The latest twist in the negotiations over the long-delayed fifth season of Mad Men is that most of the issues between the network and studio have been worked out, but the deal has now gotten stuck over advertising and budgeting. The network and the studio want to cut the show’s budget by reducing the size of the cast, and also incorporate more commercials through strategic product placement and, most controversially, a shorter running time (which might also reduce the budget a little). Matt Weiner, a man not known for being laid-back in his dealings with the network, is not taking this lightly. But neither is the network: They’ve announced that they will be doing a fifth season of the show in early 2012, many months after it was originally supposed to come back. They don’t have a contract with Weiner yet, so this is essentially the network saying that the wacky Draper antics are coming back with or without him.
Two years ago the network also wanted to cut the running time of Mad Men, which now runs about 48 minutes per episode — in other words, the length of a TV episode from the ’80s, but without all the stock footage and long shots of people driving cars. Though the network pulled a similar stunt, threatening to go on without him, Weiner stood his ground and got the network to accommodate the longer running times. This time he’s doing a similar thing, holding out to do the show without length or budget cuts, and hoping that the network will back down again. As a fan of long running times for episodes who is frustrated by the ever-shorter amounts of time broadcast and basic-cable shows have to tell a story, I salute him.
Will the network back down this time, though? Mad Men is more popular now than it was then, but AMC is also a more successful network now. Weiner was negotiating from strength two years ago because his show almost single-handedly created his network’s new brand, and because they couldn’t just fire him and do the show without him. (They’ve done that to other shows, as have other networks, but Weiner has made himself famous enough and essential enough to Mad Men‘s reputation that the network would instantly lose all its prestige if they went ahead without him.) He’s still in a strong position because he knows, and AMC knows, that any other network would be happy to have him now. But AMC could argue now that Mad Men is not their biggest hit, let alone the biggest hit on basic cable, and the longer its fifth season is delayed, the more the network can claim it doesn’t really need Weiner.
I still think the fifth season will probably be done on Weiner’s terms, but it doesn’t seem as certain as it did two years ago. The whole “creator as god” meme, which prestige networks depended on in the Sopranos era, seems to be fading away just a little bit. Not every prestige network is like Showtime, where creators seem to be virtually anonymous or submerged by the overall brand of the network. But even HBO creators don’t get as much ink as they used to, and networks are increasingly going for properties that reduce the influence of the showrunner a little bit, like adaptations.
Look at AMC’s recent shows: one show where they fired the creator and replaced him with someone more pliable (Rubicon), an adaptation of a pre-existing property (The Walking Dead) and a remake of a European show (The Killing). Yes, showrunners are still important to them, and producers still want to bring them ideas. But they no longer depend mostly on attracting veteran TV writers with the great ideas they can’t sell to regular networks, like Weiner with Mad Men or Vince Gilligan with Breaking Bad. If they do a fifth season without Weiner and lose their reputation as the place for showrunners to have absolute freedom, then that doesn’t hurt them much any more. At least it doesn’t hurt them as much as letting Mad Men fall off the schedule.
The budget and commercial issues also offer another reminder of the difficulty basic cable networks have in the current environment. They’ve already proven that they can compete with pay TV creatively or surpass it. But they don’t have as much money as networks that get their viewers to pay them directly. This leads to cost-cutting, shorter running times, shows that have to be canceled even though the network likes them (most recently Lights Out on FX). It also means a basic cable network can’t bombard us with promotion as much as the big pay-TV networks do. I’m skeptical that promotion was what did in the recent flops on FX and AMC, but look over at Showtime and you’ll see a network with an incredible promotion machine. So-so shows, but tons of promotion.
Finally, I couldn’t begin to guess how the delay will affect the revival of How To Succeed In Business With Really Trying with Daniel Radcliffe, which was clearly mounted as a response to Mad Men mania (from the same director who brought a Mad Men vibe to a revival of Promises, Promises) and which normally would have been a couple of months into its run when Mad Men started back up.