the industry

Why AMC Networks Is Betting So Heavily on Killing Eve

Sandra Oh in Killing Eve.
Sandra Oh in Killing Eve. Photo: Aimee Spinks/BBCAmerica

Killing Eve wasn’t the biggest TV hit of 2018 in terms of overall audience, but it was arguably the year’s most impressive success story. Despite airing on the mid-sized cable network BBC America, the Sandra Oh–led thriller became a word-of-mouth sensation over its two-month run last spring. Its audience nearly doubled between its premiere and finale, and its ratings among key demo groups increased every single week it aired. Critics were rapturous, and even opposite well-funded awards campaigns from shows on HBO, Netflix, and Hulu, Eve managed to snag several big Emmy and Golden Globe nominations (with Oh winning the Globe for best actress in a drama). “It is incredibly rare, and probably only getting rarer, for shows to break through in the kinds of ways that Killing Eve has,” says Sarah Barnett, who green-lit the show in her past role as head of BBC America.

Not long after Eve exploded, Barnett was promoted: She’s now president of the entertainment networks group at AMC Networks, overseeing AMC, IFC, and SundanceTV in addition to BBC America. And in one of her first big moves since taking on the new gig, Barnett is betting Eve can get even bigger. She’s decided that, starting with Sunday’s season-two premiere, Eve will be simulcast on both BBCA and the much, much bigger AMC. Because AMC reaches about 10 million more TV homes than BBCA — and has a much bigger cultural footprint thanks to hits such as The Walking Dead and Better Call Saulthe shift all but guarantees more people will discover Eve this season. While it’s not a particularly risky gambit, the move underscores how old-school cable groups like AMC Networks increasingly must experiment in order to compete in the streaming era.

Vulture recently spent an hour talking with Barnett about Eve’s stunning rise and her plans to expand the show’s audience. She also discussed a slew of other topics related to her new gig, including what’s next for The Walking Dead franchise, the possibility of an Orphan Black spinoff, how she’s working to increase cultural diversity and representation across her four networks, and why fans of Better Call Saul will have to wait a little bit longer for season five.

Let’s talk about Killing Eve. The show’s rating surge in season one was amazing. How did that happen?
It is incredibly rare, and probably only getting rarer, for shows to break through in the kinds of ways that Killing Eve has. Killing Eve was a perfect storm of various things coming together. First and foremost, the show was so bloody good. And then, people love to recommend it. When you have that, along with the ability for social media to amplify and blow something up in the way that only it can, then you can have this very rare streak of [ratings] growing through a season.

Do you expect it’ll get even bigger in season two?
Our hope is that the show has grown exponentially since the end of [season one]. We really hope that the audience on AMC and BBC America will be quite a lot bigger than even the audience for the finale on BBC America. The [sales] numbers for the show on [iTunes and Amazon] have been extraordinary. We hear anecdotally Hulu are very pleased with the performance of the show on that platform. So we do think that it’s a show that, even in today’s incredibly fragmented content world, could have a nice surge for season two.

AMC Networks exec Sarah Barnett.
Sarah Barnett. Photo: Courtesy of AMC Networks

Any specific data you might offer to illustrate that growth?
It’s not data we traditionally share, I’m afraid. But we can share the awards we won [laughs] which were quite phenomenal! And it was the No. 1 show in the aggregated critics best-of end-of-year lists. So all of that really goes to create a very fizzy moment for Killing Eve.

Do you think it’s also an argument for episodic air patterns as a marketing tool? The week-to-week of it all helped build word of mouth.
I do. It’s hard to talk specifically about this, but there’s something about the pleasure of anticipation, as well as the more shared experience of viewing on a weekly basis that goes into creating some behaviors that are quite powerful for people. Killing Eve is an example of a show that has fueled that.

When we look at the underlying things that may be getting lost in the more atomized way we’re watching telly these days, we think about that quite a lot. We are very thoughtful about not just the jagged edges we want to retain with our shows, but also the particular business models we operate in, the particular consumption patterns that relate to our business models, and how we can best pull those things together to create content that satisfies our audiences.

