The President of AMC and SundanceTV discusses the rise of the immersive drama on television and the cultural shifts that have led to the transition from The Waltons to Walter White.
Jan 26, 2016 - 7:38 PM

There has been much discussion around the question of whether there is “too much TV” today, but very little about why there’s so much great television – particularly first-rate, scripted dramas – on cable, broadcast and streaming services. I don’t subscribe to the notion that there’s too much television out there, but I do think it’s important to explore the reasons why we’re seeing what we’re seeing on TV. Specifically, why are great, immersive dramas thriving today, and what does their success say about our culture and about our future as an industry?

It wasn’t all that long ago that the reigning Emmy winner for Outstanding Drama Series – the most celebrated drama of the year – was The Waltons, while its fellow nominees were the closed-ended procedurals Kojak, Police Story, Cannon, Mannix and The Streets of San Francisco. Fast forward forty years, and the Emmy nominees in the same vaunted category are immersive, serialized dramas like Breaking Bad[1], Game of Thrones, Mad Men[1] and Homeland. What explains this storytelling transformation? Why are many of the most popular and acclaimed shows on television in recent years tackling themes that have us cheering for murderers like Walter White and Tony Soprano, when we used to cuddle up with John Boy and the Waltons? Why are we willingly sharing time with characters who are often wholly foreign to us (even those who may make us downright uneasy), versus the closed-ended comfort and reassurance of the original Hawaii Five-O or Columbo neatly solving crimes in 60 minutes?

At AMC and SundanceTV, we spend a lot of time probing the “whys” behind all sorts of changes in television storytelling. In particular, given what we air, we’ve been working to understand why TV has shifted from largely escapist fare toward more immersive content, on the theory that understanding these changes helps us better understand our audience and their expectations for the time they spend with us.

So we partnered with a cultural anthropologist named Susan Kresnicka and a firm called Troika to look at the role that television plays in our viewers’ lives today. Through this work, we explored four important cultural shifts that are helping to shape the dramas we see on television. And, most importantly for us as an industry, we learned that today’s television dramas are actually helping viewers navigate these very same cultural shifts. I’ll discuss each of these below, and share a few theories about what they may portend for our industry.

 

Technology

The first of these four cultural shifts could be classified – in an admittedly gross oversimplification – as technology. Through the evolution of digital video recorders (DVRs), video on demand (VOD), subscription streaming services (SVOD), electronic sell-through platforms like iTunes (EST), tablets, smart phones, and so many other advancements, technology has helped forever change the nature of TV storytelling.

Let’s not forget that, before these improvements, viewers could not easily curate their own content. We couldn’t take our shows with us, so if we fell behind in a serialized story, it was almost impossible to catch up (with the rare exception of summer repeats or, much later, syndication). A season of serialized television was like a train rolling down the tracks; if you didn’t jump on as it passed, you might as well wave goodbye … or overpay for a box set, months later, at your local Sam Goody.

Technology has made today’s serialized stories available in a way that feels more personal to viewers, imbuing it with new value and revenue streams for businesses like ours. It has also been enormously liberating for writers and showrunners, who now have the option of slowing down stories and exploring and developing characters over hours, months and seasons. No longer must they deliver set-up, plot and conclusion all within a single, self-contained hour. Of course, technology didn’t give Vince Gilligan the talent to make good on his promise to turn Walter White from Mr. Chips into Scarface, but it did provide millions of viewers with the tools to experience Walt’s radical transformation. In fact, technology is a major reason why Walt’s popularity continues to grow even today, years after the series finale.

Technology has driven audiences to immersive television not just by providing useful tools of mobility and time-shifting, however. Our research suggests that the sheer abundance of technology itself – the constant bombardment of our device-filled, hyper-intense, always-on world – has likewise played a role in driving viewers to today’s scripted television. Specifically, immersion in television becomes a way to “turn it all off” and enter a new world. And, in fact, turning it off is important when consuming much of today’s scripted TV, because close attention is a critical part of the viewing experience. Before The Sopranos, you could watch TV while folding laundry or paying bills (with hand-written checks, of course). But today’s immersive television – Better Call Saul[1], Game of Thrones, etc. – requires our undivided attention. Multitask and you might miss out. Immersive TV takes us away from everyday distractions and allows us to enter the worlds of these shows and characters in a remarkably deep way. Today, more than ever, we welcome that.

 

Awakening to Human Difference

A second cultural shift shaping television finds that we as a culture are awakening, unlike ever before, to human differences in gender, race and sexuality. This awakening, in turn, affects the stories creators can tell and how those stories are received.

