The stylish, darkly comic BBC America espionage thriller “Killing Eve” was an entry on many TV critics’ 10-best lists in 2018 and brought a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Award and an Emmy nomination to its star, Sandra Oh.
But can it be a TV drama game-changer on the scale of “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men” or even the mega-hit zombie apocalypse drama “The Walking Dead”?
AMC Networks will find out April 7 when it begins airing the entire second season of “Killing Eve” across two of its channels: BBC America and the company’s more widely viewed flagship, AMC.
“It’s a great opportunity to expose more people to ‘Killing Eve,’” AMC Networks Chief Operating Officer Ed Carroll said in a recent interview at the company’s New York office. “These times demand trying some nonconventional methods. And if you have a platform as big and broad as AMC, then it seems like a good thing to try.”
The unusual attempt to elevate “Killing Eve” from a niche network favorite to a mass audience hit comes at critical time for AMC and other cable networks that are having to work harder than ever to get viewers’ attention amid a tsunami of programming choices.
While launching a hit the magnitude of “The Walking Dead” may no longer be possible in today’s more fragmented TV market, AMC believes “Killing Eve” has the potential to become a more potent asset.
The first-season success of “Killing Eve” has already been a boost to Sarah Barnett, who developed the series at BBC America. Following the departure of longtime AMC network and studio chief Charlie Collier, who left the company in October for a top post at Fox, Barnett was elevated in a corporate restructuring that made her president of entertainment networks with oversight of AMC, IFC, SundanceTV and BBCA.
AMC’s channels and nearly all other ad-supported cable networks have been rattled by the deep pockets of Netflix and other streaming video services that have siphoned viewers away from traditional TV and intensified the competition for programming and big-name talent. The battle for the next generation of hit shows will only accelerate as tech giant Apple enters the arena and media conglomerates such as the Walt Disney Co. and WarnerMedia launch direct-to-consumer streaming video services this year.
AMC built its reputation on being the smaller, scrappier player able to make pop culture noise with subversive shows that garner critical adulation. Parent company AMC Networks — which includes niche cable channels SundanceTV, IFC and BBC America (jointly owned with BBC Studios) and WE, which specializes in unscripted programming — has seen its annual revenue triple to $3 billion since it was spun off from Cablevision in 2011. The publicly traded company is controlled by the Dolan family.
Its in-house production unit AMC Studios, which generated “The Walking Dead,” now provides more than 70% of the programs airing on AMC channels in the U.S. and overseas. New York-based AMC Networks has moved into the direct-to-consumer streaming video business with services that include Sundance Now, for film connoisseurs; the Urban Movie Network, catering to African American viewers; and Shudder for horror film fans. Collectively, they have more than 2 million paying subscribers.
Still, some troubling industry trends for AMC Networks are popping up like a hungry zombie in the rearview mirror.
AMC’s 2018 prime-time average of 947,000 viewers dropped 12% from the previous year according to Nielsen — flattening out the company’s advertising revenue growth. And though AMC’s long-running hit “The Walking Dead” remains the top-rated drama on cable, its popularity has steadily waned as the series ages.
Though AMC was once one of the few commercial outlets where producers were given a wide berth to pursue their visions, streaming outlets can offer both creative freedom and more money.
Matthew Weiner, who created AMC’s signature hit “Mad Men” and had a brutal contract negotiation with the network after its fourth season, chose to go to Amazon for his latest series, “The Romanoffs.”
Writer-producer Marti Noxon said the cancellation of her low-rated AMC series “Dietland” after one season factored into her decision to sign with Netflix last year. “I think AMC wanted to be patient, but they couldn’t figure out a way to monetize it,” she said.
AMC also has to contend with cable network competitors that have the financial support of media conglomerates that are only getting bigger through consolidations.
“It’s hard for them to keep up and compete with what’s being spent by larger companies and by Netflix,” said Kay Koplovitz, founder of USA Network and now chairman at Springboard Growth Capital. “I think this is going to be a constant pressure for them. They have taken measures to expand their revenue streams and that’s the best thing for them to do.”
