A major success in the highly competitive arena of television drama is the American Movie Classics (AMC) network’s Mad Men, a program set in the New York advertising world of the 1960s. The drama is distinct for several reasons, one of the more notable being that it is the first such venture produced by a cable company established to present only older films. This factor in turn emphasizes the show’s success, given the many and diverse custom programs offered by cable networks such as Home Box Office (HBO) and Showtime. In no uncertain terms, Mad Men was a risky venture even in an industry in which risk is inevitable, and one that has paid off enormously for AMC in high ratings, loyal audiences, typically excellent reviews, and prestigious awards. As will be explored in the following, the success of Mad Men relies on a combination of elements, ranging from the unusual creation of a new nostalgia to the critical component of how, through various media exposures and interactions, audiences expand due to their own promotions of what they themselves enjoy.
The product in question is, as noted, an original television drama. This then presents the goals of the production agent as conforming with other such ventures in the industry. More exactly, with a TV program, it is not so much a matter of projecting specific levels of viewership, but of seeking to immediately capture as large a share of the TV viewing demographic as possible. The equation dictating TV program survival or success is basic, and has remained essentially the same despite the proliferation of cable networks; the more viewers watching, the more advertisers will seek to buy time and promote their products, and the more revenue is generated for the producers. Moreover, there can be no assurance of continued success after a series launches well; TV is completely ratings-driven, and advertising rates shift weekly based upon increases and decreases in audience numbers (Gillian, 2010, p. 140).
Then, another challenge with Mad Men was the establishing of AMC as a true competitor in the field of cable companies producing their own programs. AMC had some experience in this process; in the 1990s, it had veered from its standard formula of offering only older films and produced several reality shows. It also invested in creating and promoting a period program centered on a 1930s radio station, Remember WENN, which was not successful (Olmstead, 2011, p. 3). The “retro” component of Mad Men, then, is all the more interesting, as AMC once again committed to a period piece after having failed with the same genre. It is also important to note, in regard to challenges, that AMC differs from cable producers such as HBO and Showtime in terms of financing. More exactly, HBO’s revenue are primarily drawn from subscription fees, so it has greater freedom in creating programs for its known audiences. AMC, although a cable network, relies heavily on advertising, and consequently must secure higher ratings numbers than an HBO (Campbell, Martin, & Fabos, 2012, p. 177). The challenge as a whole, then, was for a cable network largely inexperienced in producing original series to make an impact sufficient to establish it as a successful producer, secure an audience large enough to generate high advertising revenue, and for AMC to enhance its own stature as a producer of high-quality, original programming.
Launched in 1984, AMC was among the first cable networks to devote itself to older films, a strategy implemented to reduce costs and secure a niche market. The network has been consistently popular, as its only major competition in this market is Turner Classic Movies (TMC). Perhaps sensing the need to move beyond the market so dominated by TCM, AMC began strategies in the 1990s of introducing newer films and producing its own series. The immense popularity of Mad Men generated greater opportunity, and this once modest, old movie network is enjoying the sort of popularity formerly attached to the major networks of CBS, ABC, and NBC. In 2012, AMC’s The Walking Dead was the highest-rated show on television in the most sought-after age range of 18-49 (Carr 2013). Today, with the triple-crown of The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men to its credit, AMC is among the premier networks.
As indicated above, AMC, as does virtually every network, targets the young-to-middle-aged demographic, as this is the audience responsible for the majority of purchasing, and consequently more desired by advertisers. In addition to this pragmatic element, Mad Men is geared to attract, not merely an age demographic, but one reflecting a very modern sensibility. The period component of the show, going to an era in which American consumerism was essentially a valued ideology in itself, appears to attract and resonate with audiences left vulnerable following the recent recession (Stoddart, 2011, p. 3). In essence, then, the desired audience for the program is the most commercially active majority of the society.
Mad Men, apart from AMC, boasts more than a few strengths. To begin with, and from its first season in 2007, the program attracted immense attention due to its receiving numerous and prestigious awards. Among the Emmy Awards given were those for best series and writing.
