[Editor’s note: This interview was conducted by our good friend Michael Schneider for the print edition of TV Guide. We are indebted to Michael and the print edition of TV Guide for allowing us to run this important interview in full.]
By Michael Schneider
AMC is coming off another banner year, having ended 2013 as a top 10 cable network, averaging 1.4 million viewers in primetime — up 18% from the year before. "The Walking Dead" led that growth, as the most-watched program in all of cable, while "Breaking Bad" impressed in its final hurrah.
Of course, the channel also faced a few challenges: "Low Winter Sun" was canceled after one season, and AMC engineered another showrunner change on "The Walking Dead" while facing a legal challenge from the smash hit’s original developer, Frank Darabont.
Looking ahead one year, AMC is preparing for the conclusion of its original hit "Mad Men." But for now, AMC President Charlie Collier and original programming head Joel Stillerman are bullish on the channel’s upcoming prospects, including new series "Turn" (about spies during the Revolutionary War) and "Halt & Catch Fire" (the computer industry in the 1980s, starring Lee Pace). Collier and Stillerman spoke with TV Guide Magazine about those new shows; the status of its "Breaking Bad" and "The Walking Dead" spinoffs; how "The Killing" lives on even after AMC put a bullet in it; and more.
TV Guide Magazine: How would you describe 2013 for AMC?
Charlie Collier: It was a good year for us. It’s exactly the same stuff we were talking about seven years ago. Wanting to be eclectic by design.
Joel Stillerman: I feel a ton of momentum on the development side. Two pilots that both got picked up to series ("Turn" and "Halt & Catch Fire"), and that’s the first time that happened. Our pilot "Line of Sight" (starring David Morrissey) is in the can and really good. No decision yet on a series order. But it’s a very solid pilot. "Knifeman" (about an 18th century London surgeon) and "Galyntine" (a post-apocalyptic thriller) made it an epic year for us in terms of commitments and development. All of them highly original, there’s some cool television in there.
TV Guide Magazine: Why two series orders at once? Have the economics changed?
Collier: We have yet to make a pilot that didn’t go to series. You want to be able to make the things that you nurtured and set out to make. When we saw (the "Turn" and "Halt" pilots), we wanted to make both of them for all the right creative reasons.
Stillerman: The baseline going in has been, if we love them both, we’ll make them both. It’s not a guiding principle, not something we’re trying to do.
TV Guide Magazine: Why move "Hell on Wheels" to Saturday?
Collier: We put it behind the movies that people have been watching for 30 years on our air, Westerns on Saturday. We thought we could support it better there. And it worked. (AMC renewed the show for a fourth season.)
TV Guide Magazine: What about your next batch of pilot orders?
Stillerman: A potential decision on pilots may come in the next 6-8 weeks, after we do our usual battery of tests.
TV Guide Magazine: How are things going with "Better Call Saul"?
Stillerman: There’s not much to say, but they just opened the writers room and (co-creators) Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould and a few of the "Breaking Bad" alumni are in there as well, so there’s some continuity. Vince is trying to embrace a new tone for dramas. Obviously Saul is an inherently hilarious character, but we talk a lot about how Bob Odenkirk is just so great and unexpected in "Nebraska." He’s playing a drama role with so much emotion and so much depth. Dramatically there are a lot of things they can do with that character that will break your heart, but comedy-wise it’s also so rich.
Collier: We’ve had a lot of questions about spinoffs. If Vince Gilligan says he wants to do something, you say, "I’m in," because it’s Vince Gilligan. If you have Robert Kirkman saying he wants to explore what else is going on in the zombie apocalypse, you say, "That’s phenomenal." It’s a special moment to see them start again and be so engaged.
TV Guide Magazine: So where do things stand on the "Walking Dead" spinoff?
Collier: It’s in the early phases. Robert Kirkman and Gale Anne Hurd are trying to figure out what the driving values are for the show. The bar that they have set for themselves is high. They want to make sure they protect the mother ship. And then they’re trying to get looked at this world. They’re sweating the details.
TV Guide Magazine: Speaking of "The Walking Dead," you’re now on your third showrunner, but Scott Gimple will be back for season five. Is he a keeper?
Stillerman: He has done a terrific job. He has taken that show to a place we always knew it could get to in terms of the quality of the character storytelling. But equally important, he’s been a total pro to work with and won the support of everyone on that team from the cast to the writer’s room to the lengthy list of executive producers. He has the momentum behind him. I think he oversaw the writing of a great season. The show got to a place we’re all happy about. It really needed to become as good as it could be in character storytelling. It didn’t have that kind of structure in the earlier seasons; it was a little more episodic. This is a little more novelistic.
TV Guide Magazine: Can you address original developer Frank Darabont’s recent legal complaint?
Collier: It’s in active litigation and we can’t comment.
TV Guide Magazine: How do you fill the "Mad Men" void once it goes away?
Collier: The "what’s next" question is something we’ve been answering since we started. We’ve got "Halt and Catch Fire" and "Turn." They are truly not like anything else we have on our air and big original swings that we hope connect. We don’t try to replace "Mad Men."
Stillerman: If you look at "Turn," the role that spying and revolution play is on the front page of newspapers all over the world right now. And for "Halt," the role that tech is playing in our lives is a totally relevant and fascinating premise.
TV Guide Magazine: Would you rule out the possibility of a "Mad Men" spinoff?
Collier: Anything would have to be creator driven. If Matt Weiner came to you and said he had an idea, wouldn’t you pay attention?
TV Guide Magazine: Why didn’t "Low Winter Sun" work?
Stillerman: We didn’t feel like it connected in the way we really needed it to. It was a tough decision for us and we waited for all the data to come in.
TV Guide Magazine: Can you believe that "The Killing" will come back one more time, but for Netflix?
Collier: There is a passionate core audience for that show that Netflix is seeing as well. For us, it was a passionate audience but was it big enough? The trick is, what do you learn from it?
TV Guide Magazine: What did you learn, especially after the viewer outcry when the murder mystery wasn’t resolved at the end of Season 1?
Stillerman: We have to be on the top of our game with how we manage the audience’s expectations. No one knows if the history of that show would be different had the outcome been different.
Collier: You see a lot of that learning in how we brought the conclusion of "Breaking Bad." Because we really started to think, OK, what do people really want, how do we give them access to the show, what is the best way to set expectatio
TV Guide Magazine: Netflix took a lot of credit for "Breaking Bad’s" final season success. What’s your relationship like?
Collier: It’s been an interesting relationship for us that has allowed us to really double down and commit to scripted drama in a way that I’m proud of. A year (after our run) they get the show and it creates a reason to reintroduce the show to new people.
TV Guide Magazine: You have a new head of reality (Eliot Goldberg); how’s that genre going for AMC?
Stillerman: We feel like we can bring some of what we’ve done on the scripted side to that genre, and really create some brand-defining shows. Our track record is mixed so far. Certainly "Talking Dead" is a major standout for the channel. "Comic Book Men" has really come into its own. Next up, "Game of Arms" is "Fight Club" meets "Deadliest Catch." We’re not in any rush, and we don’t have a mandate to do more than we need to or more than what we think is good.