Episodes of Evolution: Slow-burn Drama, High Speed Connection

4Cable News spoke with Josh Sapan, President and CEO of AMC Networks, the company largely credited for changing modern television with groundbreaking slow-burning original scripted drama. An early adopter of VOD and a believer in working with OTT, Josh gives us an exclusive on TV’s second golden age. Josh gives us an exclusive on TV’s second golden age. Josh will join us this year at Cable Congress to give a keynote presentation. Check the event programme here.

1. It’s great to catch up with you, Josh. You’re considered a true cable pioneer on your side of the Atlantic. And on our side of the Atlantic, Europeans are rather familiar with your pioneering programming whether it is Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, the hipster-mocking comedy Portlandia, The Killing and most recently Rectify which we premiered this year in London at Cable Congress. Let’s start with what might be a tough question because it’s so obvious but, why cable? Why is cable such a good home to the new wave of must-see television in what you have termed TV’s second golden age?

Josh Sapan:
I think that probably the best answer that I might provide is that cable has been able to pursue quality craft storytelling, writing, directing and casting without the compromise or the ambiguity of early on in the process being seized with a focus on how big the audience will be in week three. And that may sound like a smallish thing, and indeed some of our shows have got big audiences, but if they’re developed with anxiety about week three or week two and how big the audience is, it leads to what one sees in American broadcast television: There is very little that is seriously distinct. That’s not accidental because if you want a big, big audience it is riskier to follow the “great creative” and it is statistically more likely and better to follow degrees of formula. So I think that’s “why cable.”

32. Innovative ways of reaching audiences are not new to you as we know that you ran a mobile cinema project literally driving 16mm projectors around the Midwest in your younger days before you got into the cable business. Fast forward to today and your award-winning content is available on-air, online, on demand and mobile. As an early mover with VOD, can you tell us a bit about the strategy behind such wide availability for your content over so many platforms?

Thanks for flattering me with information about my past. I actually think that the technology and the manner in which consumers are engaging with our content has a fairly substantial influence not only on the degrees of success that we’ve had but with a sort of wave of a second golden age or the consumption and appreciation of drama that is more nuanced and takes greater attention. To say it in a pithy way, one might say that TV is the new cinema meaning that some of the TV shows – ours and others – are being talked about and characterized the way that movies, or to use the fancy word, cinema, were decades ago. And what is interesting – and I’ll try and make the answer cogent and not drone on – when you go to a movie theater and watch a movie and if it’s a good film, you’re sitting in a dark theatre, you’re paying attention and you’re not distracted. So certain films require that sort of attention. Before television was available in on-demand format and it was only available on Thursday night at 9, it was pretty challenging if you live at home and you have kids to pay enough attention to appreciate and stay with, let’s say Mad Men, Girls on HBO or Homeland on Showtime. You might miss it and you might not stay with it because it really does require that much attention. Now once you’re in and once you’ve been introduced to it and you can catch up then you’re maybe happy to watch on linear because you know that you have to stay with it. The changes in technology are actually fairly central to what has created the appetite for this more nuanced material.

3. In Europe we are bringing the fight to telco incumbents with super fast broadband speeds which happen to also be a big item on the European political agenda. Could you tell us a bit about the role of technology – and embracing it – at AMC?

I think on the platform the near ubiquity of on demand and cable on demand and the expanding channel capacity have been a great aid for the reasons that I mentioned. If you ask people “Do you watch that show?” you will frequently hear them say, “No, I don’t watch on a schedule, I watch on demand – that’s what I do.” So I think technology is central to that. Perhaps less directly central to it is that on certain of those shows, the participation on a second screen is now something that we are making, doing, developing and putting forward. The technological plant enhances that with very high broadband speeds and makes it comfortable and highly functional without a hiccup. And that makes the experience all the more desirable. We see millions and millions of people doing that and accessing additional content not second screen live while – but also additional content via the broadband connection. So it is be coming for those reasons a central part of what we have to offer. When you’re a fan you want to engage people and the technology allows you to engage people. In Europe as well? Yes.