From friendship to marriage, it used to be that the people we spent time with were pretty much just like us. In 1970, just one percent of babies born in the United States were multi-racial. Today, that figure has multiplied tenfold. And race is just one piece of it; more than ever before, we are much more in contact with, or at the very least aware of, the wide range of human difference in the world – differences in ethnicity, sexuality, spirituality and disability, just to name a few. And because the best of television reflects our society, we are now seeing characters of greater diversity on our favorite shows.

TV is exposing us to people we might not otherwise have regular interactions with, and causing us to question our perceptions of who these people are. Sometimes, being forced to question deeply held or ingrained assumptions isn’t comfortable, but immersive television makes it a little more so, giving us the opportunity to negotiate human difference in the comfort of our own homes.

And that personal comfort helps us: Research suggests that, when we see characters navigating morally complex situations, we’re thinking about us as much as we’re thinking about the characters on the screen. We are processing our feelings about what those morally complex situations mean to us.

This form of empathy is especially important when we watch characters for whom we might have preconceived notions: For example, Salvatore Romano of Mad Men, Maura Pfefferman of Transparent, or Crazy Eyes from Orange Is the New Black.

 

A Shift Away from Institutional Religion 

A third cultural shift affecting today’s television centers on the fact that, statistically speaking, Americans are moving away from institutional religion. Research suggests that this, too, affects our viewership choices, pushing us toward more immersive content.

As recently as the 1980s, according to the General Social Survey, more than nine in 10 Americans identified with some formal religion. Back then, very few people – only five to eight percent of the population – described themselves as religiously unaffiliated. Today, according to Pew Research, roughly a fifth of all Americans, and fully a third of millennials, say they do not identify with any formal religion. (Of course, many Americans today are seeking spiritual connections outside of religious institutions, so it’s worth nothing that while religiosity is, statistically speaking, declining, spirituality doesn’t seem to be).

This shift affects our programming choices in that many of us seem to be using immersive dramas to help us process issues or questions that we previously may have navigated through the more formal venues of religion. So as these institutions, even to a small degree, recede from prominence, we as individuals are taking a more direct and active role in navigating the world. What we consume on television is playing an increasingly important role in personal processes of discovery and acclimatization.

 

Democratization of Power

Finally, the fourth cultural shift helping shape the course of television concerns the democratizing power of information; specifically, the fact that widespread access to information can topple old hierarchies and give new voice to all sorts of opinions. Whether it’s Twitter helping spread democracy in the Middle East or bad Yelp reviews contributing to the demise of a local diner, access and information have empowered the masses as never before. Today, singular opinions are more potent than ever. We can share what we think farther and faster than at any time in our history.

Television, or course, is both a beneficiary and a victim of this democratization of information. It used to be that there was really only one barometer of a show’s popularity – Nielsen ratings. Now, buzz and the power of the pop-cultural conversation, often measured by social media engagement, are important contributors to the success equation. We all love it when positive conversations about our shows take over social media. And we hear about it when they don’t. Thanks to the democratization of power, leadership at a TV network is as likely to be reached by a tweet or Google Alert generated by a viewer sitting on his or her couch as they are a review from an accredited major media outlet. Like democracy itself, this is both exciting and challenging.

 

Television as Art

All of these shifts are coming together to create a new role for television, a role that in the past would have been confined to other art forms, like books, film or other visual arts. For those of us who have had the great privilege of working with artists of our day – the writers and showrunners at the center of the immersive dramas we love – it is clear that television has matured to the point where it can be considered a true art form. No doubt about it, TV today is art. Art poses questions and raises important issues head-on, probing the tough topics of the day. Today’s immersive television is doing just that, more, and more comprehensively, than it ever has before.

People who discuss literature, art and film now discuss immersive drama too, and unapologetically so. Television shows are being talked about at dinner parties in Brooklyn, and not dismissively. Can you imagine? Last year alone, AMC and our partners had the pleasure of enshrining both Mad Men and Breaking Bad in the Smithsonian, right there next to Dorothy’s ruby-red slippers and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet; each their own unique piece of museum-quality art.

The artistry of today’s television is an incredibly important development, because, as we all know, art throughout history has been a reflection of its time. Artists have been moving the cultural debate forward for years. Picasso’s Guernica, A Tale of Two Cities, West Side Story – all were reflections of the issues and questions of their day. Television, too, has always been a reflection of its time. Even at what some considered the height of fun, escapist television – the frothy 1970s of Three’s Company and Love American Style – there were socially thoughtful series like M*A*S*H, Maude, All in the Family asking serious questions. TV at that time may have disguised some of those questions with a laugh track, and few would have openly called television “art” back then, but those shows had plenty on their minds. Today’s immersive television has taken that probing and questioning of societal issues even further, in the process cementing its place in the artistic and cultural conversation.

