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Cable drama specialist AMC is getting deeper into nonfiction programming

James Cameron - James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction _ Season 1 - Photo Credit: Michael Moriatis
James Cameron interviews his sci-fi making peers on “AMC Visionaries: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction.”
(Michael Moriatis / AMC)

As competition from streaming video services has intensified for TV viewers, cable network AMC is throwing away the script — at least some of the time.

On Monday night, AMC will air a documentary series on the history of science fiction narrated by acclaimed filmmaker James Cameron. In June, the cable channel will debut a live companion talk show for its new scripted series “Dietland.”

While AMC is still committed to making dramas such as “Better Call Saul” and the long-running zombie apocalypse mega-hit “The Walking Dead,” it is increasing its dependence on nonfiction series, documentaries and live talk shows. The network will devote 65 hours to unscripted programming this year, more than double the level in 2015.

The push has been accelerated by rapid shifts in the TV industry. Adding lower-cost unscripted fare will give AMC more hours of original programs, which has become a necessity as cable networks are fighting to keep video-streaming consumers from dropping or slimming down their pay TV subscriptions.

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What’s more, making Emmy Award-winning hits such as “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” is expensive and AMC can’t match what Netflix, Amazon, Apple and others are spending as the tech giants make a big push into TV production.

“It’s hard to make really good scripted television ,” said David Madden, who became president of original programming for AMC, Sundance TV and AMC Studios last year after a long stint at Fox’s TV operation. “For a network to have a broad enough portfolio to keep the audience watching it, we need more unscripted programming.”

Though AMC Networks reported record earnings last year, ad revenue dropped nearly 10% in the fourth quarter of 2017 compared to a year ago.

The pivot to unscripted television has been subtle as the network has kept its projects in line with its signature programming. AMC’s reality series “Ride with Norman Reedus” features the “Walking Dead” star touring the country on his Triumph Tiger motorcycle and will begin its third season this year.

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“It’s fun making stuff,” said Reedus, who is preparing to pitch another nonfiction show to AMC. “I like being in front of the camera, but it’s also nice to be on the decision-making side too.”

AMC, which once stood for American Movie Classics, has long been the home of “The Godfather” movie franchise, and used that association to launch “Making of the Mob,” an original miniseries that mixed documentary footage with reenactments to tell the history of organized crime in the U.S.

Such nonfiction fare is much cheaper to produce — about 75% less than the budget for a scripted program, which typically costs more than $5 million an hour. AMC’s additional unscripted shows also are displacing its theatrical movies, which have become more widely available on streaming services.

Madden says he believes drama fans come to the network with the expectation of seeing a quality show. The network is aiming to set the same standard on the unscripted side with “AMC Visionaries: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction.”

The six-episode documentary series features the director of “Aliens,” “Terminator” and “Avatar” getting together with a few of his friends (including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott and Guillermo del Toro) to explore the genre they helped build over their careers.

“AMC Visionaries” serves as an example of how an unscripted project “offers us a chance to get talent to the network who might not be as easily lured here on the scripted side,” Madden said.

While Cameron may not be available (or affordable) for a scripted TV series, he was happy to sign on for a project where he could talk shop with his peers on camera.

Cameron said he jumped at the concept when Eliot Goldberg, AMC’s senior vice president for nonfiction programming, first approached him about it several years ago.

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“This is something I have imagined doing many times over the years,” Cameron told The Times. “I was kind of inspired by Martin Scorsese’s series on film noir. He was so knowledgeable on that subject that having his voice lead us into that realm was pretty fascinating. I said, ‘Why don’t we do that with science fiction?’ If this succeeds, I can see doing a heck of a lot more.”

With Cameron in the fold, AMC has been able to line up other big names to front documentary series under the “Visionaries” banner. Director Eli Roth is set to do a history of horror, while Questlove, drummer for the Roots, has signed on to explore the story of hip-hop.

Talking about movies and TV shows is a lot cheaper than making them, and AMC is attempting to turn pop culture conversation into an industry.

Over the years, its live “aftershows” — water-cooler chats hosted by Chris Hardwick that follow the first runs of the episodes of its biggest hits — have become a staple of the channel. (The “Talking Dead” session that ran after the Season 8 premiere of “The Walking Dead” last year drew 3.1 million viewers in the 18-to-49 age group).

AMC is expanding the concept with a new live talk show that will air after “Dietland,” the network’s upcoming scripted series with Julianna Margulies that sends up the beauty and weight-loss industries. The network is hopeful the feminist revenge fantasy launching on June 4 will become part of the current public discourse over the empowerment of women spurred by the #MeToo movement.

The planned “Dietland” aftershow, which does not yet have a title or host, will cover topical issues that go beyond what happens on the episode.

“The dual purpose is to support the show, to connect the fans with this new completely groundbreaking show for AMC, and then [have] really a much broader conversation on the #MeToo movement that is not being serviced on television,” Madden said.

AMC’s live aftershows are also an incentive to watch the network’s scripted series live when they run with a full load of commercials. Goldberg says having a live conversation run right after the airing of an episode helps preserve the habit of showing up to watch at a set time each week so fans can discuss the shared experience with their friends.

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“‘Walking Dead’ wouldn’t be the show that it is if it did not have a slow week-to-week rollout, where you get to savor it and talk about it and come back next week and do it again,” Goldberg said.

Michael Morris, a financial analyst for Guggenheim Securities who follows AMC’s parent company AMC Networks, says most cable networks still face an uphill battle against Netflix and its ability to provide a huge amount of content without commercials and at a price that is well below the typical pay TV subscription. But he said AMC’s nonfiction strategy can be effective.

“It’s a cost-effective way to stay engaged with your core audience and your dedicated fans,” Morris said. “It also creates urgency around the discussion of the shows that helps bolster live viewing,”

AMC executives are aware that binge-watching shows is a reality and have started to adapt their business to the trend. All six episodes of “AMC Visionaries” with Cameron can be viewed starting Monday on AMC Premiere, the service launched last year that offers the network’s programming on demand and commercial-free for an additional monthly fee.

AMC Premiere is available to 20 million Comcast cable customers and will soon be offered to subscribers to the over-the-top streaming service YouTube TV.

Meanwhile, the network’s signature show, “The Walking Dead,” is showing signs of age in its eighth season. While still the top drama on TV for viewers under age 50, the audience has declined 30% from last year. Still, Madden says there is plenty of life left in the series and there is no discussion of winding it down.

“People are really happy when they like what we do on ‘Walking Dead,’ and they get mad at us when they don’t like what we do,” Madden said. “Any show that arouses that much passion must be doing something right.”

stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio


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