Trusted Recommendations Are the New TV Guide

With more than 17 million viewers tuning in for The Walking Dead’s season seven premiere in October, cablenet AMC reaffirmed its status as custodian of one of the biggest shows on U.S. television.

The horror drama’s ongoing success marks a major feather in the cap for Josh Sapan, AMC Networks’ president and CEO who, since 1995, has spearheaded AMC’s evolution from classic movie channel to go-to original drama destination.

One key question often aimed at the channel, however, is whether or not it relies too heavily on a few behemoth titles (such as The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and Mad Men) to sustain its reputation.

Sapan rejects the notion, seeing no such problem. “We have five of the top 10 shows on television among the target demo, and a couple of them are so big that they tend to overshadow the others,” he explains.

“A lot of networks would be proud, and be deemed enormously successful, if their line-up of new material within an 18-month period consisted of Preacher, which is creatively really striking and has big audiences; The Night Manager, which was highly lauded; Humans, which was very, very well received; Better Call Saul, which is being recognized critically and getting big audiences; and Into the Badlands.

“But with AMC, people often just say, ‘Oh gee, The Walking Dead, Talking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead…’ Because, frankly, those shows are not just big, they are monstrous, and so they tend to overshadow the other titles.”

Looking to the year ahead, Sapan says that across the network’s entire portfolio – comprising AMC, IFC, SundanceTV, WEtv, and joint-venture network BBC America – the key challenge will instead be addressing “the abundance of choice and the greater control that everybody at home asserts over where they spend their time, as it relates to devices, time of day and content.”

“It is increasingly challenging to command the attention of people because they can do so many different things on so many different devices,” he adds.

As he received the Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award at NATPE, Sapan reflects on the different landscape that Tartikoff faced when he was a network head in the 1980s and 1990s.

“I was, of course, an admirer of his,” Sapan says. “He began his career in local broadcasting as a promotion guy, not as a programming person. And I guess I always felt some minor affection for that because I also began as a promotion guy. So I always thought, ‘Well, if Brandon Tartikoff can do it, then maybe I can too.’ It always felt to me quintessentially American to begin as a marketer writ large.”

Nevertheless, he adds: “In the era that he was working in broadcast television, you lived with a notion of flow. Meaning that if you had 20 million people watching at 8.00 p.m. then a likely good chunk would stay on at 9.00 p.m. But that is increasingly not the case at all.”

Instead, the idea of audience flow has been replaced by the social media water cooler, where trusted recommendations rule.

“The notion of referral and getting suggestions from friends – or friends meaning social media friends – is probably the new program guide and the new flow,” says Sapan. “There is so much social conversation going on electronically that you will find your way to that something by that reference. You’ll hear 11 people say, ‘Have you watched blank?’ And by the time you get your third referee, you’ve probably put it on your list.

“So for us at AMC, we believe we had better belly-up to the bar and come forward with the very best material.”

It’s a notion Tartikoff himself wouldn’t disagree with.

Named in honor of Brandon Tartikoff, arguably one of the medium’s greatest programmers whose imprint on the television industry will be viewed forever, the Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award was created to recognize a select group of television professionals who exhibit extraordinary passion, leadership, independence and vision in the process of creating television programming and in evoking the spirit of Tartikoff’s generosity.

Read about the Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award honorees from 2004, 2005, 2006,  2007, and 2008 and stay tuned for more information on past honorees in future posts.

This article was originally published in NATPE Daily. Read more from NATPE Daily Day 2