Best series honors came as well from the Directors’ Guild and Writers’ Guild, and Golden Globes were presented for Jon Hamm as lead actor and best dramatic series. At the same time, critical response was typically favorable (Olmstead, 2011, p. 2), and these components generated the word-of-mouth attention which today is immeasurably enhanced by social media. Put another way, the strength of being well-received initially created a national momentum, as the culture typically is drawn to what attracts the majority and is perceived as high quality. The actual quality of the production and writing of Mad Men may be debated, but the impact of these components seen as excellent is clearly a strength.
Ironically, and not unexpectedly within the arena of popular television, the strengths of the show give rise to weaknesses. Just as audiences have responded to the 1960s period drama and corporate intrigue of the stories, more than a few critics cite the program as essentially little more than a glossy soap opera (Stoddart, 2011, p. 3). In a sense, this weakness of derision is inevitable; to command viewer loyalty, it is necessary to have ongoing story lines centered around the main characters and their dramatic interactions, and such a format invites charges of gratuitous television. Nonetheless, and its enormous success notwithstanding, a weakness within Mad Men lies in its reliance on stories involving the typical components of romance, sex, and personal rivalries, all of which echo mediocre programming.
As is true of many SWOT analyses, components serve to reflect or enhance other components. For example, the “weakness” of Mad Men as perhaps superficial provides the opportunity to develop the show in a more well-crafted way, a potential also enabled by its immense popularity. Put another way, both format and success provide the opportunity for the producers to expand their concept how they wish. Then, there is the more obvious opportunity for AMC to build upon the status and financial success of the show, in terms of its corporate expansion. In part due to Mad Men, AMC now is accessed by 99 million of the nation’s 115 million households regularly watching television (Carr, 2013). Lastly, and given the period element of the show, the network is enabled to educate younger viewers as to the ideologies governing American life in the 1960s.
The external threats to Mad Men and AMC are plain, for they are the threats inherently in place with any programming success. On one level, TV shows typically fade in popularity after a limited number of seasons, no matter the initial acclaim and audience shares. On another, by placing itself in the same tier with the major cable producers, AMC generates competitive challenges, as HBO and Showtime have all the more incentive to recapture markets. A less obvious threat is the one related to the social media marketing to be discussed, in that the show’s benefiting from modern communication may shorten its life span. More exactly, as social media expands the presence of an entertainment, so too may this unprecedented attention generate a more rapid turning to a new product.
Created and produced by Matthew Weiner for AMC, Mad Men is an ongoing drama set in the advertising world of 1960s New York. The central character is Don Draper, a founding partner of a prestigious Madison Avenue agency, who lives in a suburb of Ossining, New York, with his wife Betty and their children. Episodes involve personal, romantic, and commercial conflicts, and the emphasis is on recapturing, not merely the authentic styles of the 1960s, but the prevalent ideologies (Stoddart, 2011, p. 2). First aired in 2007, Mad Men is in its sixth season on AMC and has consistently garnered major awards and high ratings.
Distribution and Promotion
While there exists for Mad Men the obvious distribution avenue of television presentation, there is an interesting element in place provided by the nature of its parent company. More exactly, and given AMC’s programming as largely consisting of older films, the network is free to air the show at any time, an advantage not enjoyed by traditional TV networks. This translates to multiple viewing times and repeat episodes, as the web page devoted to the program reveals (Mad Men, 2013). Distribution occurs at all hours, a process continually abetted by the accumulation of episodes and seasons.
