The Man Who Turned AMC Into a Creative Empire

Starting with Mad Men

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.)

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.

Speaking of cash, there’s no better way to keep score than by tallying up the legal tender. Per SNL Kagan estimates, AMC in 2012 took in $348.3 million in ad sales revenue, a haul that represents a 150 percent increase from the network’s 2006 take ($139.3 million). AMC remains undervalued on the affiliate front, commanding an average monthly subscriber fee of a quarter per customer. At 98.7 million homes, that amounts to $296.9 million in distribution revenue per year. And while that’s not exactly chump change, it represents a mere 30 percent increase versus the $229.1 million it booked during Collier’s first year at the helm.

AMC Networks president and CEO Josh Sapan has said that the flagship channel should earn a sub fee of at least 75 cents a pop, and Collier says AMC’s upcoming renewals will reflect the exponential improvements made over the past few years. “A lot of the deals we cut in the past were long-term agreements from when we were truly a stand-alone movie network,” Collier says. “Now obviously, just because someone says a number in the press doesn’t mean we flip over and get that number. But the good news is that people have recognized the unique value we offer, and that’s having a positive impact on the sales and affiliate side.”

Creative Comfort Zone
As the creator and showrunner of Mad Men, Matt Weiner has worked with Collier from day one. And while it’s hard to imagine the supremely confident Weiner ever suffering a twinge of self-doubt, he admits he is still somewhat overwhelmed by the series’ success. “No one else really wanted to make the show, so on the one hand, it was a dream come true when AMC said they wanted to pick it up,” Weiner recalls. “But at the same time…I mean, these people had never made a TV show before. The company was owned by a distributor, and Charlie was fresh out of the ad sales business. So who knew what to expect?”

Weiner has had his share of public battles with the network, rows having to do with everything from product placement and spot loads to creative control, but these flare-ups appear to have been confined to the periods during which he was negotiating new contracts with AMC and Lionsgate TV. And while discussing contract disputes and showrunner turnover is clearly not Collier’s cup of chamomile, he argues that any personnel changes “have always been made in the best interests of the show and the audience.”

For what it’s worth, Collier seems to have cordial relationships with Weiner and Breaking Bad creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan, both of whom were involved in contractual intrigues two years ago. And while The Walking Dead in the course of three seasons has weathered the departure of two showrunners (Frank Darabont and Glen Mazzara), the show hasn’t suffered creatively or commercially. (Arguably the strongest hour of this season, the March 3 episode “Clear,” was written by new showrunner Scott Gimple.)

The genial Gilligan says he’s grateful for the opportunities afforded by his association with the network—even if at first blush it didn’t seem like the right outlet for a show about a cancer-stricken wannabe drug lord. “When I first heard from Charlie, Mad Men hadn’t aired,” Gilligan recalls. “My initial reaction was, ‘AMC? You mean the network that always shows Short Circuit 2? Why not send it to the Food Network while we’re at it? It is a show about cooking, after all.’” Gilligan says that he would have shelved the project if Collier hadn’t been so enthusiastic at the prospect of shooting the pilot. “I was ready to move on to the next thing, and he swooped in like a white knight,” Gilligan says, adding that the way AMC has reinvented itself is “a fascinating thing to have watched from close-up.”

If Collier’s switch from selling ad inventory to curating the zeitgeist is an uncommon progression, those who have worked with the 43-year-old in both capacities say they aren’t at all surprised by his career path. “He’s one of the smartest guys in the business, and he’s got the MBA to back it up,” says Michael Kassan, chairman and CEO, MediaLink. “To have the No. 1 show on all of television and the No. 1 upscale show is a testament to his inherent understanding of the market and his instincts as a programmer. If you’re lucky, you get one or the other. Charlie’s got both.”

To say that Collier’s interests are ecumenical is to traffic in understatement. At the moment, he’s rereading Against the Gods, a volume on risk analysis and probability theory populated by degenerate gamblers, mathematicians and chaos theorists. After enthusing about the book for a few minutes, he produces a special Walking Dead-themed issue of Mad magazine. “My favorite part is when the AMC execs give all the terrible notes at the end,” he says, chuckling like a kid as he flips through the pages. “‘How about a friendly zombie sidekick?’ Isn’t that awesome?”