It's hard to surf the Internet these days without reading a story about everybody's favorite cult show, AMC Networks' (NASDAQ:AMCX) Breaking Bad. The appeal is undeniable -- a high school chemistry teacher with terminal cancer turns to cooking meth to make ends meet for his family, only to lose his soul in the process.
Yet Breaking Bad is enthralling -- I was addicted from the first episode -- because it reaches a terrifying level of realism that other shows avoid. It builds its characters slowly and patiently, allowing viewers to understand how Walter White crosses so many lines.
The show's greatest accomplishment is how its fans have reacted to Walt's struggles -- some continue to support him, seeing him as a good man who was dealt a bad hand, others feeling his plight brought out the dark side that was within him all along.
By having its viewers identify with Walt from the beginning, show creator Vince Gilligan forces viewers to watch the human tragedy unfold in slow motion.
Is Gus Fring running AMC
Breaking Bad is symbolic of AMC's dramas -- character driven, slowly paced, and undeniably targeted at niche audiences. Like another fine show -- AMC's Mad Men -- it's a show that doesn't pull its punches or care about reaching the widest audience possible. It demonstrates how good a show can be when its core creative team stays with the show from start to finish, unlike many other series from ABC (The Walt Disney Co.), CBS, and NBC (Comcast) which often run declining shows into exhaustion.
Just as Walt got drawn into his cash-lined pit of darkness in the desert, AMC unfortunately seems to be headed in the same direction.
The network seems to have grown too fast on the popularity of Mad Men (2007), Breaking Bad (2008), and The Walking Dead (2010) and is now having trouble mapping out its plans for the future. The success of all three shows can be attributed to three experienced showrunners -- Mad Men was created by Matthew Weiner (The Sopranos), Breaking Bad comes from Vince Gilligan (The X-Files), and The Walking Dead was originally helmed by Frank Darabont, the renowned director of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.
With that kind of talent, it's inevitable the issue of money would come up sooner or later. Just as Walter White wanted a bigger piece of the pie from Gus Fring's operations, Weiner, Gilligan, and Darabont didn't agree with AMC's plans to boost its revenue and margins.
Speaking of which, AMC's revenue, earnings, and margin growth have all been fairly incredible over the past two years. Last quarter, the company's earnings and revenue rose 227% and 15.8%, respectively -- contributing to the stock's 56% rise over the past 12 months.
When Weiner's contract expired in 2011, he objected to the network's plans to reduce the length of each episode for more commercial time and the elimination of cast members to save money. The dispute delayed the show's return into the following year. AMC then almost lost Breaking Bad to another network when contract negotiations between itself and Sony Pictures, which produces the series, broke down. AMC only wanted Breaking Bad's final season to be six to eight episodes long, but renewed negotiations eventually resulted in two eight-episode half-seasons.
Last but not least, AMC fired The Walking Dead showrunner Frank Darabont over budget issues, then went on to remove his successor, Glen Mazzara, although the second and third seasons he helmed were well-received by viewers and critics.
If it's one thing that Breaking Bad has taught us, it's that talented people are usually ambitious as well, and AMC could suffer the same fate as Gus Fring when he went head-to-head with Walter -- with half of his face blown off by a bomb.
AMC's growing pain
The problems with AMC don't end there, however -- the company recently cancelled The Killing again, a show that ran for two seasons before being revived for a recently concluded third season. AMC then barely renewed its western, Hell on Wheels, for a third season, due to production costs. It then filled its schedule with cheaper unscripted programs, like Small Town Security, Freakshow, Comic Book Men, The Pitch, and companion talk shows to The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad.
AMC also decided to produce new spin-offs for Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. The Breaking Bad spin-off, Better Call Saul, focuses on Saul Goodman, Walt's unscrupulous but resourceful lawyer. However, Better Call Saul could suffer from unfavorable comparisons to Breaking Bad. Details are sparse regarding The Walking Dead spin-off, but Robert Kirkman, the producer of The Walking Dead and the writer of the original comic book series, is on board with the idea.
A final thought
With these reality shows, talk shows, and spin-offs, AMC is looking less like the innovative new kid on the block and more like the major networks. Perhaps this was inevitable, considering the company's need to please its investor.
But I think the charm that made AMC so special will wear off once Breaking Bad concludes in two weeks, and Mad Men finishes its final split season in 2015. Like the final episodes of Breaking Bad for our antihero, I don't see this ending well for AMC.