AMC vs HBO: does it really matter?

My favourite TV shows are those with complex narratives and characters that you can either learn to love or hate. Those shows with its distinctive high quality that makes me think that it’s the longest movie I’ve ever seen….however instead of waiting 2 years for the sequel I can’t even wait until next week for the next episode. These shows include Sex & The City, The Newsroom, Boardwalk Empire, Girls and my all-time favourite Game of Thrones. All of these are by HBO, but then once in a blue moon you get other shows with that same distinctive quality and I am shocked to find they are not HBO. Take Mad Men for example, it is produced by AMC (American Movie Classics) cable network which I never heard of till I looked it up and realised it is host to my other favourite show Breaking Bad. So it’s not just HBO, but why as a network does it stand out? Has the reputation of the institution that these quality TV shows belong to outshine what really matters  – the quality of the show? What is the relationship between brand and quality when it comes to television series? And once and for all I would like to define (for myself more than anything) what is quality television and is there some sort of formula to create it?

AMC only started airing TV shows in the past decade and has had huge success in its short time in the sun. AMC shows differ from HBO as their episodes aren’t necessarily jam packed with action but their complex and multi-layered characters are addictive enough to keep you around for the next episode. In an article by Tim Appelo he describes the success of AMC compared to HBO in the Emmy Awards “The secret to AMC’s recent domination of the Emmys is a well-studied formula whose data has been drawn directly from HBO’s own stellar record: You win awards not with scads of cash but with character-based shows that aim high, fit the brand and attract talent.”

This TV series success formula slightly differs for each institution, AMC is very particular and has never seemed to miss the mark on what show will catch on. They have become their own TV auteur taking on shows with their own cinematic history to draw from and highly serialized dramas that make it easy for viewers to relate to. It’s not just shows with a gripping pilot; it’s a series with rich potential to explore cinematically.

Mad Men is an excellent example of an AMC style series and how the relationship between the brand (AMC) and the quality has let the series flourish in its own right. Mad Men is set in 1960s New York and follows protagonist Don Draper and others around him working at a ruthless and demanding advertising agency pushing every character to their creative limit.

Being set in the 60s there is prime opportunity for the show’s creator Matthew Weiner to explore the issues of the time, such as gender, equality and nuclear family values. The show misses out on many other relevant period issues such as race, sexual orientation, politics and freedom. However, by focusing on fewer elements Mad Men is able to increase its quality in the detail. Weiner worked under David Chase (The Soprano’s) and from that learnt to adapt his mise-en-scene to the time period the show is set. There is great detail in Mad Men’s creative elements such as set, costume, language and camera work. He has instilled throughout the series to create a modern world within its own context, this further contributes to its addictive nature.

I believe the brand a TV series associates itself with assists in its initial buzz, however it’s the quality that always transcends the brand and rightly so. Quality is determined by the initial concept, originality, relatability, attention to detail and most importantly the characters. The most successful characters have a discoverable history that reveals itself as more history is created.


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