I have been thinking a lot about television network/channel branding lately. Call it a dual byproduct of writing a MA thesis on the topic and the upfronts season, which always brings forth questions about whether or not a series is “right” for whatever it is a network or channel is trying to do. My branding-on-the-brain has carried over to my viewing of certain series, particularly AMC’s The Killing. From there, I started thinking about the AMC brand as a whole and well, you get how those kind of thought processes manifest in one’s mind.
In any event, there’s been a fair amount of discussion over the past year or so about AMC’s place within the cable television arms race. Is it “better” or “more important” than HBO, Showtime and FX? Is it still too young to have raise those kinds of questions? This is what happens when your first two scripted drama series outputs are Mad Men and Breaking Bad, which are most certainly the first and second best series on television, depending on who you ask and which one is airing new episodes. With HBO only recently pulling itself out of that mid-to-late-aughts slump, Showtime continuing to do what it does (i.e. air formulaic, some would say too formulaic programming) and FX trapped somewhere without a marquee series that is also as good as it is popular (Justified is nearly there, though), AMC has made some nice moves that suggest it is actually ready to play with the proverbial big boys of cable television.
And as I was watching last week’s episode of The Killing, I realized that AMC’s branding strategies had completely paid off, and for one major reason: I was watching The Killing. Even though The Killing is part of a narrative form I do not really care for (murder mystery), I have been watching it. Even though The Killing is basically a bone-dry procedural, something else I do not particularly like, I have been watching it. Even though The Killing is executive produced and led by someone who piloted Cold Case, I have been watching it. And most importantly, even though most of the last five or six episodes have been problematic, middling and oftentimes, boring, I have been watching it. In short: I am disregarding many of the things I usually think about television because well gosh, The Killing is an AMC series, so it just has to be good. I know I am not the only one, as I have talked to a few friends and colleagues who are frustrated with The Killing but see the value in sticking around, partially because of the AMC brand.
With The Killing (and to a lesser extent Rubicon), it feels like the narrative moves at a glacier-like pace because “that is what an AMC series does.” We all know that Mad Men is a series that often moves slowly and focuses on long and expertly drawn-out stares, but with The Killing, those elements appear to be there more to fit a house style than serve some narrative or character purpose. I have no problem with series that move slowly and focus almost entirely on character, but The Killing sort of uses those expectations against the viewer. It does what it does, but there lacks a certain logic or purpose to those techniques that makes the series feel hollow.
Although they are more in my personal wheelhouse than The Killing, I would have watched Rubicon and The Walking Dead no matter what, even if I was not someone who wrote about television on a daily basis. Again, some of that has to do with my tastes and interests, but once a network or channel gains my respect with the two best series on the air right now, I find it very easy to trust in their ability to shepherd other new series to the airwaves. Hell, I watched the first episode or two of AMC’s Prisoner remake for this very reason. I remember this phenomenon happening on a regular basis back during HBO’s heyday and it still occurs to this day to some extent. In general, there is an assumption that every HBO series has something we have not seen before and even if the new programs do not start the way we would hope, we are urged by critics to “be patient” and “wait until episode four.” This is all about trust in a reputation.
That trust is starting to, and perhaps is already completely there for AMC. Rubicon started out really rough, but those who stuck with it were arguably rewarded for their patience. Obviously, Rubicon was not financially viable for AMC and it was cancelled, but both The Walking Dead and The Killing had quality ratings numbers that suggest audiences are intrigued and interested in what AMC has to offer. Similarly, the fact that the building Emmy discussions include both The Walking Dead and The Killing also point out that the industry is ready to acknowledge that nearly everything AMC puts out is worthy of awards. We all know that the Emmys are not the most trustworthy in their ability to point out what is the best of the best on television, but the discussions around the awards are at least worth noting.
Of course, these are the sort of benefits that come with intelligent decision-making, especially in the outset of development and branding. AMC’s ability to pick two fantastic initial projects helped create the brand equity it now has, an equity that brings in the viewers for things that might not be remotely as good as Mad Men and Breaking Bad.* I’m not sure that AMC has completely built up enough goodwill with audiences and the industry that it now has carte blanche to make whatever programs it wants, as the fact that they passed on developing any pilots this cycle suggests there is still some maneuvering being made. I think I can say with full confidence that AMC is not on HBO’s level, even current HBO. But perhaps it is getting close and with each of its post-Mad Men/Breaking Bad series having major problems, the advantages that come with that kind of brand equity can be problematic.
*I think no matter your opinion on Rubicon, The Walking Dead or The Killing, it is safe to say none of them is as good as either Mad Men or Breaking Bad.