Will ‘Mad Men’s’ Split-Season Finale Approach Hurt it in the Long Run?

'Mad Men's' final season in under way, but after getting off to a rough start in the ratings can it recoup?

Apr 15, 2014 at 1:05PM

Nobody likes a long goodbye, but apparently nobody told the folks at AMC (NASDAQ:AMCX). The network's plan for an elongated final season of Mad Men got off to a rough start Sunday night  ... which begs the question, are audiences still "mad" for Men?



(Credit: AMC)

The numbers speak for themselves. The first of the final Mad Men episodes was viewed by only 2.3 million viewers, the lowest-watched premiere since season two in 2008. The comparison numbers are just as striking -- last year's opener had 3.4 million viewers, the largest premiere of the show's run.

It wasn't just Mad Men. Other Sunday night cable fare also struggled: lead-in Turn slipped to 1.9 million (down 200,000 week to week) and cable rival Silicon Valley fell to 1.7 million (down 300,000 week to week). While those declines are a little frightening for second-week swings, they were expected. Yet perhaps the scariest part is how close those numbers now are to Mad Men's own ratings. Normally there's a bigger separation, even if it's not a whole lot more.

To be fair Mad Men was never the ratings grabber The Walking Dead has become, but for a show entering its final season, it's a little shocking. Of course that 2.3 million doesn't count encore boosts (which ups the total to 4.4 million) or time-shifted viewing, but that's a nearly 30% drop (live viewing) season to season.

Split reaction


(Credit: AMC)

So why did the numbers fall and what does it mean? Let's start with the why. One of the prevailing theories is that audiences aren't fans of executives' decision to split the final season into two and may just wait to binge-watch the entire thing over the summer.

You can point to the success of splitting Breaking Bad's last season as a reason for the move, but remember Bad was essentially forced into that split because of all the money was being poured into keeping Mad Men on the air.

The Men decline though shows audiences have gotten smarter and their viewing patterns are changing. Smart viewers know Mad Men still has another batch of episodes next year and they won't buy into this whole "the final season" buildup because they know it will come around again this time next year. 

Quality control

Another element that helped Breaking Bad was the series had a "must watch live" appeal. This was a show where characters were going to die and you didn't want to go into work the next day and NOT have seen the episode. Mad Men doesn't regularly dispatch characters, which makes it a lesser priority to some viewers.

Truthfully you can't hold that again Mad Men as this is an entirely differently paced show and that timing (usually) works for it. Plus as easy as it is to want to point the finger at Mad Men's perfectionist creator Matthew Weiner for the split-season structure, it's not his fault. Reportedly the network approached him with the idea to split the season; it just so happen to work out that there was a natural breakpoint.

It's also important to note that to Weiner's credit (and despite what some critics have said), the show's quality hasn't suffered over the last few seasons as season 4's The Suitcase, season 5's Commissions and Fees, and last year's For Immediate Release are among some of the show's finest hours. Even if you disagree with AMC's strategy you have to respect Weiner, who meticulously crafts every aspect of the season and pours everything he has into the series.

Emmy fever

That brings up the Emmys. Simply put, Breaking Bad was split into two runs to allow time for producers to bring the show to a proper conclusion; Mad Mad was split into two runs to keep AMC in the awards race.

Academy voters are notorious for playing favorites and then casting aside their "chosen" ones for a shiner new toy. Two years ago voters shunned the then four time defending champ Mad Men for Homeland and last year Homeland got shelved for Breaking Bad. While voters have returned to shows during their final runs (i.e., The Sopranos), that's not a hard-and-fast trend and voters could be just as ticked off by the split-season approach and snub the show altogether.

For as good as the Emmys have been to Men with series win and writing/directing victories, the show has never won an award for any of its acting. This is an amazing ensemble headlined by Jon Hamm and full of respected and talented vets like John Slattery and Robert Morse...to not have rewarded any of them is questionable. In many cases, it's likely because all of their performances split the votes, but this new wrinkle won't help.

Personally I've always had a lot of respect for AMC and what its executives have accomplished. To go from a network airing old movies to a major powerhouse of top-notch original programming in such a short period of time is no small feat, but they have made a few missteps here and there...and this could down as one of them.

Cable's dominance

Do you know how to profit off the decisions of AMC and its cable rivals? There's $2.2 trillion out there to be had and currently cable networks own a big piece of it, but that won't last. Click here for the names of companies look to flip the script on traditional TV.

Brett Gold has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends AMC Networks. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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