Analysts also wonder how AMC Networks can continue to compete in a land of fewer giants.
“They have great content but lack the promotional tools to build a larger enough audience to grow,” said Michael Nathanson, who follows the media industry for MoffettNathanson. “We worry that better shows will not be pitched to them for that reason.”
Even amid the challenges, AMC Networks has seen its earnings grow steadily since it became a public company — its adjusted operating income is now more than $900 million annually — and its stock has climbed 20% over the past year, trading at about $64 a share.
AMC executives say they are well aware of the challenges presented by the disruption of the TV industry and remain committed to developing distinctive programming.
“It’s never been easy,” said Carroll when asked about being outspent by rivals. “That’s not something frankly that we spend a lot of time in this building thinking about. We’re playing a different game. There is always room to find fresh stories.”
Carroll and his team often use the word “boutique” to describe their business — a way to position it against the giant Netflix maw where some shows can be forgotten after they are launched. They believe they can continue to identify emerging talent and projects that may be overlooked by other shops, noting that “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead” were all rejected at other networks.
The executives cite “Killing Eve” as another example of their willingness to gamble on a project with a unique point of view and a creator without a long track record.
Before “Killing Eve,” the show’s 33-year-old creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge was known for her audacious British TV comedies “Fleabag” and “Crashing.” She had never written an hour drama before she adapted the Villanelle novella series by Luke Jennings, about a crafty and sexually adventurous female assassin. Oh’s character is Eve Polastri, the bored MI5 security officer who becomes obsessed with Villanelle, played by Jodie Comer.
“When we were sitting around the table and green-lit the show, we all acknowledged that it was a risk, but potentially if it all works it could be very special,” said Barnett, whose programming team at BBC America brought Waller-Bridge’s work to her attention.
“Killing Eve” premiered on BBCA in April 2018 and its TV audience grew over eight episodes to 1.25 million for its finale — 86% higher than its premiere, according to Nielsen data. The growth indicates that the show had strong word of mouth. Barnett said episodes also sold well as digital downloads on Apple iTunes and Amazon, and she believes a large number of viewers have been catching up with it since it began streaming on Hulu.
While “Killing Eve” was developed for the more upscale audience that watches BBCA, executives believe it has the swagger of AMC’s edgy series, which have for the most part featured transgressive male lead characters.
David Madden, president of programming for AMC, BBC America, SundanceTV and IFC, said the company has been developing a cadre of new writers and producers in recent years.
The highly praised “Halt and Catch Fire” came from a speculative script written by Christopher Rogers and Chris Cantwell, who are now lined up to do a new series, “Rainy Day People.” “Lodge 49,” a quirky AMC drama set in Long Beach that has won over critics and was picked up for a second season, came from short story writer Jim Gavin.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to spot people early enough in their careers and helped people realize their potential,” Madden said.
While some showrunners have privately grumbled that AMC became less artist-friendly once it experienced commercial success with series, others such as veteran film and TV producer Mark Johnson, who has had hits (“Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul”) and misses (“Rectify”), have maintained strong relationships.
“I think there is a value to having the AMC logo before your show,” Johnson said. “There are a number of things I’m developing or that I’m talking about that I would have trouble setting up elsewhere. I think they support my tastes. Why wouldn’t I continue with those people?”
The most powerful weapon AMC has remains its “Walking Dead” franchise. While the first half of the ninth season hit an all-time low, the series barely dropped week-to-week after the well-publicized departure of its biggest star Andrew Lincoln, an indication that there is life left in the franchise.
Hanging over the major moneymaker are two lawsuits filed by former and current executive producers of “The Walking Dead” who are suing AMC Networks over their share of the show’s profits. Executives said the suits have had no affect on operations.
Madden noted that the series spinoff “Fear the Walking Dead” ranked as a top-five cable drama, and another iteration from the show’s comic-book universe is in the works. The company is also developing a “Walking Dead” movie franchise that will include Lincoln.
“It may be a mature franchise but there is a lot of progeny on the way,” said Madden. “We see it as something that continues to expand and evolve.”