Cable TV can survive the streaming wars. AMC chief Sarah Barnett explains how
AMC Networks is no Netflix. Sarah Barnett is clear on that.
A little more than a year into her tenure as president of the consortium, which includes AMC, BBC America, Sundance TV, IFC and production arm AMC Studios, the sure-footed Brit is careful not to identify the streaming giant by name. But it’s hard not to hear “Netflix” — or the names of competitors Amazon Prime, Hulu, Apple TV+ and Disney+ — in Barnett’s explanation of why top-tier creators and stars are still drawn to her networks: “I don’t think people want to go to places where yours is one of thousands of shows.”
Pure scale may not be Barnett’s mission, but that doesn’t mean she’s hesitant about doubling down on what works. After launching the acclaimed “Killing Eve” in her previous role as the chief of BBC America, Barnett oversaw the 2019 simulcast of its second season on AMC, which led to an 87% rise in viewership. She’s also a booster for the expansion of “The Walking Dead” universe, which will soon include a second spinoff, “World Beyond,” and at least one feature film distributed by Universal. She and the franchise’s lead creative, Scott Gimple, aren’t necessarily going to stop there, either.
“We’re plotting a lot more ambition for this,” she says. “I think there are endless stories to be told in this universe.”
AMC invented non-premium prestige. Now it’s all ‘Walking Dead’ spin-offs and monster TV. How did that happen?
While Barnett argues that the blockbuster zombie property has unfairly become a standard-bearer for “the rise of hollow-genre programming,” she admits that the AMC brand — once defined by Golden Age dramas like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” — is “in an evolutionary phase,” and the network’s forthcoming projects suggest a departure from its recent horror-heavy slate. Among new series in the works are “Quiz,” about a British couple accused of cheating on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”; “For Life,” an anthology Barnett pitches as “‘Black Mirror’ for love”; courtroom drama “61st Street”; and a wildly ambitious spin on the sitcom wife, “Kevin Can Go ... Himself.”
Barnett’s attraction to the slightly off-center, which has shaped her career as a programmer at both Sundance TV (“Top of the Lake,” “The Honourable Woman,” “Rectify”) and BBC America (“Killing Eve,” “Orphan Black”), predates her life in the business. Her formative influences were distinctly, even obscurely, British, and not always highbrow: She cites the “terrible” children’s author Enid Blyton; the “creaky” soap opera “Crossroads”; and the “remarkably excellent” BBC miniseries “Edge of Darkness” (1985) and “A Very British Coup” (1988), which couched sharp critiques of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain within the language of the political thriller.
Barnett’s ecumenical approach also undergirds her use of data to drive decision-making, including the findings of a “massive segmentation study” of viewership preferences. As she explains during our wide-ranging, 90-minute conversation inside the deafening lobby bar of the Sunset Tower Hotel, “data can make you dumber if you use it as a substitute for creativity,” but it can also open one to unexpected connections — including the key insight that led to the making of “Killing Eve.”
The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What’s your elevator-pitch description of each of the four AMC Networks brands?
IFC is “slightly off” comedy — encapsulated by “Documentary Now!” It’s often working with established talent who want to do something way off the wall that they probably couldn’t sell anywhere else, because no one else these days is doing niche. Sundance [which includes streaming platform Sundance Now] is somewhat female-skewing, smart, layered crime shows. It’s a very character-forward, writerly place. BBC America is a bit fizzier. It has a very British spirit of not taking itself too seriously, whether that’s a car show [“Top Gear”] or a piece of scripted drama. There’s a sort of subversiveness and wit. It’s our broadest [brand], because its roots are in general entertainment.
AMC is more in an evolutionary phase. In the last year, we’ve been doing a lot of work on audience. The thing that’s always made AMC such an iconic brand is [its mixture of] nostalgia and the modern. We’re not moving away from that... It’s the place that most can explore genre. It can tell big, very broad-ranging, very popular stories, but always rooted in character. And I think something iconically American is always interesting about AMC. Most of the shows that have worked on that platform have always had that.
Talk about the greatest strength of AMC programming as you inherited it, the biggest weakness, and how you see the shows that you’ve green-lighted thus far to be emphasizing the former or patching up the latter.
I certainly felt I had walked into a network that had a pretty strong base. I think AMC is one of the few curatorial television brands that exists.... It’s so interesting, the “Golden Age” and AMC’s role in it. “Mad Men” had been rejected by everybody. Nobody wanted to do period. It didn’t feel like a sexy thing to do. And then “Breaking Bad,” the conventional wisdom in cable at that point was, “You figure out your brand and double down on it.” In the unscripted space, Bravo seemed so smart to be deciding that it was in these various categories of reality TV. It seemed strange to go from a very saturated, colorful, smart, soapy period piece to a grittier, harder-to-look-at, grimmer in many ways show, but obviously it’s been very successful. And then to go from that to “The Walking Dead,” to genre, was kind of extraordinary.