You’re also using Killing Eve to expose a larger audience to A Discovery of Witches, which has already run on your Shudder and Sundance Now streaming platforms, but is now going to air weekly after Eve on both AMC and BBC America. Is the hope that the added exposure can make it much bigger?
Yeah, it absolutely is. We’re experimenting. We believed that there was an ability for Discovery of Witches to be on both Shudder and Sundance Now and even AMC Premiere, and not cannibalize those audiences — and that luckily proved to be true. Again, like so many others, we don’t share the numbers of our streaming services, but the results were really quite encouraging. We’re excited about how much we can build an audience for something like A Discovery of Witches, which is genre, which has IP that people know, which looks lavish. It’s sort of posh, but it’s broad in its appeal. It has Matthew Goode and Teresa Palmer. It has a lot of things that we believe can translate across some of our different platforms. We think there’s a lot of untapped opportunity to be nimble and targeted but quite thoughtful and innovative about how we move our content between platforms. I mean, it’s all an experiment. When it goes on air on AMC and BBC America on April 7th, we will see.

Let’s talk about your recent promotion and your new role. When it was announced, you talked about it being a more efficient way to run the group. Explain that to me. How does it help to take these four brands, which are very different in a lot of ways, and consolidate them under one person?
While our brands are different, there are some quality storytelling touchpoints that go across AMC, BBC America, IFC, and Sundance. Killing Eve is a show that we developed at BBC America, very much with a British sensibility, albeit with a broader American star like Sandra Oh. That show also connects with AMC because the storytelling swings are quite big and quite splashy and quite broad. There’s a familiarity to the thriller genre. Killing Eve is a good example of [something] incubated on a brand like BBC America to take some big risks, but then has built into it those storytelling DNA aspects that can translate to a bigger, broader platform like AMC.

A lot of your rivals have been consolidating, too. Turner recently was folded into WarnerMedia, along with HBO. Viacom has put all their scripted stuff into one linear brand, Paramount Network. Is this sort of internal bundling what it’s all about now? In order to survive against Netflix and Amazon, you need to get bigger?
Obviously we live in a very fast-changing, disrupted media landscape where the competitors are bulking up and becoming bigger. We profoundly don’t believe that there’s only room for giants or giantesses. There’s something quite special about maintaining our distinction as an independent player. We think there’s this interesting space we’re carving out here at AMC Networks, which is to maintain distinct brands, to maintain a distinct curatorial offer to our audiences, to maintain a very sharp focus in terms of the kinds of stories you want to tell, and also to take advantage of the collective heft of our audiences across the different channels that we have.

We’re not so attracted to blurring-the-edges-between things. We want to be quite laser-focused on what it is each brand in this company does, and then use the increasingly sophisticated audience analytic data we have to be very precise about how we’re moving people around. In the end, the thing that we think that we have — which we’ve always had — is an eye for spotting talent and, frankly, seeing gold where others don’t. You think about the fact that the company was built on three rejected scripts which were passed by. The smartest and richest people making television at the time didn’t pick up these scripts: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead. Times have changed and competition is more fierce, but I don’t think it’s just the largest or the richest media companies that spot these things. And Killing Eve is indeed is another example of that. It was a script that was passed on.

Was Fleabag from Phoebe Waller-Bridge out when Eve came about?
It wasn’t quite, actually. We looked at Fleabag — before Amazon bought it — for BBC America. We really loved what we saw and we missed the chance to buy it. We weren’t really in the business of buying half-hour comedies, but we loved her voice. So before it actually aired on Amazon, before it even aired in BBC Three in the U.K., we already knew that she was incredible. Someone on my programming team at BBC America found this script that had been developed initially with Sky TV in the U.K., and we pounced knowing that she was about to blow up. So it’s seeing that talent. I talk a lot — everyone talks a lot — about our deep-pocketed competitors, and that’s certainly true. I do think there’s room for players of many different sizes. I also think that if it was all about placing orders and writing checks, then everyone would have a Killing Eve and a Walking Dead and a Better Call Saul — and they don’t.