 

So Where Does it All Go?

As I noted right at the top, I don’t subscribe to the notion that there is “too much TV” today. That’s because, even in our content-cluttered world, the best television events will still be exactly that – events. Yes, it’s true that when there were only three broadcast networks, every show seemed all but guaranteed an opening night on Broadway. Today, with hundreds of outlets for content and scripted drama proliferating, many an opening night will be far off Broadway. In 2016, shows do have to work much harder to grab our attention, there’s no doubt of that. But I really believe the best content still does – and always will – break through.

In fact, immersive content will not only prevail, it will become even more prized and more important over time, as the last decade has shown us. That consumers are engaging so fully with these shows makes them all the more valuable to paying advertisers and to brand-building platforms looking to differentiate through the quality of engagement with an audience.

Moreover, in order to make the business model for expensive, immersive dramas work, these shows need to have both multiple windows and also a measurable and predictable long tail. (To that end, I believe our industry will find more sophisticated ways to measure total audiences for content; measurement that then fortifies the business models that fund this remarkable – but let’s face it, not inexpensive – content.)

Television networks will need to become more like studios, reducing their reliance on first-window revenues and reorganizing around longer monetization periods. This will likely make networks far more platform-agnostic over time and more focused on the duration and sustainability of intellectual property versus the immediate gratification of overnights (or even live+3 or live+7 ratings).

That’s why ‘Live+365’ is the metric for AMC and SundanceTV today (even for those of our shows that attract mass urgent audiences), and it will become the mantra of most IP holders and investors-in-immersive-content moving forward. That ‘Live+365’ approach brings with it substantial opportunities, but also sustained work, attention and investment: Building and continually engaging “immersed” fan communities over an extended period of time, whether or not a show is “in season.” I’m not suggesting that we at AMC have cracked this nut, but I do think our strongest efforts in this area are those around The Walking Dead. The series exists on television as a live event for only 16 nights a year, but remains an active and vibrant community all year long. Fan events, panels, releases of clips and images, ongoing discussions and a strong social presence keep the series very much front and center all year long. This is the type of engagement we hope to build for our shows; after all, immersive dramas both benefit from and demand this kind of commitment from the networks that present them.

(Of course, those of us in the television business aren’t the only ones adapting to this move towards immersive entertainment. Consider a field that has gotten quite a bit of buzz lately: Virtual reality (VR). Anyone who has put on a VR headset knows that, in addition to providing a wholly original visual experience, the technology literally blocks out anything not in that virtual world. Talk about immersion! VR delivers immersion on steroids, and like many others, I am intrigued by the storytelling possibilities in this space.)

The cultural trends I’ve touched on, and many more, have helped shape viewers’ bond with immersive television to the point that TV has become a powerful tool for navigating the popular culture conversation. This influence, in my view, is here to stay. Heralded, serialized television will only continue to raise complex issues – issues around gender and its fluidity, the shifting sands of morality, what it means to be human versus machine, the differences between surviving and living, and many more. And when television asks these questions, we pose them consciously and subconsciously in our own lives. In short, immersive content has changed the relationship between viewer and television, and between viewer and popular culture.

Lastly, while I have focused on immersive scripted dramas here, we shouldn’t forget that, happily, there are still plenty of programs – attracting millions of viewers – that are self-contained and resolved from episode to episode (and many more that can be described as pure fun and escapist entertainment). We love and invest in these stories too and believe that television’s breadth is a great and enduring attribute of the medium. But our company’s examination of these four cultural shifts has made it increasingly clear to us that, among the many dimensions of televised entertainment, immersive TV isn’t a fad that has suddenly come into vogue for its moment, only to fade away later. It is truly a redefinition of the television content experience itself – what we want from it, what we get from it, and the meaning it provides far beyond the actual viewing experience. It’s a virtuous circle in which life affects art, and then art affects life, with we as viewers happily immersed in an engaged, entertained center.

 

Charlie Collier is the President of AMC, SundanceTV and AMC Studios. He joined AMC in 2006 and in less than a decade AMC has been transformed from a classic movie channel into a must-have force in original programming; home to critically acclaimed and award-winning series like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Hell on Wheels, Halt and Catch Fire, TURN: Washington’s Spies, Fear the Walking Dead and The Walking Dead, the #1 show on television among adults 18-49 for the past four years.

NOTES:
[1] Disclosure: Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are AMC Original Series launched during Charlie’s tenure as President of AMC and AMC Studios.