‘Mad Men’: What would be the impact of the AMC/Matt Weiner negotiations?

Senior Television Writer
03.29.11 67 Comments


Typical. I spend most of the day on airplanes, while the “Mad Men” renewal news went from slow-and-steady to apocalyptically bad, depending on what corners of the Interwebs you read.

If, like me, you’ve been away from your computer for a while today, here’s the basic talking points being thrown around on various sites, starting with a Deadline.com report and Brian Stelter’s comprehensive New York Times piece:

The deal was close to being done – with Matt Weiner set to make $30 million over the next three seasons – but talks have allegedly broken down over AMC’s desire for three key changes: 1)Adding an extra two minutes of commercial time to each episode (they asked for this in the last contract extension, and instead compromised by letting each episode end at 11:02 p.m.), 2)Dropping at least two regular castmembers, and 3)More product integration in each episode. And because of the delay in negotiations, the series definitely won’t return until 2012 (as I’ve been predicting for a while), probably March, and now there’s a chance things could fall apart altogether – or that AMC and Lionsgate could try to do the show without Weiner.

“I don”t understand why, with all of the success of the show, they suddenly need to change it,” Weiner told Stelter, though later he said, “”I love the show; I have every intention of it working out.”

I don’t really want to talk about the negotiations themselves. A lot of this is just posturing for the media – first AMC, then Weiner, taking their case to the public to exert pressure on the other party – and I’ll worry about things falling apart when they actually do fall apart.

But I’m curious about what impact AMC’s three reported requests could have on the series, particularly since many other shows on TV have been through one or all of them. Let’s take them one at a time:

Extra commercial time per episode:
This is an ongoing frustration of mine, and of virtually every drama showrunner who works outside of pay cable. The commercial load per hour creeps up a bit every year, so a show that 5 years ago would have run 42 minutes without commerials (and 10 years ago would’ve run 44) now runs much closer to 40. That’s one of the reasons so many network dramas have started to do without main title sequences, because they simply can’t spare that kind of story time to run the same credits each week. The “Mad Men” titles are an important mood-setter, just as they are on most of the pay cable series it so closely resembles, but I think we’re familiar enough with Falling Don Draper by now that we could go with something a little shorter, if not simply diving into the story each week after a simple title card of the back of Jon Hamm’s head. Having to shave actual story time would be unfortunate, as so much of what makes “Mad Men” great is its deliberate pacing, but it has one of the longest run-times of any basic cable drama, and would continue to do so even if it ditched 2 minutes.

Dumping at least 2 regular castmembers: I love everybody on “Mad Men,” but not all characters are created equal. The show all but wrote out Bert Cooper in the season four finale, and it would be easy to have him not come back – would, in fact, feel contrived and against his character if he suddenly walked back into the firm a year or two later. The show went a good chunk of season four without Ken Cosgrove, and while his laid-back approach to the job provides a nice spiritual contrast to Pete Campbell, he’s never a character the series has bothered to service much on his own. Harry Crane has mainly become comic relief, Betty was pretty far removed from the action this year without the show suffering much (though eliminating Betty altogether would make it harder to use Sally, which would be a very bad thing for us fans of Kiernan Shipka), etc. There are people the show absolutely needs – Don, Peggy, Roger, Joan and Pete, I would say (Betty once, but maybe not now) – and then there are those who add tremendous flavor but whom the show could do without if it had to.

There are models for this sort of thing. When “Southland” moved from NBC to TNT and had to undergo a far more drastic cost-cutting than what Weiner’s being asked to do, and it kept four of its actors as regulars and then brought the other regulars back as guest stars whenever possible. If anything, streamlining that show made it easier to service the core characters who were left. Similarly, “Chuck” has had to portion out appearances by its supporting cast ever since its budget was slashed after season two, and for the most part that show has figured out how to make it work. So it could be done in a way where we don’t actually lose any characters; we just don’t see them as often as before.

More product placement: This simultaneously seems like the stickiest and easiest point. This is a show that regularly name-checks brands that still exist today, and through Don or Peggy extols their virtues. If Don’s speech about the Carousel in the season one finale had actually been part of a deal with Kodak, would it have been any less effective? Would it have suddenly seemed sleazy? Or would it have just been the cost of doing business, rendered beautifully?

On the other hand, though, Weiner has a very specific vision for the show. There’s often an important reason he chooses a particular product, and when it’s not specifically paid for by the sponsor, he’s not under great restrictions on how that product is mentioned and discussed by the regulars. Some of the show’s best stories and Draper pitches have involved fictional brands; if the push from AMC is to get as many real brands as possible to bring in as much real cash as possible, maybe it starts to feel as clunky as when “The Apprentice” stopped doing lemonade stand challenges and started doing “Show Why Product X Is The Awesomest Product Ever” challenges. (Okay, it wouldn’t be that bad, because Weiner isn’t nearly as hacky and willing to shill as Mark Burnett can be.)

Do I want to see any of these changes implemented? Not particularly. But would they be the worst thing in the world for the show, particularly when it’s a show that’s never had huge ratings – and that, thanks to the large success of “The Walking Dead,” can’t hide behind the “Well, what kind of numbers should you expect? It’s AMC” defense anymore. If the deal closes, we’ll get six or seven seasons of one of the greatest dramas of my lifetime, and if these compromises are the cost of keeping the lights on at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (or whatever the firm’s called when we come back), I’d grimace a bit, but I’d learn to accept it.

But this may all be moot. AMC compromised on the commercial time once, and though they suggest to Stelter that they won’t this time, you never know. Maybe in the end AMC blinks, deciding that the prestige of the show – which is largely dependent on having Matt Weiner present and happy – and what it means to their own brand is worth more than squeezing some extra bucks out of the margins. Or maybe Weiner blinks, deciding he’ll never have as big a creative success for which he gets nearly all the credit as he does here, and the show comes back with a smaller ensemble and frequent plugs for Dentyne.

I’m not in the negotiations, and I have no interest in following the thrusts and parrys of it all. I just want “Mad Men” back, and at least now I know that it’s 100% not going to be till next year. The rest is details.

What does everybody else think? Is either party clearly in the right?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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