Joshua Sapan


This article originally appeared in the MIPCOM 2011 issue of World Screen.
Home to some of the most critically acclaimed and innovative series on television, including three-time Emmy Award winner for best drama,
Mad Men, the U.S. cable channel AMC has become a preferred destination for millions of viewers. AMC, along with WE tv, Sundance Channel and IFC, is part of AMC Networks, headed by Joshua Sapan, who has used original programming and on-demand offerings to transform his company.
WS: How has original programming changed the game for your portfolio of channels, in particular for AMC?
SAPAN: Our overall approach has been to add original programming to what were historically movie channels. It’s designed to give a greater perception of differentiation and propriety in the minds of consumers, to make the brands more distinctive in a world in which it’s increasingly challenging to be distinctive, and to ultimately have greater control over our destiny—inasmuch as we have greater control over those shows.
AMC has had the most transformative quality from what earlier was a classic movie channel. Its original programming set out to add differentiation, define the brand, increase our audience and our perception among our commercial constituents. We began favorably with Mad Men and followed it with Breaking Bad, now in its fourth season, and it’s actually having higher ratings than we’d experienced and a tremendous critical reception. Along the way we added more series, including The Walking Dead, which is the highest-rated series on our air by far, and it, too, is coming back in the fall. There is also a series called The Killing, adapted from the wildly successful Danish television series Forbrydelsen. And we have a series that is shooting right now, for which we have very high hopes, called Hell on Wheels. It’s about the building of the transcontinental railroad. What all those shows have in common is that they are cinematic-like. I hope they really do reflect the reverence that we have for the writing and the artistry that is now manifest on TV, oftentimes to a greater extent than it is in the world of commercial film. We have had the good fortune of striking a responsive chord with consumers and with every other group that we deal with, so it’s had a very beneficial effect and has transformed the perception of AMC.
WS: From a business perspective, how has Mad Men improved your relationship with advertisers and with cable operators?
SAPAN: Very beneficially so. If there are imperatives in the world of television, they are normally found in the world of sports and great events. But there are certain dramas or TV shows that move into the spectrum of imperative—they are must-have shows. Mad Men is a must-have because of its cultural resonance and watercooler effect. It has made the channel much more valuable for cable operators, because as they carry it, they become imperative. That is very good news. Mad Men’s quality also creates an imperative because it has the effect of elevating what people think of television.
On the advertising side, Mad Men has been great for us. It has actually allowed us to increase our advertising presence and be a much better and more valuable vehicle, which has rewarded us in advertising dollars, both in volume and in price. Mad Men, along with the other shows, has really made AMC a truly more potent place to be if you are an advertiser and want to make your products move from the shelves or from the showroom. We found that our share and volume of dollars and our diversity of advertisers, because of Mad Men and these shows, have put us in a very different economic position. That is important for us because it has allowed us to fund and fuel our increase in original programming.
WS: What have you learned over the years about how viewers use on-demand?
SAPAN: If we first look at cable on demand, which is content on a cable system that subscribers can access, what you see in statistics from cable operators is that the use of on-demand as opposed to linear viewing increases by the day. And for all the obvious reasons, it’s there when you want it. I think that trend will only continue, but it’s probably seen, in terms of its impact, more broadly and more completely when one looks at DVRs and TV Everywhere as components of on-demand, because a seismic shift is taking place. You particularly see it among younger people. The trend is moving away from linear schedules—television when it’s assigned—toward television when you want it. And I think that the next generation will view TV a lot more in terms of timing and time frame, like they view the web. That is to say they won’t first think when it’s on, they will first think of when they want it and make an assumption that it will be there when they want it. Linear television scheduling is still important today in terms of the economic construct, but in the broader mix of DVRs and authentication and multiplatform—with the exception of live events—it will increasingly become a less important construct.
WS: But aren’t linear channels very important in creating the brands for the shows they are associated with?
SAPAN: Linear channels do create importance for the brand. The fact that they may be resident on a server and available at one’s desire doesn’t mean they don’t help create a brand. A brand could be a collection of shows that are available today on linear but also available on demand. Let’s take an extreme example, if AMC were only on demand and people wanted to watch their five favorite shows. If they knew that they were an AMC body of work and they accessed them that way, then we would still have the brand benefit.
WS: What is your relationship with Netflix and other over-the-top services?
SAPAN: It’s an emerging part of our lives, and we think that the story is not yet told about how compatibility will be achieved between cable programmers and our distributors from whom we derive our lifeblood. Historically television has had what’s commonly called syndication. There has been a substantial period of delay between when a show first airs and when it airs in a subsequent means of distribution. In the past, syndication meant TV stations. We think there is a place for Internet-delivered video—I would use that word as opposed to “over-the-top services.” We think that compatibility between cable programmers like us and these services will be derived by being very careful about time frames and making certain that the subsequent or ancillary distribution—as has been the case with DVDs and syndication in the past—does not encroach upon what is often referred to as the ecosystem. This ecosystem has been very beneficial to us and has allowed us to fund our programming. So we do not want to see it diminished and we will operate with great care. Care has to do with pricing; we will not put our material on the web for free as many others do, and we never have. And when we deal with Internet-delivered paid-for video systems, timing and pricing need to be handled very carefully.
WS: If you do release your programming to Internet-delivered services, do you wait till the show is off the air or do you sometimes offer episodes while the show is still on the air?
SAPAN: We actually don’t have a [generic] answer. We think that the show likely dictates the answer. However, preserving the timeliness of a show on our cable and satellite outlets, so that the only place to see a given show is when it’s in its current distribution on cable or satellite for that season, is at least a fundamental guideline. So the principal of newness, freshness and revelation should be preserved for the primary outlet.
WS: What’s next for AMC Networks?
SAPAN: Our initiative into original programming is not very old, so we’d like to think we are at the beginning of it. If we look at our channels, WE tv, Sundance Channel and IFC, we think that there are great opportunities for development and great opportunities to increase the importance of their imprint with shows, and we are quite pleased by that. We are also very interested in our international initiatives. We currently have AMC distributed in Canada and WE tv and Sundance Channel in Europe and Asia. That is going very well. The opportunities for us to be distributed globally are important because they make the brands global, they increase our base and our footprint and they also increase the opportunity for us to produce material not only for our domestic platforms but for international platforms as well. That playbook has been well established by others and it is a very important initiative.