The 2013-14 Upfront

The Man Who Turned AMC Into a Creative Empire

Starting with Mad Men

On the Docket
With a night of unscripted programming to shill and three new scripted projects in various stages of development, AMC on April 17 will hold its first formal upfront presentation in New York. Not only has AMC reached critical mass in terms of the original hours it now programs, but it also boasts a portfolio that allows it to secure some of TV’s highest unit rates.

“We’re building originals that target engaged audiences, and if we build this properly and we do it at a level of quality…then we’ll see the buyers come and treat us like broadcast,” Collier says. “In certain cases the prices we’re getting are among the best on TV.”

Of the trio of scripted dramas in the works, the furthest along is Low Winter Sun. An adaptation of the Scottish miniseries of the same title, the AMC pilot adheres to the original story line. When the Iago-like Detroit police detective Joe Geddes (The Walking Dead’s Lennie James) convinces fellow flatfoot Frank Agnew (Mark Strong, reprising his original role in his first American TV performance) to murder a third cop, Internal Affairs starts sniffing around. As the noose tightens, Agnew is dragged ever deeper into the Motor City underworld.

A bleak, unsparing vision of urban blight and moral bankruptcy, Low Winter Sun shares more than a few strands of thematic DNA with the antihero epic Breaking Bad. At the same time, the new show is the stylistic antithesis of the photochemically irradiated Breaking Bad. Shot in a dour palette of browns and greens and grays, Low Winter’s Detroit is as dank and inhospitable a setting as we’ve seen since AMC uncorked its Seattle-based mystery, The Killing.

While Low Winter Sun marks AMC’s first foray into precinct drama, Collier insists the show isn’t a CBS-style procedural. “It’s set in the police world, but it’s by no means a cop drama,” Collier says. “The theme here is second chances. But as you peel back the layers of the onion—of these people and this city—you’ve got a pretty resonant story that is unlike anything on TV right now.”

The first of Low Winter Sun’s 10 episodes is likely to bow to a captive audience, as AMC plans to premiere the show immediately following the series finale of Breaking Bad. If the network sticks to the standard Breaking Bad timetable, Low Winter should arrive at the tail end of this summer.

Also in development is Turn, a drama pilot based on the 2006 book Washington’s Spies, a chronicle about the covert operations and code breaking that helped America prevail in the Revolutionary War. An AMC Studios production, Turn was written by showrunner Craig Silverstein (Nikita) and executive produced by Barry Josephson (Bones).

A more contemporary project in development is Halt & Catch Fire, a chronicle of the 1980s personal computer boom from Breaking Bad executive producer Mark Johnson. Set in Texas’ “Silicon Prairie” in the early 1980s, Halt & Catch Fire—geek speak for code that effectively causes a computer’s CPU to self-destruct—is the story of the visionaries who took on the mainframe-computing monoliths like IBM.

While neither pilot is as high-concept as, say, Breaking Bad (“Mr. Chips becomes Scarface”) or The Walking Dead (“Uh oh: Zombies”), Collier says he’s less interested in satisfying genre conventions than presenting the most compelling stories he can unearth.

“We are relatively deliberate in the choices we make,” Collier says. “I mean, every single pilot we’ve made has gone to air, and while that’s a track record that can’t continue, we’ll take it as long as it goes.”

Winning at the Numbers Game
Since Mad Men ushered in the era of Event TV at AMC, the network has amassed some serious hardware. The lobby of Collier’s Herald Square office is dominated by a wall of flatscreen plasma displays, a clutch of low-slung chairs from which it is nearly impossible to extricate oneself and a glass cabinet showcasing a severed zombie head and seven Emmy statuettes.

There are far more salient figures to consider when assessing Collier’s impact on the network. For example, AMC closed out March with an average prime-time draw of 852,000 adults 18-49, making it cable’s No. 5 network in the dollar demo. Since July 2007, when the stylized Don Draper figure first took a dizzying dive from his office window (only to land safely on a davenport, cigarette in hand), AMC has improved its deliveries by 79 percent. Though overall ratings trail its sibling dramas, Mad Men now boasts the most favorable composition of upscale viewers, with more than half (53 percent) of its target demo raking in $100,000 or more per annum.

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