I think the reason all those shows worked was, one, they were unpredictable. Two, they were driven by real voices — people who had something they urgently needed to say. And three, they had this blend of big stories to tell and a very “prestige” way of telling them. The reason “The Walking Dead” became the phenomenon it did was not because it was a zombie show, but because it was a character show that happened to be about zombies.
We haven’t done it yet with AMC, but the best way I can explain how I think research and audience work can help is, I don’t believe there’s any formula that can work in a creative business. But I do really believe in insights and data. When Nena Rodrigue and I — she was the head of programming — arrived at BBC America, we saw that the only things that had worked were sci-fi shows: “Doctor Who” and “Orphan Black.” We looked at everything else that ever aired, and there were beautiful, exquisite, character-based BBC miniseries, and none of them had really done that well. They may have been critically well-received, but they hadn’t driven an audience. So we thought, “This audience loves sci-fi, in spite of what you may think when you hear the brand name.”
Then we did this study and we realized the reason people liked a show like “Orphan Black” was not because it was sci-fi. They liked it because it was propulsive, it was surprising, and it was one of the few shows at that time that had complicated representations of women, that had a lot to say about sexual identity, that had stuff to say about women and their bodies and science. ... I don’t know that we’d have gotten to “Killing Eve” if we hadn’t done that research, because I think you would have thought that it was, frankly, not a good use of investment to go for something that wasn’t sci-fi.
What’s the biggest surprise from the studies you’ve done on the AMC viewer thus far? Is there anything on the level of what you discovered with ‘Orphan Black’?
That the genre shows we do have to have a huge amount of prestige in them, and the prestige shows we do also have to have a ton of action and story in them. If you forget and make something that is too much a character show but doesn’t have enough underpinning of a narrative arc, it won’t find the audience that we need it to. And if we make a genre piece that’s maybe a little empty of depth of character and depth of thematic richness, it won’t work either.
It’s this huge study that takes nine months. You do video ethnographies, so the researchers go into people’s homes and sit with them. It really brings to life who these different audiences are, and there’s nothing like that for realizing that our audience is a really smart, democratic audience and they have really good taste and AMC is really aspirational for them. But they’re not snobby. It’s a very good reminder of actually who in America watches television, and how to a little bit get out of our bubble and our preconceptions that everyone watching television is a version of us or our friends or our journalist acquaintances.
Describe your philosophy about ratings measurement in the digital age.
Ratings have never been equal. In my career, there’s always been a different adjudication depending on what the content strategy has been. At Sundance, [series creator] Ray McKinnon and I joked that [“Rectify”] is the show that has the highest critical index versus viewership that’s probably ever existed, but it was a time when cable was stable. Affiliate fees were going up. And the goal for me, running that network as the Golden Age of TV was happening, was for Sundance TV to make an intervention in that that was distinct and a true expression of independent television. ... The fact that “Rectify” got so much attention and was so beloved, along with those few other shows, formed a perception of brand — what Sundance could be as a TV network, it really created that. Then that brand value gets translated into new conversations opening up with advertisers because the network feels cool. Affiliate distributors love what we’re doing; they believe it adds to the value of their bundle. I’m not saying we didn’t watch ratings. You can’t be in this business without being addicted to what is now becoming something of an anachronism, the overnight ratings. It’s so in your blood.
BBC America is a network where, with those original shows that worked, you really could have moments of scale. So we did evaluate a little bit more based on a certain kind of threshold that we needed for the ratings. And with AMC, it’s been a very ratings-driven network — to wild success. “The Walking Dead” remains, for all of its much-talked-about decline, by far the biggest show in ad-supported [cable]. Our researchers, I believe, have not just a good or bad day but a good or bad week emotionally based on what news they have to deliver about ratings. But of course we do have a bunch of other inputs that affect that as well. I think there’s a threshold that, if we go below that, makes it hard to sustain a show. But there is a sort of murky middle ground.
You’ve said, ‘I don’t think you’ll see us imitating anyone, even ourselves, as we make choices going forward.’ How does that square with pursuing additional ‘Walking Dead’ spinoffs and feature films?
I really don’t see a contradiction between committing to a strategy of not imitating ourselves and exploring a franchise opportunity or a universe opportunity we have with every bit as high a bar for creativity as we bring to anything else. We have “The Walking Dead” and “Fear the Walking Dead” and we have a new show that we’re launching [in 2020] called “The World Beyond,” a we have the movie with Universal. I had lunch today with Scott Gimple, who’s the chief creative officer of “The Walking Dead” universe. We’re plotting a lot more ambition for this, and for us, the high bar is, I think there are endless stories to be told in this universe. There is a huge, un-snobby, high-taste-threshold fandom for this show that tell us they want to hear more stories. What we won’t do is make a weak version of “The Walking Dead.” We won’t imitate that. What we will do is look at a number of different formats and a number of different creative forms with a number of new and existing writers.
Obviously, the narrative that continues to be told is one of decline around “The Walking Dead” numbers, and that’s inevitable. It’s become a test case for fragmentation. Everything has declined. I come back to the fact that you’re never going to see audiences like the one we currently have for “The Walking Dead” in measurable television.