24. One thing that unites both the US and European cable markets is a nervous eye on Over-the-Top providers. How does AMC view the OTT threat? Or is this an opportunity?

Since you’re an appreciator of comedy, I don’t know if you go back long enough to remember when Saturday Night Live said that “it’s a floor wax and a mouth-wash.” But it does seem to be a potential threat prospectively. But today, to date in the United States it has been really quite compatible. Netflix in the US is in 30 million homes, that’s close to 30% of the US television households. During that period of time the cable universe, which is fairly mature, has been pretty stable so one certainly can’t, to date, point to that availability and say that it has been incurring or denting the subscriber count. In terms of us specifically, we make our material in the US generally available on Netflix a couple of weeks before the next season so if you want to see last season’s Mad Men, it’s available a couple of weeks before the new season begins. And really what’s happening, we hope, is that we are protecting the propriety and integrity of the cable ecosystem by making it the place where everything is current and the only place where everything is current. Number two, we’re inviting people to use both cable on demand and OTT as VOD services to catch up before the new linear season begins and that has enhanced the ratings of our shows on linear which are carried on a cable platform. So it has been for us, to date, quite harmonious.

5. How do you tap into viewers in Europe? Or do you make programming for a US audience and simply hope that some of it is palatable for a European viewership?

We distribute multiple feeds of Sundance Channel across Europe. Sundance Channel offers a diverse selection of first run original dramas, including series from AMC Networks, and other iconic programming. This includes award-winning and locally-appealing independent films and documentaries. We showcase films fresh from the world’s biggest festivals and classics from around the world. Each feed is programmed to appeal to audiences in local markets. In addition, our marketing activities are designed to customize for local audiences across the region.

6. One of the big factors for cable’s success is regulation. Streamlined and predictable regulation is best for business. How does European regulation impact your content distribution in Europe and what could be improved?1

All of our channels across Europe adhere to all local broadcast regulations. Our business is relatively new in the region, so we’re looking for opportunities to rapidly expand Sundance Channel on all pay-TV platforms. Ultimately, we’d like for Sundance Channel to be as widely available in Europe as our domestic channels are available to audiences in the U.S., and we think we have the content mix to make that a very positive development for viewers.

7. Europe is one continent but packed with different cultures and customs. How does a company like AMC pitch its content to such a varied audience where language barriers are not insignificant?

Part of the appeal of Sundance Channel is that it offers a window to the rest of the world. The network celebrates the diverse creativity from emerging and established filmmakers and talent worldwide. This includes some of the most bold and imaginative dramas on television, along with an outstanding line-up of independent films and documentaries from across the globe. The network is customized for each country it serves. Depending on local tastes, viewers can watch our programming in either subtitled or dubbed formats. In some cases, we offer programming in both formats. It really depends on the needs of audiences in each country.

8. What is your favorite piece of personal technology? It can be a device, a service, a channel or a platform.

I think it’s probably a smart phone although I do cherish my DVRs and I won’t confess to how many I have because it will either make me look nuts or like an excessive spender – but that’s good for the cable community. I will say that something that I just have enormous affection for– no kidding – is my cable company’s app on my smart phone. I use it like crazy. I’m a heavy DVR user and so for professional and personal reasons, whenever I encounter a TV show that I want to check out I pull out my iPhone and I go to the app. Even an idiot like me cannot mess up, you move around the content – you can’t miss it, it’s that simple. I just press the button and say “Oh, new TV show I want, here it is, I’m going to go put it in the kitchen, or the bedroom or the living room and boom, it’s done.” It really is exquisite. I did actually write to the guy who runs the company and thought, you know the app has made me love cable TV once again. It really has. I’m not kidding. It’s flawless, it never fails and it feels a little miraculous. It’s pretty cool.

9. Are you able to tell us who your cable provider is?

Time Warner Cable! I have my Time Warner app and I use it like mad. My iPhone’s in the room and I’m burning up my DVRs and it’s pretty lovely to, really without any navigational issues, go press buttons and decide which TV I want. Just press the button!

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