The opening of the Peak TV floodgates can be traced back to the early aughts, when premiere programming began trickling from premium channels like HBO over to basic cable channels, such as Fox's FX and a little-known entity called AMC.
In 2005, AMC was trying to expand beyond classic movies and break into the prestige TV market that had been monopolized by HBO with shows like The Sopranos, which premiered in 1999, and The Wire, which premiered in 2002. (FX had also garnered attention for its cop drama The Shield, which bowed three months before The Wire.) Former screenwriter Christina Wayne was brought on board to start the network's original programming department, with the goal of negotiating more lucrative deals with cable providers, who were starting to catch on to the fact (thanks to The Sopranos) that audiences would pay higher rates for higher-quality content.
"When basic cable channels were renegotiating their deals with their cable providers, if they didn't have a signature show like a Shield, then they didn't have any bargaining power. So, [AMC executives] worried that when they went to the table they weren't going to be even able to get the same deal they had previously negotiated years before," Wayne explains. "[President and CEO Josh Sapan] knew that ... That was what transitioned AMC from just being a basic cable channel showing old movies to, all of a sudden, they had Mad Men and Breaking Bad."
But it wasn't as easy as it sounds. When AMC began filming the pilot for Mad Men in 2006, the network had to finance the production themselves after failing to secure a studio partner. The show — a period piece with a large, unknown cast, set in a workplace that was neither a law firm nor a hospital — broke all the rules of traditional successful TV programming at the time. Putting up $3.3 million out of its own coffers for the pilot was a huge risk for AMC, which, unlike HBO, relies on advertisers and sponsors for the bulk of its revenue, rather than subscribers.
"At the time, what was successful? Law & Order was successful. CSI was successful. Close-ended, episodic [storytelling]," AMC's chief operating officer Ed Carroll says. "I shared [Mad Men's pilot script] with some senior advertising agency folks. They both advised not to do it. They said, 'The lead character is hollow. There's no one to root for. And the stakes are too low. No one gets murdered. No one gets kidnapped. They might lose the account? Not exactly high-stakes television.' But they both said — this is what rang in my ears — 'I would watch it, but probably no one else would.' If enough people say that, then maybe you're on to something."
But AMC's primary motivation was not to draw a large audience. Rather, the network's core aim was to provide "premium television on basic cable," according to Carroll and president/general manager Charlie Collier.
"What we talked about at AMC was, 'Don't worry about ratings,'" says Carroll, noting that the network at the time showed classic movies six nights a week. "We wanted to do television that was of the highest quality of American television, challenging and not necessarily for everyone. If you start out by saying, 'We want everyone to watch,' that really does limit your story choices."
Adds Collier: "We weren't going to try to be all things to all people. We were going to go for distinction, and we were going to build a product of distinction. ... It was about taking risks that other creators could see."
As AMC's marketing department set about promoting Mad Men, they found themselves tasked with selling a piece of content the likes of which they had never seen before.
"We all recognized we had something so incredibly special, really just this magnificent piece of art," says Linda Schupack, AMC's executive vice president of marketing. "Our desire to get into original programming was to do programming with distinction, and Mad Men certainly delivered on that. We knew that we had something that would set us apart, that an audience would respond to. On a personal level, I just felt very privileged to be working on it."
Though it was a slow build in the ratings, to say the least, Mad Men immediately attracted the attention of critics, advertisers and, yes, other creators - including Breaking Bad's Vince Gilligan. (It also became the first dramatic cable series to win the Emmy for best show, which it did in 2008 — and '09, '10 and '11.) While Mad Men was in development, AMC was in the process of acquiring its next pet project, Breaking Bad.
"Our programming folks sent Vince Gilligan Mad Men and said, 'Look, this hasn't aired yet, but take a look at what we're doing,'" Collier recalls. "It really became a calling card for the type of risks we would take over the next decade."
Breaking Bad premiered six months after Mad Men, in January 2008, and the attention that was beginning to be paid to this grittier, darker type of television programming also fostered an environment of "healthy competition" between Gilligan and Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, according to Carroll. Both are now widely considered to be two of the best television shows of all time.
"[Mad Men] certainly redefined, over time, AMC's place in the world. It hung a sign up that said, 'If you have a great idea for original shows, you should talk to AMC,'" Collier says.
The two tentpole series certainly cemented the network as a leader in prestige programming. But they also changed the broader television landscape as well, unleashing a wave of similar risk-taking programming on cable. The shows that followed can be traced all the way to today's standout (and award-winning) programming like American Crime Story and The Americanson FX, not to mention the countless high-quality options on streaming services that didn't exist 10 years ago, like Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, Amazon's Transparent, Netflix's Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards, and so on. The grandfather of Prestige TV, HBO, is of course still producing prestige programming including Big Little Lies, The Night Of and Game of Thrones.
And in recent years, broadcast networks have also been trying to get in on the prestige TV game with minimal success. ABC's anthology series American Crime, which was canceled after three seasons, was hailed by critics even as it failed to draw viewers, and Fox's even shorter-lived Gracepoint, an Americanized adaptation of the BBC's critically-acclaimed Broadchurch, was unable to connect as well.
As television viewership has declined, thanks to streaming and a saturation of content, AMC's indifference to ratings has also proved prescient. Netflix doesn't release ratings data, and with few exceptions, shows are considered successful even with a fraction of the viewers that used to tune in a decade ago. At the same time, AMC's Field of Dreams-inspired ratings philosophy has paid off. Ten years after the premiere of Mad Men, AMC is home to the most-watched series on basic cable, The Walking Dead.
"The Walking Dead wouldn't exist if you hadn't built a platform of having an audience come for scripted shows, and having the prestige advertisers that came with those shows," Wayne says.
It's a testament to the rapidity of change that Mad Men -- which premiered 10 years ago this week — was seen as taboo in the television world into which it was born, even as it set a benchmark of quality for other shows to aspire to. Characteristics that were once considered risky — shorter seasons, slower narrative paces, and a more subtle sense of drama — are, for the most part, now requirements for any show that's going to set itself apart.