The Mad-ness of Precarious Programming?

April 5, 2011
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Occasionally media industry contract negotiations spill over into popular press coverage, allowing anyone to briefly feel as if they have accessed insider knowledge of deal making in the world of entertainment.  Such was the case last week as negotiations over the future of Mad Men were culminating between showrunner Matthew Weiner, the studio Lionsgate, and the cable channel AMC.  While undoubtedly a negotiation ploy more than a privileged insight into the workings of cultural production (and ultimately resolved in favor of something closely resembling the status quo), something about the terms of debate nonetheless struck me as hinting at the prophetic.

AMC was reportedly demanding that future episodes of Mad Men run several minutes shorter to make room for more advertisements, that more explicit product integration be accommodated, and that per-episode costs be reduced by eliminating some cast members.  Mad Men is a program narratively set in an advertising agency.  It has been used by AMC as a fulcrum in the cable channel’s attempts to transition from an exclusively carriage-fee to an increasingly advertiser-based revenue stream.  So these demands are not surprising.

On the other hand, Mad Men signals for AMC the switch from “classic” movie programming to a growing palette of well publicized and critically well received original productions.  Mad Men‘s first four seasons have garnered vast acclaim, won multiple awards, attracted new (and slightly younger) viewers, and put AMC on Madison Avenue’s map.  One might say it has successfully made over AMC, producing a newly identifiable and desirable brand (for advertisers and certain viewers).  So the fact that a settlement was ultimately reached and Mad Men will have three more seasons (albeit with “contained” budgets, two-minute-shorter episodes, and more prominent product placement) is also not surprising.

What would have been surprising would have been if AMC had refused to renew the program and simply cancelled the show absent its demands being met.  But here’s the thing:  it would have been surprising, but no longer unthinkable.

At one time a network might have been grateful or felt indebted or at least tried to maintain the tent pole foisted by such an important show for as long as possible (think of NBC’s outrageous offerings to Warner Bros to keep ER and Friends on the air in the 1990s).  Things have changed.  It is no longer impossible to imagine that AMC might move on, leaving its signature show behind.  As it is, new episodes will not be seen until March 2012, 14 or 15 months after the most recent episode.  AMC has 4 other new shows to debut this year.  And Mad Men has never had stellar ratings.  It is not even currently the highest rated show on AMC (The Walking Dead has it beat).  Most important, however, it comes down to this:  so far as AMC is concerned, the show’s work is done.  AMC is now an established presence in original programming and advertising.  Thank you very much.

Mad Men meanwhile finds itself in an increasingly common position for primetime programming, one of indeterminate value.  To remain valuable to AMC—and thus worth renewing—Mad Men must remain difficult to see anywhere else and at least a bit less desirable to view after AMC shows it.  That is it must circulate in an economy of scarcity with transient (i.e. diminishing) value.  Thus only clips and promotional footage are legally streamable online, with full episodes restricted to AMC, then for sale on iTunes and months later DVD.  At the same time, however, for Mad Men to put AMC on the map, generate buzz and audiences, attract hip advertisers, and for that matter produce an afterlife—generating both residuals and brand new revenue for its producers beyond AMC, it has to maintain its value and be readily accessible everywhere viewers go.  In other words in addition to being scarce and transient it must also be durable and ubiquitous.  That is why you can Mad Men Yourself, follow people pretending to be characters on Twitter, have bought Barbie Dolls, Banana Republic apparel, DVDs, books, music and many other Mad Men products, and why Weiner went to the fansite “Basket of Kisses” during contract negotiations: maintenance of a vigorous afterlife.

As viewing practices change and the television industry adapts to new economics, even successful programs—much like the labor they employ—are finding their value uncertain, caught between competing and incompatible economies of circulation: scarcity and ubiquity, transience and durability.  While Mad Men‘s future has now been determined, the next successful show’s renewal negotiations are all the more precarious.  Meanwhile, over the final three seasons, Daily Variety suggests that the cast and crew—even “topliners”—are unlikely to receive large raises for their efforts on this hit show, which operates now with “an understanding that producers will have to be creative and judicious with the cast budget going forward.” AMC on the other hand continues its rewarding institutional makeover and Matthew Weiner is set to receive $30 million.


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One Response to “ The Mad-ness of Precarious Programming? ”

  1. Derek Kompare on April 5, 2011 at 5:03 PM

    Excellent points about MM’s diminishing value to AMC, and its attempts to maintain its value. It reminds of me of this piece on why HBO’s days are numbered. If ubiquity is becoming a default expectation, than platforms premised on exclusive access are in real trouble.

    However, as someone going through cable-cutting (in all honesty made easier by the lack of Mad Men in coming months), I can report that navigating all these non-cable/satellite platforms for all the content you want is pretty daunting. Hulu+ streams to my PS3…but has no CBS. CBS streams on its own site, and is available on both iTunes and Amazon…but does not stream to my TV or PS3. Cable networks typically keep their programs bottled up tight (as you point out), but streaming, e.g., via Netflix, can offer riches of past seasons, if you don’t mind not being up to date (and really, who is these days, anyway?).