Friday, November 21, 2008

Is Mad Men the next Vladimir Guerrero?

(Here's something I wrote a couple weeks ago but completely forgot about. Naturally, it's Mad Men-related. I think most of the relevant facts are still true, but it should be noted this is straight-up conjecture from someone who knows little about the inner workings of TV.)

From the Things I Didn’t Know Department: while the television program Mad Men has been renewed for a third season, neither the show’s creator and driving force (Matthew Weiner) nor any of its stars (including Don Draper himself, Jon Hamm), are currently signed to return. This would seem to be a problem that is going to work itself out; as a San Francisco Chronicle article states, “If you have the best drama on television — the It Show — you pay to keep the creator. End of story.”

Now I love Mad Men and think it’s a great show, but having been a baseball fan in the modern era, I can see how it could easily float away to another network. That is to say: the television landscape isn’t all that different the baseball landscape, with respect to who can afford to spend what. There are the premium networks like HBO and Showtime, the major networks, there are mid-tiers like USA and FX, and specialty channels. AMC falls solidly into the third category, and they’re rather like the Montreal Expos used to be, or the Pittsburgh Pirates (or Minnesota Twins or Kansas City Royals) are now. They serve a niche audience and don’t have a lot of money to deal with. How do they try to get around it? By buying low. When Mad Men was created two years ago, there was no guarantee it would be a hit, and Hamm was a relative unknown. So everybody came relatively cheap, and signed through two years. Now AMC has the problem — a good problem to have — of knowing that they’re going to have to pony up some serious cash to save their flagship show or risk losing it and everything about it except the P.R. buzz it created for the network. Let’s face it, a lot more people know where AMC is on the dial now than they did back in 2005.

For AMC, that might be enough.

If AMC is far more well-known that the other channels in its class, it might be willing to cut its overhead now and ride its newfound reputation as long as it lasts. Given the extraordinary success of Mad Men, it seems quite unlikely that a show will fall past the six other networks that figure to be rewarded handsomely from it — HBO, Showtime, FX, etc. AMC got Mad Men because everyone else fucked up, and they’re not likely to fuck up that badly again. If AMC wants to move into another tier as a network, its brass could use Mad Men as a platform to do so, but that seems unlikely to me — it would probably require a sustained effort over a period of years and would be thrillingly expensive. That is to say, it seems a lot like if the Montreal Expos had, back in 2003, decided that, with their limited payroll, it was a better idea to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into player acquisition AND spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the superstar player Vladimir Guerrero — who was pretty much out the door once his low-paying rookie contract ended — and thus it seems pretty unlikely (Guerrero bolted to Los Angeles for a hefty, hefty sum). The cost structure of doing business in the sports and entertainment industries seem fairly similar: you can get unproven talent for cheaper than proven talent, but when you have to pay, you have to pay. AMC has to decide right now whether or not they’re going to pay. Knowing nothing else about it, it seems like a good idea for them to cut bait right now. If they really want to move the network into a new tier, the way to do, I think, it would be to improve steadily across the board, rather than depend on one “Superstar” show. If they don’t really want to improve, they needn’t worry about losing Mad Men. It certainly won’t have hurt the network’s reputation, or its bottom line.

The point is this: Mad Men will be on television somewhere next year. It won’t be a gutted version bearing merely the title of the show, and without its creator: it will be fully recognizable. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it waltzed away from AMC. High-profile shows rarely switch networks, but they rarely start out on fringe networks to begin with. This is a special case in almost every way, and one that might have a special resolution.

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