The possible downside is you risk losing the unique vision of each network, right? Is one of your challenges in this new job to make sure you don’t bigfoot your smaller brands, or micromanage the person developing shows for IFC or BBC America?
Definitely. We want to keep the jagged edges on all of our content. We want all of our content to continue to feel as startling and fresh as Documentary Now! on IFC does, as State of the Union on Sundance, as Killing Eve on BBC America. I don’t know that I really believe in friction in the system. Everyone has a different way of driving results; I really believe in clear direction and great collaboration. As the world is bulking up, I think it’s absolutely necessary for us not to be fighting internally over pieces, or competing internally.

AMC is the mothership of the four channels you oversee. What’s your sense of where its brand is right now? Do you want to radically evolve from what the network has been doing in recent years?
AMC has always been at its best when it subverted itself and surprised the world. So, I think about Mad Men being an unusual choice. It certainly wasn’t the commercial or the obvious or even the predictable choice for that moment. But it really resonated. Then I think about Breaking Bad. That seemed like such a left-field kind of choice, particularly at a time when networks were starting to be very tightly branded. And then obviously The Walking Dead.

AMC has always been at its best when it’s just taken a sharp left turn. So I don’t think you’ll see us imitating anyone, even ourselves, as we make choices going forward. It’s certainly not about being snobby. We can embrace a genre as well as character shows, but I do think that having some big swings and a fresh voice is absolutely part of the formula. We are going to have to keep surprising ourselves and surprising the world in order to be distinctive in a world of bigger manufacturers. We’re never going to have the same kinds of traffic on our platforms like some of our bigger competitors. Voice, freshness, originality can do so much heavy lifting. That is crucially important for us.

Is there anything you want to see more of on AMC, or any of your networks?
Couple of things. One is format. A show like State of the Union, which is premium long-form storytelling in a short-form format, is really exciting. It certainly excited Nick Hornby very much. We have something in development I’m very excited about — the working title is Kevin Can Fuck Himself, but we’re probably going to change it. Rashida Jones is one of the executive producers. It starts out as a multi-cam sitcom — the regular American family [where] the wife rolls her eyes at the slightly annoying husband, but you kind of love him — and then it switches to a single-camera drama and you see what she really feels. It becomes a slightly preposterous, picaresque thing. The way that it’s playing with storytelling is really exciting.

That’s too bad about the title. I really loved it …
We love it, too, and that’s why we went with it in the announcement about opening a writers room. We may well keep it if the show gets green-lit. There are many voices that will need to feed into a discussion about what you can do on an ad-supported network — with program-guide info and everything else a title impacts — but equally, its boldness would help it stand out in all the cacophony. Those will be the things we weigh up, so who knows?

Got it. So, what else do you want to see more of on your networks?
I think AMC has been incredibly good, for very many years, at telling complex stories about masculinity. A lot of the shows have very strong female characters, [but] there are a lot more stories to be told in our world about complicated women. We’ve just begun to scratch the surface. I continue to be very interested in that. And then, we have a lot of ambition on the BBC America side around the natural history shows. We just signed another deal with BBC Studios, who make the best natural history documentaries in the world.

The other thing that I’m really excited about is the opportunity around the Walking Dead universe and a potential third show, and the extraordinary advantage I have walking into this role with [what’s] still the biggest show on cable by some measure. [Walking Dead showrunner] Angela Kang has done a sterling job.

You anticipated my next question. As a reporter, it’s sort of a law I ask about The Walking Dead, and specifically the ratings declines. You’re absolutely right the show remains ahead of anything else on cable, at least until the return of Game of Thrones. But with same-day numbers in particular going down pretty sharply versus, say, two years ago, are you not at all worried about zombie fatigue? Or is it just a reflection that everything in TV is struggling with ratings losses?
Our decline has really mirrored the declines across basic cable — we just had higher to fall from. The fact that we are still the No. 1 show by a margin of two to one is quite something. One of the things that I take such encouragement from is the fact that our ratings are pretty stabilized. We did see declines at the beginning of [season nine], but through all of the back half of this season, we are seeing the kind of stability that we’ve never really seen in this property before. We believe that we’ve hit a core, and that if that core sits around the numbers it is, it will continue to be a complete phenomenon in cable TV in 2019. And we do believe there is audience and untapped creative opportunity within this show, and in exploring some new worlds and new characters that are related to this incredibly rich, strong universe. The stability of the audience, the fact that it’s still such a powerhouse, and the fact that Angela has been able to reinvent, reenergize the show in this current season is something that we feel genuinely excited about.

