Matthew Weiner visited The Colbert Report this week, and the first question Stephen Colbert had for the Mad Men creator was one likely to be on the minds of many fans this Sunday night: “Why break it in half?” Colbert asked, incredulous that this weekend’s episode will be the last viewers will see until next spring. Unless his response was edited, Weiner, as is his style, offered a minimal reply to Colbert’s query, noting simply that AMC had divided the final season of Breaking Bad into two parts, “and the show built [in the ratings] in a huge way” during its final batch of eight episodes. But as Vulture noted last year, Mad is a very different show than Bad, and isn’t likely to generate a similar Nielsen rally come 2015. AMC execs, while ever optimistic, likely know this. Most likely, there are other reasons behind their decision to make us wait until 2015 to see what happens to the folks at Sterling Cooper and Partners.
First, and perhaps most importantly, by “milking it,” as Colbert quipped to Weiner, AMC is dramatically improving its odds of collecting Emmy nominations (and possibly wins). Since it first became eligible for the Emmys in 2008, Mad Men has been a darling of the TV academy. It’s landed a Best Drama nomination every year it’s been eligible (and won the category four times). By extending season seven into two parts, AMC doubles its chances at Emmy nominations and wins for Mad Men, since next year’s final round of episodes will be judged apart from the seven aired this spring. Just as crucially, delaying Mad Men’s end until 2015 means that AMC won’t have to force Emmy voters to choose between honoring the final, final season of Mad Men or the final, final season of Breaking Bad with a best drama award. (Yep: While it seems like Bad ended years ago, in fact, Walter White’s final exit is eligible for Emmy love this summer, something AMC is reminding voters of right now with the campaign slogan “Over But Not Done.”) Had Mad Men rolled out all its season seven episodes this year, Emmy voters with nostalgic streaks would’ve faced a crisis of sorts. Now, at least in theory, they can give both shows a final awards triumph. (Or not: The drama category is lousy with quality shows this year, making it completely possible one or even both of AMC’s prestige dramas could be frozen out.)
Emmys in and of themselves aren’t everything to AMC, of course. HBO and Showtime may rely on kudos to drive up buzz (and, hopefully, subscriber counts); AMC is most interested in making money. And here, too, delaying Mad Men viewers’ gratification could be at least a little bit beneficial to the network. On one level, it doesn’t really matter if AMC airs the final season of Mad Men over the course of three months, two years, or one episode a year for the next 14 years: The amount of available ad time AMC can sell is determined by the number of hours Weiner produces, not when they air. But as long as Mad Men is part of the AMC collection, the network probably gets at least some residual benefit because certain advertisers willing to pay a premium to be in Mad Men will be able to make two years’ worth of ad buys rather than one. That said, an industry source we spoke to didn’t think AMC would reap that much of a windfall from having two seasons, so consider any financial benefit a very small reason for AMC’s long good-bye. Likewise, despite Weiner and AMC both publicly expressing hope Mad Men will get a big ratings boost from a two-part final season, early evidence suggest there’s little chance it will come anywhere close to attracting the 10 million–plus viewership of the Bad finale. In fact, viewership for the first half of the current season is actually down versus last year: The first three episodes this spring have been seen by between 3.6 million and 4 million viewers, compared to 4.3 million to 4.8 million for last season’s opening hours. (In fairness, Bad didn’t really rally in the ratings until its last eight-episode batch, so it’s still possible Mad will jump sharply next spring.)
While AMC isn’t likely to get that much richer from extending Mad, or get huge Nielsen numbers from the show, there’s one other reason the network might be keeping it around: It’s a good security blanket. Yes, the network’s signature show right now is probably The Walking Dead (at least as far as Wall Street is concerned). And with Breaking Bad and Walking Dead spin-offs in the works, AMC has already taken steps to ensure its programming pipeline has plenty of potential hits. But Mad is in a class by itself in terms of prestige dramas (as last week’s episode showed once again). It creates a halo around AMC’s Sunday night whenever it’s on, allowing the network to woo viewers to what it hopes will be its next generation of “classy” shows. This year, it’s meant AMC has been able to try to sell Mad viewers on the upcoming Halt and Catch Fire and the currently airing Turn. And because Mad will be back next spring, AMC will get one more year to try to develop the next Best Show on TV — and then use Weiner’s creation to market it. Who knows: Maybe Weiner is secretly putting together an idea for a new project, and that next great show AMC will promote next spring will be from Weiner himself? We can only dream.