I’d argue that there was a period in Seasons 6, 7, 8 where part of what was shaping that narrative was a sense among critics of a decline in the creative. How do you avoid ‘Walking Dead’ fatigue or zombie fatigue or, even more broadly, horror fatigue — turning off fans of the ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad’ brand.
When we look at our study with our audiences, it doesn’t turn them off. They love “The Walking Dead” and they love “Better Call Saul” just as much. I don’t think fans of AMC discriminate between genre and non-genre in the ways that maybe critics do. ... I would challenge anyone to watch the last couple seasons of “The Walking Dead” and not say that that is remarkable storytelling that has a lot of complexity and depth and emotion to it that is real and earned, along with the horror aspects.
In terms of the quality question, I think that with 10 seasons of television — something like “ER” or “Grey’s Anatomy” — shows go through spurts. We’ve done a lot of research on the response to it and we certainly have our own thoughts about it. It’s true to say that that season with Negan [a mega-villain played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan] became a little too hopeless for audiences. I think that there was creative intention behind it that was really smart and thoughtful, but it I think it probably pushed people to a place where it was a lot to take at a time when maybe people just didn’t want to see that.
What are the risks versus the rewards of the anthology structure?
Generally, we are interested in the different ways that people are watching content, and it is shifting so rapidly. A weekly rollout of shows — the craft of television — is something that is getting lost, and I proudly will continue to advocate for that and green-light shows that do that. We absolutely remain committed to making shows that are long-running, ongoing series. You can’t help, though, but notice how our world is changing, and how viewing patterns are shifting, and how — particularly driven by the sheer overwhelming volume of shows on streaming platforms and the ways in which shows come and go so quickly — shows aren’t existing for as long.
With “For Life,” we liked a lot about [series creators] Brett [Goldstein] and Will [Bridges]'s vision for that show, a sort of “Black Mirror” for love, and it felt like this was the right format to tell that story in. We’re hoping that the concept is enough of an appealing hook to keep people coming back. ... It’s only six episodes, so we’re not stretching it too long. We’re trying something. We’re experimenting with something. ... I’m really interested in exploring on a weekly rollout, linear platform, how audiences’ changing ways of watching will impact our success. That’s the only episodic anthology. We did “The Terror,” which is [season-long], and then Jason Segel’s “Dispatches From Elsewhere” is also a [season-long] story. It comes back to what I hadn’t realized was a recurring theme in my life, which was the love of closure.
How much of your job do you think is maintaining what already works about the brands, and how much is discovering what will work about the brands that no one knows yet?
I don’t think any good brand is static. I think every good brand is constantly evolving and changing in response to the world around it. It’s a very organic process, and I think that my career, and my bent as a programmer, is never to follow the straight path — it’s always to look around the corners. ... If your brand — and these four brands [do] — stands for something in culture and society that is meaningful and resonant, then by its nature your brand cannot be something that you’re just preserving or maintaining. It has to be something that you risk throwing yourself into, and reinvent and re-imagine, every single day. We’re very aware in our conversations about what AMC has been and what’s made it successful, but not in order to copy that — in order to be fueled, again, by the courage of doing something that you really don’t know if it’s going to work.
There really aren’t many places today that aren’t going after enormous scale, and I really think that unlimited resource is the worst thing for creativity and that stockpiling content is damaging both to risk-taking in the television business and to the pleasure of consuming. I think something changes when you’re confronted with too many choices. ... It’s a puzzle to remain small as a maker and not a conglomerate, but I think it’s a really fun puzzle.
What do you see as the biggest challenge to an ad-supported cable network in the next five years.
I truly don’t think that anyone in my business can plan five years ahead in terms of business model. It’s absolutely impossible. Clearly, I think the struggle for all content makers is the struggle to capture and connect with an audience when there is so much competition for audiences’ time — not just television but everything else. Cutting through is increasingly going to be a challenge, which is why I think brands increasingly become important as curatorial navigation for audiences. ... Within the legacy cable business, you sort of had to know your audience — Nielsen was always a much-complained-about, imperfect measurement tool — but in many ways your relationships with your business clients, your affiliate clients and your advertiser clients, were paramount. In today’s world, whether you’re part of an ad-supported network or not, the insights that come from knowing your audience become more and more important.
I’ve never worked in platforms where I’ve had the biggest checkbook, so I’m not daunted by that. I don’t think that adding a ton of zeroes has ever been the way that you get to the best work. To me, the interesting part of my job is finding the next [“Fleabag” and “Killing Eve” creator] Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the next [“Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” creator] Vince Gilligan, so continuing to discover talent is always going to be such a key part of what we’re all about. The ways in which television over the past 10 or 15 years has commented on and shaped how we see the world and how we see ourselves is something that I worry will get flattened out in the rush towards volume and stockpiling of content. An unabashed swing at maintaining that on the networks I oversee is something that really motivates me and my team.
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