In terms of a new spinoff, would you say the odds of that happening in the next, say, two years are 99 percent or 100 percent?
[Laughs.] We’re feeling pretty good about the development of the show three. Yup.

Will you have something to announce in time for your upfront season?
These things, you just never know. You just never, ever know how difficult deals are. You think you’re close to something you’re not; you think you’re not, you are. It’s just difficult to know if all the pieces line up.

Do you talk about an endgame for the original series? Even Dick Wolf’s Law and Order eventually ended. Do you talk about interim steps, such as not splitting the season to reducing the episodic count to make it a little more of an event? Do you do talk about doing one more three-year arc and then calling it quits? Or do you just think it just goes on and on, and maybe it’ll be like Grey’s Anatomy?
Grey’s Anatomy is a good analogue. We’re pretty encouraged with where we are right now. We know it’s not going to run forever — nothing does — but we’re pretty happy with where we are.

On the other side of the Nielsen spectrum, Lodge 49 got amazing critical acclaim, but the audience was not huge. Is that a show you think can grow a lot in season two, ratings-wise? Or do you just let it exist at its current audience level as a sort of niche play? 
Lodge 49 is such a unique, original gem of a show. It’s a show that’s a perfect expression of itself. Every single choice it’s made, it’s been exactly right. I don’t think any of us expect Lodge 49 to be a hugely commercial show. We would very much hope to sustain, and it would be great to think we could grow the audience. But one of the things we believe is that we do have room for The Walking Dead and for Killing Eve and for Lodge 49. We certainly don’t need everything to fit into any kind of formulaic storytelling or shape, and therefore audience size. We’ll see with something like Lodge 49. You always hope that SVOD platforms will play a discovery role for audiences in finding shows.

You can’t always be patient, obviously. Your predecessor made the call to cancel Dietland, which also had strong reviews, a few weeks before you took over. Any thoughts on that?
I thought it was a really fantastic swing.

Shows are ending sooner than they used to, and making fewer episodes each season. It seems in a lot of ways that American TV is becoming more like British TV, where shows often go two or three seasons and make under 20 episodes, but are still considered to be a success. Do you think we’re going to see more of that here? Are you open to doing more shorter-run shows?
We’ve generally, at this company, been pretty good at having shows complete their run when the creators really feel that the story is complete. We did it with Mad Men and with Breaking Bad on AMC. We did it with Orphan Black on BBC America. That’s something that audiences really care about.

The changing patterns of consumption and the ways that is informing how long shows run for, there’s a lot of frothy conversation right now about it. I don’t draw any definitive conclusions. We’ll continue to shape the show to size it in the right way for its creative bones. And obviously, there’s a factor of audience response. Sometimes even the things that you love just don’t connect with an audience. But I don’t have a dogmatic point of view right now about only making two or three seasons of any particular show.

Do you have a status update on season five of Better Call Saul? When is it coming back?
We said on our most recent earnings call that the series would come back for season five next year.

Oh, I missed that. So Better Call Saul, not until 2020. That’s something else which has become increasingly common these days — big shows taking longer breaks between seasons. But if it’s what the creator needs and wants …
Yes. It’s driven by talent needs, which we would not override if it would result in a worse show.

Do you think that Better Call Saul, unlike Walking Dead, has a more limited shelf life? Are we getting close to the endgame for that series?
Well, we know clearly the end was already written before the beginning began. [Laughs.] The writers, they have a very particular, very clear sense of the arc of their show.

In terms of how much longer that has to play out, do you know?  
We’re certainly getting closer to it.

You’re not going to give me anything, are you?
No, I’m really not. [Laughs.]

