Is Mad Men The Ghost of Television Past?

Another oldie, from May last year, written for WIRED.

On the slowly-unfolding AMC period drama Mad Men, character arcs and plots can take several episodes or even seasons to come into focus. As the show’s sixth season slowly unfolds, it’s tempting to suggest that the show is at risk of becoming as much a part of the past as the era it portrays. Is television even interested in this kind of programming anymore?

When Mad Men debuted in 2007 — setting a new ratings record for AMC in the process with 900,000 viewers — the landscape of television was different. The Sopranos had just finished on HBO, and The Wire was still on the air; Lost was still in the middle of its run, and the idea of television as the home of long-form, complex, quality drama was something still on the minds of many. Mad Men was simply more evidence of the future of the format.

Cut to 2013, and it’s a very different story. The first episode of the new season had 3.4 million viewers tuning in – down from last year’s season premiere high of 3.54 million – and successive episodes have dropped to around the mid 2 million mark, under the level for the same time last season. More importantly, the show’s importance to AMC has shifted, if not outright shrunk, in light of the phenomenonal success of the channel’s The Walking Dead.

It’s not just that the most recent episode of that comic book adaptation brought in almost four times as many viewers as Mad Men‘s peak, with 12.42 million people watching (It was, after all, a season finale); consider, as well, that the accompanying episode of The Talking Dead –Chris Hardwick’s talk-show companion to the zombie drama — had a series high of 4.3 million viewers; almost a million more viewers than Mad Men for a show that is far cheaper, and far simpler, to produce. No wonder that the channel has announced plans for Talking Bad, a similar show to accompany the final season of Breaking Bad this August.

It’s not only AMC where attention and focus has shifted from quality drama to genre fare. Instead of The Sopranos or The Wire, HBO’s most-discussed series these days is George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, and its most-watched show is trashy vampire soap True Blood. Attempts at more low-key fare like Luck and Treme meet considerably more muted response and, as a result, have shorter lifespans. The audience clearly knows what it wants, and what it wants is apparently sexy genre fare over the chance to see middle-aged men struggle with the complexities of life as we know it.

A similar thing is happening in broadcast television; a cursory glance at the shows networks are developing for the 2013/2014 television season reveals that the hour-long drama format continues to be dominated by unchallenging procedurals, crime dramas or fantasy fare, for the most part. For all the excitement offered by Lost‘s ambitious scope or complicated narrative structure, the post-Lost television landscape has suggested that the show succeeded despite those elements, not because of them. Instead of demonstrating that broadcast dramas can challenge the viewer without scaring them off, the lesson Lost taught broadcast television was apparently that flashbacks can be a legitimate form of long-form exposition (See: Once Upon a Time, The Following).

The slowly shrinking Mad Men audience makes the fact that AMC reportedly cut budgets for both Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead in order to pay for Mad Men‘s most recent seasons somewhat confusing. Admittedly, for Breaking Bad, there is some level of logic from a purely business perspective — The show brings in fewer viewers, and therefore less advertising revenue than Mad Men — but the idea that AMC would undercut its most visible, valuable show for something that is watched by a fraction of its audience is counter-intuitive at best.

Or is it? While the show brings in fewer viewers and less advertising revenue per dollar spent than The Walking Dead (and definitely considerably cheaper The Talking Dead), Mad Men arguably brings AMC far more critical prestige than Robert Kirkman’s horror series.

The same is true of Breaking Bad; even though ratings for both shows may be a fraction of The Walking Dead‘s audience, having two of — if not the two — most highly-regarded television dramas today on its network gives AMC an overall reputation that makes the network brand more attractive to program-makers and advertisers alike. “AMC,” it suggests, “is where the forward thinkers, the early adopters, the smart buyers go for shows. Sure, less people might watch overall, but the ones that do watch are the tastemakers you want.” Add that prestige and attention to the middling ratings, and Mad Men earns its keep.

We’ve seen this before, with NBC Universal’s Syfy and Battlestar Galactica; Ron Moore and David Eick’s series was never the highest-rated show on the cable network, but unlike the more popular Stargate: Atlantis or Warehouse 13, it did snag the network a Peabody Award and prompt a discussion of human rights at the United Nations. To be blunt, you genuinely can’t buy publicity — or affirmation — like that. When a show starts connecting with people in such a way, you keep that show on the air as long as you can before it starts to really hurt financially.

The problem is that, eventually, it will start to hurt financially, and at that point you have to start to say goodbye. Television is a business, after all, and there comes a point where leaving money on the table in the name of critical plaudits starts to seem foolish; you can’t use acclaim to put food on the table, after all. Goodwill only goes so far, and with every single episode, more people are leaving Don Draper for other shows.

Battlestar Galactica lasted four seasons (Five, if you include the original mini-series that launched the reboot); Breaking Bad will last five. Mad Men, by the time it’s finished, will have lasted seven seasons. All things considered, that’s an impressively long run, especially considering the alternative programming AMC could have opted for at any point that would have brought more people watching. It may simply be that Mad Men the show has a parallel existence to Don Draper himself: Slowly becoming outdated without anyone realizing it at the time.

This doesn’t bode well for the future of television drama, though. If broadcast networks are going to play it safe in terms of selecting new shows, and the previously-reliable cable and premium cable channels have discovered that genre is far more successful than “straight” drama when it comes to return on investment and eyeballs-on-shows, that’s a problem for any new show that wants to play things slow, subtle and lavishly enough that its budgets may make executives nervous. Given the choice between something with the potential to become a breakout hit and something with the potential to break even but maybe garner critical acclaim, it’s more of a risk to go with the latter option, and with the television industry in seeming flux (Ad spending was down in 2011, back up in 2012, an election year), now might be the time to play it safe. So where will we see the next Mad Men?

The answer may be online. We don’t yet know — and may never know, considering just how closely guarded viewing numbers at Netflix tend to be — how many people have streamed House of Cards so far, but let’s do some creative math for a second: Mad Men averages between 2.5 and 3 million viewers an episode, as does Breaking Bad, so let’s say that that means there’s a three million-strong audience for those shows in the U.S. at least (Bear in mind, DVRs, DVD and streaming audiences alike aren’t factored into those numbers; Sunday’s Mad Men often tops Apple’s iTunes TV chart on Monday, so there’s a second audience right there that’s already digital to consider).

Admittedly, a new drama in that vein wouldn’t have the name recognition nor the critical acclaim that would drive people to tune in, so the math may be somewhat skewed upwards. Perhaps not, once you factor in the audience that wanted the show in another format than live-viewing and the additional audience who might be interested in the show but stays away because it’s already five years in (Or, for that matter, the audience who might watch just for the novelty of something new).

Nonetheless, it’s safe to assume that the metrics for “success” for a streaming-first show are somewhat different than that for a traditional television show, if only due to the newness of the format and the smaller scale of the audience. Is it possible that a Mad Men-style 3 million people audience would be enough to be considered a smash hit for streaming? Could the future of prestige television drama be somewhere that isn’t technically television at all?