More Mad Men musings

What we know is that AMC wants to cut the budget and put in more commercials

Something I didn’t say in my previous post on the Matt Weiner vs. AMC fracas: As usual, there’s a lot we don’t know about what’s really going on in these negotiations. Especially since most of the leaks appear to be coming from one side – Weiner’s. And frequently, from Weiner himself. He gave an interview saying that contrary to initial reports, the network wants to cut not just two characters but a total of six, two a year. “A person familiar with the negotiations” gave the same story to another outlet, but the person is clearly on Weiner’s side and for all we know could be Weiner himself.

What we know is that AMC wants to cut the budget and put in more commercials, and Weiner is resisting this. I don’t think we know for sure that the network is making non-negotiable demands about how many characters should be cut: downsizing the cast, or reducing more characters from regulars to guests, is a time-honoured way of reducing a show’s budget, but if Weiner can come up with some other way to reduce costs, they might take that. (I also think the talk of his salary is probably not all that relevant. The show would save a lot more money by cutting the cost of every episode than by cutting Weiner’s salary by $1 million, which is why they’re offering him a big payday while simultaneously asking for a lower budget.)

I don’t think it would be good for the show to lose regular characters (or, perhaps even worse, to cut someone from his or her regular contract and then find that actor has taken another job, and can’t come back when needed) or to drastically cut costs when it depends so much on period detail, which ain’t cheap. That’s why I think we shouldn’t get too bogged down in the details of who’s demanding what. Weiner wants to make the show he’s been making, for the same amount of money, with the same running times. The network, which smells an opportunity to be profitable at last and whose cheapskate tendencies are no surprise to movie fans (it always seemed like a stretch to think of them as the artistic-integrity network) wants to save money on the episodes and/or get more advertising revenue from them. We’ll see who wins.

I’ll add that I think showrunners who are sniping at Weiner are being a bit short-sighted. Short running times are the bane of modern commercial television, and anyone who thinks they can’t get shorter is kidding himself: they can always get shorter. (A recent episode of Justified came out to 37 minutes of original content when you took away the previouslies and credits. Most episodes are longer than that, but we may soon be literally at the point where networks don’t care how short an episode is.) Yes, Weiner’s running time is generous, but only compared to other basic-cable and broadcast shows. And if a show that won four Emmys with those extra minutes – using the extra minutes as part of the way it’s paced – can’t demand 48 minutes of running time, then no show outside of pay TV ever will be able to. Maybe it’s a lost cause (Fox tried expanding a couple of dramas to 48 minutes for one season, and claimed it wasn’t financially viable), but I think it’s worth rooting for Weiner on this one. One of the few showrunners who seems to get this is Josh Friedman from The Sarah Connor Chronicles, who grumbled about Weiner’s money demands but not about his demands for extra time.

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