There have also been reports the producers of Orphan Black are in early stages of putting together ideas for a possible new series set in the show’s universe. What can you tell me about where that stands?
Really early days. I truly don’t know. This is very early development, so we wouldn’t even normally have [confirmed] at this point, but we’re delighted at the response that it got to just a very brief announcement. There is such an engaged audience for Orphan Black. We’re excited to explore with Temple Street, the Canadian studio behind it, what a continuation of this world it might be. It really is at such a nascent stage, I don’t even know much more than that. But we certainly love the world, we certainly love the makers, so fingers crossed.

If the idea comes together, there’s a really good chance you’d want to make the show, yes?
If the creative is fantastic, it would have a very high chance of being made, given how passionate we know the audience is for this property, and how well this show and the properties around Orphan Black could fit across many of our brands.

What’s the one piece of development about which you’re most excited right now?
Because I couldn’t give you any answers for the previous questions, I’m going to give you three. One I already mentioned: Kevin Can Fuck Himself, which is the piece from Rashida Jones. I’m really excited about that. Another one is something called 61st Street, which is written by Peter Moffat, who wrote the original show that the HBO mini-series The Night Of was based on. We’re partnering with him, with Outlier Society, Michael B. Jordan’s production company, and Alana Mayo, who is [Jordan’s] head of development. It’s a very audacious, ambitious piece about race in America. It’s very, very good. Then another piece of development I’m excited about — that we put into development at BBC America — is called The Watch, which is based on something from a really well-known and popular author in Britain and internationally called Terry Pratchett. He passed away not so long ago. We’re pulling on one of his works in the Discworld trilogy. It’s sort of a procedural, but it’s also fantasy and it’s very ambitious around gender and sexuality. It has a lot of ambition to it that I think could be quite different and quite cool.

Back in February, you told the TV Critics Association press tour that you’re “motivated by the question, who gets to tell stories in entertainment?” and that rectifying biases can’t be just a passing fad. What are you doing behind the scenes to address these biases and institutionalize the importance of representation at AMC Networks?
For any change to happen you need conviction from the top, with everyone downstream ideally sharing that passion and understanding that it’s an imperative from leadership. I am encouraged by some new corporate moves in our industry that frankly wouldn’t have happened five or ten years ago. At AMC Networks, our entire staff, at all levels, have gone through unconscious bias training. You can be cynical about these things, but I see with my own eyes hearts and minds changing as we all start to reckon with how our baked-in biases impact our behavior and perpetuate power inequities. And the makeup of our workforce is important. We can only tell stories that reflect the truth of our diverse audiences if we have that diversity reflected in our gatekeepers. That can be young executives on the development side, as well as those of us who ultimately green-light projects.

As it relates to the actual nature of representation on our screens, every conversation here has this as subtext or text today. You can no longer have female characters, for instance, who function as feminine tropes in service of the complex, nuanced male subject. Aside from everything else, that is utterly uninteresting and lazy. We all have a ways to go, but we are committed to a two-pronged approach of “consciousness raising,” to use a classic feminist phrase, along with putting more women and people of color in decision-making seats both at our company and on our shows.

At TCA, you also talked about the need to green-light shows that aren’t obvious hits but represent bigger chances. You said, “It’s what’s on the inside that counts, not the allure of a shiny package.” Do you think TV has gotten too reliant on big projects put together by agencies? And what’s your take on what’s been happening with the ATA and WGA
Great television starts with somebody having a story they have to tell. That may be a bit romantic-artist sounding, but it’s borne out over and over. Their idea may be huge in its entertainment ambition or it may be more intimate. Either way, great television emanates from an original point of view, and then a great team assembled to bring that to life. AMC Networks has had a lot of success in giving voice to new talent, and there’s something wonderful in seeing that. Attaching phenomenal talent — or starting with phenomenal talent — is also fantastic. You just can’t be cynical. If you assemble fabulous pieces in search of some glue, the chances are you’ll get it made, but it’s rarely as exciting as work that starts from a script or idea that’s pulsing with life and originality.

Why AMC Networks Is Betting So Heavily on Killing Eve