From zombies to vampires, can AMC Networks still go it alone?
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Starting this fall, AMC Networks is getting a programming transfusion.
The New York-based media company, long the home of “The Walking Dead” franchise, is taking its first bite into Anne Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles” series after acquiring the rights to 18 novels by the late author.
Based on the review episodes, the first Rice-based show, “Interview With the Vampire,” gives “The Walking Dead” a run for its money in gory special effects. There are graphic sex scenes and nudity as well. “It’s probably one of the more provocative projects we’ve ever done,” said AMC Networks entertainment chief Dan McDermott.
Having some shock value should help encourage sampling, which is what AMC needs. “Vampire,” which stars Sam Reid and Jacob Anderson, debuts on Oct. 2 and is expected to be a key driver in the company’s ongoing effort to transition into the streaming future while its traditional cable TV business is in decline.
AMC also is seeing the end of its 11-season hit “The Walking Dead,” although it has three spinoffs in the works that will employ some of the most popular stars from the series, including Norman Reedus. But the company believes having a new franchise based on Rice’s book titles, which have sold 150 million copies globally, can continue to make AMC a destination for genre fans.
The transition is happening at a volatile time in the TV business. Pay TV subscriptions continue to slide, while competition from deep-pocketed tech companies and larger media conglomerates intensifies. Wall Street analysts question whether AMC can grow its streaming business fast enough to mitigate the slow and steady erosion of its traditional TV business that all cable network owners are facing.
“While digital ad growth should help offset linear declines, we still do not know whether it will be enough,” said a recent report by MoffettNathanson. Many financial analysts have a neutral rating on AMC Networks’ stock, which is down 49% over the past year.
In the first quarter of 2022, the pay TV universe saw a net loss of 2.1 million subscribers. Ratings are declining as well, with time spent streaming surpassing cable TV viewing for the first time in July.
AMC’s channels have held up better than most. Second-quarter data from Nielsen showed its outlets averaging 316,000 viewers in prime time, up 8% compared to 2021, while the average of all ad-supported cable networks was down 10%. The network’s first-run original episodes were up 13% to 782,000.
It’s unclear whether the small but profitable AMC Networks can make it without being combined with or acquired by a larger company. But for now, AMC Networks executives are forging ahead as a stand-alone entity, adhering to the formula of critic-friendly adult cable TV dramas and niche streaming channels that complement subscriptions to larger services such as Netflix, Prime Video and Hulu.
“I see us very peacefully coexisting alongside any of those companies, and we’re not threatened by their size,” McDermott said. “Our value proposition is we only do one thing, which is premium, marquee content for adults.”
“Vampire” will air on AMC in a 10 p.m. time period and carry an MA-TV rating, but its intensity is aimed at drawing fans to the streaming service AMC+, where it will premiere the same night.
“We developed it knowing it has to work on our streaming platform,” McDermott said. “It has to be lush and decadent and all the things you know are true to Anne Rice’s books. We need to be offering content that is going to incentivize users to sign up and stay signed up.”
AMC is not waiting long to get a second Rice series up and running. Its TV adaptation of her “Mayfair Witches” trilogy will debut in the first quarter of 2023.
The cable programmer takes a niche approach to streaming as it tries to capture viewers who are leaving traditional TV.
“We could have sat back and said, let’s see how ‘Interview With the Vampire’ performs and then we’ll make a decision on other series in the Rice library,” McDermott said. “But in this landscape, we’ve got to be aggressive. We’ve got to be confident about our ability to produce great versions of these novels.”
McDermott, a veteran executive with stints running DreamWorks Television and programming at Fox, has been guiding AMC’s streaming pivot since he joined the company in March 2020. He is ordering more series with shorter episode runs as streaming subscribers demand a robust variety of original offerings.
In 2023, AMC will launch 11 new titles, including “The Walking Dead” spinoffs. Other new entries include a prequel to the cult favorite “Orphan Black” and the drama “Straight Man,” starring Bob Odenkirk, coming off his successful run on “Better Call Saul.” AMC also will have five returning programs.
AMC will be flexible in where it presents its series. McDermott said shows could debut on AMC+ and later get a run on one of its cable channels. AMC Networks also has been aggressive in making its programs available on FAST channels (free ad-supported streaming television) carried by services such as Pluto TV and Tubi. The company has 13 such channels spread across a variety of services that don’t require a paid subscription.
“It’s an additional way for us to monetize our content,” McDermott said. “We can also incentivize audiences to come back and find us on AMC or AMC+.”
Along with AMC+, which has originals and series that air on the AMC network, the company’s streaming channels include Sundance Now, which carries films, dramas and true-crime stories; Shudder, for horror fans; IFC Films Unlimited, which focuses on independent movies; ALLBLK, dedicated to works from Black creators; and Acorn, which specializes in British dramas.
AMC expects to have 12 million streaming subscribers by the end of this year and is aiming to double that by 2025.
While AMC Networks is looking to grow, not being a corporate behemoth has its advantages for show producers. At a time when many are feeling trepidation over the uncertainty at the larger players in the TV industry, Mark Johnson, who ran the hits “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” and has been put in charge of the “Vampire” shows, likes what he calls the “intimacy” of the operation.
“Because it’s smaller, there is not an executive that I don’t know and don’t know pretty well,” said Johnson. “I can get Dan McDermott in 10 or 15 minutes. Elsewhere, there’s a lot of confusion. People are very worried about what companies are going to survive or be owned by somebody else tomorrow. Why not go where you have a sure hand and have encouragement?”
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