mind you, are being driven by a show about ambulatory corpses with a yen for the other other white meat. And while Dead star Andrew Lincoln likes to characterize the show as “a family drama set in Hell,” one has to imagine that the core audience is more taken with the zombies than it is the humans. (One of the things that is particularly satisfying about The Walking Dead is that sooner or later the most annoying people—lookin’ at you, Lori—die spectacularly awful deaths.)

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