In Depth

AMC Pursues a Good Break

‘Breaking Bad’ Is Next Original Bet for Cable Network

“Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston wasn’t sure about doing a show for AMC at first.

Breaking Bad

“I was a little dubious about what AMC wanted to do in the beginning,” said the actor, who was coming off a long and successful run on “Malcolm in the Middle” on Fox.

“I actually had a long conversation with the execs there before I signed on, and I saw the pilot for ‘Mad Men’ and that sold it for me, that they really wanted to make a go of it.”

Several Emmys and Golden Globes later, AMC is set to launch a second season of “Breaking Bad,” its second award-winning original series. AMC is giving the season premiere a lead-in from the network’s debut of “Batman Begins,” a way to leverage the channel’s reputation for big movies while building up its original programming.

Season one of “Breaking Bad,” the tale of a regular guy who is diagnosed with cancer and turns to drug-dealing to support his family, was cut short by the Writers Guild of America strike last year, airing only seven episodes. AMC President and General Manager Charlie Collier is eager to see how a full season will do.

Despite their awards and hype, neither “Mad Men” nor “Breaking Bad” was among cable’s highest-rated original series. But Mr. Collier is pleased with the progress he sees as AMC wades into original programming.

The first season of “Breaking Bad,” with a 0.9 household rating, topped the first season of “Mad Men,” which registered a 0.8, Then season two of “Mad Men” outdid that, drawing a 1.2 rating, a 81% increase from season one. By comparison, last week’s episode of “The Closer” on TNT, a top-rated channel long known for its original programming, drew a 4 household rating.

Overall, AMC ranked 18th among advertising-supported cable nets, with an average of 1.1 million total viewers in primetime during 2008.

“The momentum we created in a short number of series and short amount of time has been incredibly rewarding, not just on the ratings side but on the pop culture relevance side,” Mr. Collier said. “The amount of attention we’re getting in Hollywood both in front of and behind the camera is spectacular.”

Mr. Collier thinks the network has trained more people to look for original programming on AMC, and he hopes the ratings trend continues.

“Frankly, we expect ‘Breaking Bad’ to come back and continue the momentum,” he said.

Mr. Collier believes “Breaking Bad” should have a broad appeal. “The themes to me are as human and relatable as you get. The themes are about the everyman who has got his back against the wall, and certainly I think there are plenty of people in the world right now who are feeling a little down on their luck, feeling like they aren’t making enough money to support their family in the way they want to.”

Both “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” are expensive series to produce, but they appear to be paying off financially. While it’s hard to directly link the performance of a show to its financial results, SNL Kagan estimates that AMC recorded a 58% profit margin in 2008 as revenue grew 15% to $182.9 million and programming costs rose 11% to $147 million. Kagan sees AMC’s profit margins shrinking to 56% in 2009 as ad revenues fall to $180 million, largely due to the overall weakness in the economy.

AMC is doing working hard to get “Breaking Bad” off to a good start, pushing it along with the “Batman Begins” lead-in and a surge of tune-in spots and cross-promotions.

March Badness

The network is planning “March Badness” promotions in which Mr. Cranston and other “Breaking” cast members will host primetime movies on AMC every night in March. That creates an opportunity to urge viewers to tune in to new episodes on Sundays.

Promotional plans include outdoor, print and online elements.

“We’re putting a lot of plans in place, everything from all the traditional spending—which you can note goes a little further in this market and will get us broader reach—to some of the promotional campaigns,” Mr. Collier said.

Despite edgy subject matter—a lead character who is dying of cancer who cooks and deals crystal meth—“Breaking Bad” has attracted some blue-chip advertisers, including Unilever’s Degree antiperspirant, Universal Pictures, Expedia.com, DirecTV, Geico and BMW.

Original programming helps bring added cachet to AMC, says Nicole Romanik, VP and national broadcast at media agency Initiative.

“Advertisers like to be in a place where there are Emmys and Golden Globes,” she said. “When you work on a piece of business, if you buy those cool shows, it’s great for the client, it’s great buzz for them corporately, it’s an exciting experience for them.”

AMC’s original shows also are valuable because they have a younger audience than most of the network’s movies, she said.

“It’s become a whole new value proposition at AMC,” Mr. Collier said.

Unlike last year, this season’s first episodes will not be presented commercial-free.

“I think a lot of people are used to AMC having original series. Most of the focus groups we do now attribute ‘Breaking Bad’ to us,” Mr. Collier said. “There’s a lot of reasons that we will just go with our normal low commercial load.”