More intriguing is how the series has developed unique means of promotion. These may be said to exist in two forms, the first of which is employing corporate tie-ins and promotions based on the 1960s theme of the show itself. For example, when launching its third season, AMC offered a “Mad About Town” package in New York City, in which fans enjoyed cocktail parties, 1960s advertising art exhibits, luxury hotel accommodations, and a private screening in Times Square (Stoddart, 2011, p. 7). Ironically, AMC is far more progressive than the show’s Sterling Cooper Agency in terms of promotion, and Mad Men breaks new ground in devising corporate partnerships for the purpose. From the start, AMC engaged in offering multi-platform arrangements with established products, most of which echo 1960s consumerism and/or the consumption habits of the show’s characters. Jack Daniels, for instance, sponsors the program’s website, along with advertising during the airings; the Zippo lighter company partnered with AMC in designing a Zippo-style DVD case for the seasons (Stoddart, 2011, p. 111). Essentially, AMC allows sponsors to split time and engage in whatever form or degree of promotional tie-in they are willing to purchase, so the show’s promotion becomes a saturation on multiple levels.
Then, Mad Men fully embraced from the start social media opportunities, creating and promoting Facebook and Twitter accounts in its first year (Stoddart, 2011, p. 111). The timing was certainly fortuitous, as 2007 saw the first great surges of social media as instruments as beneficial to commercial interests. This promotional strategy alone is one whose effects cannot be properly estimated, if only due to the intrinsically social aspect of the platform. What occurs is an exponential promotion as the program’s site becomes associated with literal networks of friends, which in turn generates extensive discussion about the show between online fans. In the past, word-of-mouth was a desirable effect, but social media expanded the basic process in inestimable ways. The literal promotions of Mad Men notwithstanding, this is a program evidently enjoying great success due to the simple formula of social media enabling a widespread presence of it in forums not actually commercial.
It is difficult to note flaws in the Mad Men scenario, and not merely because the show is so successful. More to the point, the development and promotional strategies in place reveal a sensibility both pragmatically focused and strikingly creative. What AMC has done, and from the series’ inception, is capitalize on the unique theme of the program and “sell” America an era of its own past. Mad Men enjoys its standing very largely due to its having created a nostalgia before any social elements indicated this as imminent. If certain programs like Happy Days were popular in the 1970s because they presented an idealized 1950s, that idealization was already present in the culture before the shows. Whether through fortunate accident or strategic planning, Mad Men actually brought with it the impetus for a new cultural reminiscence, and this has provided a potent fascination enhancing the program’s presence. Moreover, the show does not overtly or excessively romanticize the 1960s, which in turn generates a different form of nostalgia; today’s public, for instance, while intrigued by the sexism, drinking, and smoking portrayed on the show, are also enabled to enjoy senses of satisfaction at having evolved from such harmful ways. When actual promotions and social media are added to this, the formula for the unique and secure success of Mad Men appears evident.
In 2007, the modest cable network AMC, having minimal success in other programming, gambled on a period series and launched the 1960s-themed show, Mad Men. Few programs have so amassed honors and viewers as this one has, and it continues to dominate audience shares in its sixth season. The success has also set AMC on a par with the most powerful cable producers, and new AMC programs are securing the network’s ascendance. This success is due partially to the power of the network to air the show whenever it likes, as well as to acting, writing, and production values which, if generating some critical disdain, are more widely praised. There are as well the factors of AMC’s active promotional efforts in corporate tie-ins and social media. These elements aside, however, it is reasonable to assert that Mad Men is an example of a highly successful programming product because it offers the culture an entire era, and one that evokes both sentimentality and gratification at having left it behind.
American Movie Classics (AMC). (2013). Mad Men: Schedule. Retrieved from http://www.amctv.com/schedule#series/Mad-Men
Campbell, R., Martin, C. R., & Fabos, B. (2012). Media and Culture with 2013 Update: An Introduction to Mass Communication. New York: Macmillan.
Carr, D. (2013). “At AMC, Zombies Topple Network TV.” The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/04/business/media/walking-dead-helps-solidify-amcs-ratings-success.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Gillian, J. (2010). Television and New Media: Must-Click TV. New York: Routledge.
Olmstead, K. (2011). Mad Men: The Untold History of Television. New York: HarperCollins.
Stoddart, S. F. (2011). Analyzing Mad Men: Critical Essays on the Television Series. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc.