As Charlie Collier, president, gm of AMC, makes the rounds during this year's upfronts, one question keeps popping up over and over again: "What do you have for me now?" While it's a typical upfront query, the question has taken on an added urgency as AMC looks ahead to life without Mad Men, the series that put the network on the map—establishing it as a home for quality drama that rivaled anything on premium cable—when it debuted in July 2007.
Yet Collier has no concerns about losing momentum after Mad Men airs its series finale on May 17. "It's a welcome question because AMC's never been stronger, both in terms of critical acclaim and ratings," said Collier. "It feels really good."
In other words, AMC will avoid the pitfalls that have plagued other networks who lose their signature shows. When The Sopranos signed off in 2007 (a month before Mad Men's debut), HBO flailed for years with mediocre offerings like Tell Me You Love Me and Hung, until Game of Thrones, Girls and Veep finally righted the ship starting in 2011.
In contrast, AMC has TV's most popular series in adults 18-49 to fall back on: The Walking Dead, which averaged 9.4 million viewers in that demo this season. Thanks to Walking Dead and its popular postshow, Talking Dead, AMC was the No. 1 cable network in February in adults (and men) 18-49 and 18-34.
Even better, as Walking Dead follows the blueprint of Robert Kirkman's comic book series, it already has stories banked for seasons to come. "How many other guys can say, 'Wow, we've got the hottest show in town, and it's already written for the next four years?'" said Maxim Group analyst John Tinker. "That takes away some of those pressures."
As does the arrival earlier this year of critically acclaimed Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul, which became the next prestige drama AMC had been searching for. Though Collier says he's "equally proud" of lesser performers Turn (now called Turn: Washington's Spies) and Halt and Catch Fire, which help fulfill AMC's "eclectic by design" mission, Better Call Saul gave AMC some much needed critical cachet that helps cushion Mad Men's loss.
Drawing 3.7 million viewers 18-49 in live-plus-3 during Season 1, Saul also enabled AMC to expand its original programming to a third night, Mondays (most of its shows air on Sundays, but western Hell on Wheels has turned into a solid Saturday entry for fans of AMC's western movies). "We'll expand original nights beyond that, that's what we're talking about with advertisers during the upfronts," said Collier. "So you'll see Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Saturday."
Collier hopes spinoff lightning will strike twice when AMC's upcoming Walking Dead companion series, Fear the Walking Dead, debuts in late summer. Set in Los Angeles with new characters and storylines, its six-episode first season (the series has already been renewed for Season 2) will lead in to The Walking Dead's return this fall.
The network's biggest challenge will be to nurture Fear without damaging its ratings golden goose. "When Better Call Saul came out, Breaking Bad had already ended. Walking Dead is not ending for years, so you've got a show that you do not want to taint. The spinoff has to be totally credible," warned Tinker.
Meanwhile, AMC has more in the pipeline than just spinoffs. There's The Making of the Mob: New York, an eight-part docuseries premiering in June that chronicles history's most famous mob stories, with martial arts drama Into the Badlands arriving later this year. Collier seems most thrilled about the network's "phenomenal" artificial intelligence drama Humans, which stars William Hurt and debuts in June. "I'm hoping we can capture the imagination of people on that one," he said. "It's going to be very exciting."