AMC+ Doesn’t Want to be Netflix

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by AMC

Dan McDermott has seen the future of streaming, and it looks nothing like Netflix — or Hulu, or even Peacock. As the recently promoted president of entertainment at AMC Networks, McDermott is responsible for the programming that goes on an array of AMC cable networks and, more importantly, the company’s fast-growing AMC+ streaming service. AMC Networks has big ambitions for its signature streamer, but its goals do not include finding a way to scale up anywhere near the level of those supersize platforms. “We’re not all things to all people,” McDermott says. “We don’t believe we have to be like the other big streaming services.”

Of course, given AMC Networks’ position as an independent player not attached to a massive conglomerate or tech giant, it isn’t particularly shocking to see the company taking a more targeted approach. Barring a merger with a bigger player or some unexpected cash windfall, it would be nearly impossible for it to find the billions needed to program and market a something-for-everyone streamer. And yet AMC Networks does think it can get dramatically bigger in streaming, and quickly. The company, which currently has about 9 million monthly digital subscribers spread among AMC+ and a collection of even more specialized sibling services, has said it is aiming to grow that number to between 20 million and 25 million within the next four years. That would be on par with the 25 million subscribers Hulu had at the start of 2019, a few months before Disney took operational control of the streamer.

In order to generate that sort of growth, AMC Networks has opted against putting all its eggs in one giant streaming basket — sort of. It has continued pouring resources into its most hyper-targeted services, allowing folks who want a streaming experience tightly focused on, say, British mystery dramas (Acorn) or Black-centric programming (ALLBLK) to pay just for that content. But last year, it also launched AMC+, which pairs all the familiar programming from AMC’s cable networks (The Walking DeadKilling Eve) with everything offered on Shudder, Sundance Now, and IFC Films Unlimited. It’s basically the AMC version of the Disney Bundle, albeit on a smaller scale and with programming consolidated on one app versus three distinct experiences. What’s more, AMC+ is the rare streamer that lives comfortably in two parts of the TV universe: It’s marketed as both a premium experience for AMC cable customers (no ads, early access to episodes of shows) as well as a standalone service for cord-cutters.

But while AMC+ has a bigger collection of content, company execs such as McDermott and AMC Networks president of streaming services Miquel Penella emphasize that it, too, is a targeted service designed to provide just a sliver of the nourishment required for the typical consumer’s streaming diet. Their hope is that with streaming now being embraced by the vast majority of American viewers, AMC Networks can succeed not by having the most-used platforms but by offering platforms more beloved than the big guys. I recently caught up with both men to discuss their strategy, how they view the overall state of the streaming wars, and what’s next for AMC+.

Miquel, you’ve been in the direct-to-consumer world for a long time, well before streaming took off. You were at Acorn when it was an indie company and you saw the potential for serving content to niche audiences outside of a cable bundle. What’s your take on where the streaming industry is now headed into 2022?

PENELLA: I think we are at a time where what has driven consumer adoption of streaming is not necessarily what is going to drive that adoption in the future. What drove consumers to streaming platforms in the last five, ten years has been convenience more than anything else. They could watch content commercial-free, any time they wanted, however they wanted. And that convenience was the big point of differentiation. Obviously streamers like Netflix and Amazon and Hulu created their own originals, and those drove a lot of people to them. But the biggest difference, I would argue, was convenience.

Now that streaming is primarily driving consumer behavior, I think the future is going to be about relevance: how relevant the brand is to the consumer. Consumers are going to have to choose how many general services they want to subscribe to. Is it Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO Max, Peacock, and two or three more? Or is it just two or three of those? If you are a generalist service, and you are the fifth or sixth or seventh subscription that a consumer thinks about, it may be a much harder situation than if you are the number one or two or three. Same thing with the targeted services. If you are the one or two first that someone considers, it’s going to be a very different situation.

So where does that leave AMC Networks?  

McDERMOTT: We’re not all things to all people. We’re more about super-serving specific audiences [with] content that they already have a demonstrated affinity for. To use retail as an analogy, there are big box stores out there that the whole family can walk into and everybody can get something for themselves. And then there are more highly curated boutiques, whether it’s Nike or Lululemon or a Gucci, that are all about craftsmanship and bespoke, highly curated offerings. We clearly are in the latter category, and we think that’s our advantage. We’re not competing with the Netflixes and the Disney Pluses and the Amazons. They’re in an arms race to find mega-ginormous content that they can spend a fortune on. That’s not our business.

Obviously Shudder and Sundance Now and Acorn are targeted toward viewers with very specific tastes, but isn’t AMC+ supposed to be your generalist service — your attempt to keep up with Hulu or Peacock?

PENELLA: AMC+ is clearly a different scale and a different ambition than Sundance Now or ALLBLK, but it is very much, I believe, that same approach and strategy. Individual subscribers have individual interests and passions. We want our services to be perceived by the people who subscribe to them as their favorite service because it really matches their sensibility and interest in a way that a generalist service might not be able to do — not just with the content, but with the experience on the app or navigation. So AMC+ is a broader service than Acorn or Shudder or Sundance Now, but it still very much strives to serve a particular sensibility and interest.

And what exactly is that brand, that sensibility? 

McDERMOTT: Premium marquee content for adults. Our series should be known for their excellent craftsmanship and attention to detail, which is consistent with AMC Network content over the years [with shows such as] Mad MenWalking DeadBreaking BadBetter Call SaulKilling Eve. So when someone clicks on AMC+ and looks through our portfolio of content, they say, “Oh, I loved Killing Eve; I’m going to love 61st Street61st Street was great; I really want to watch this show Dark WindsDark Winds, oh my God, it was so well-crafted and good. I want to watch Moonhaven.” That’s a one-to-one relationship we’re cultivating with our audience that I think is an advantage we have over some of the other big box store-style streaming services.

Does the programming from the other streamers that also lives on AMC+ fit into that framework, even though it’s more specialized?

PENELLA: The bundling that AMC+ includes — Shudder, Sundance Now, and IFC Films Unlimited — is there because we believe that there’s a strong affinity between those audiences and the AMC brand. If you look at Shudder shows like Slasher or Creepshow, those have a strong affinity with The Walking Dead. If you look at shows [on Sundance] like A Discovery of Witches or Riviera, they have a strong affinity with Killing Eve, in terms of the characters, the settings, [and] the storylines.

Are we going to see more content from Acorn or ALLBLK on AMC+? Their offerings aren’t included in the AMC+ bundle, even though some of it feels like it would do well with a broader audience.  

PENELLA: We’ve already started doing some of that. Shows like Deadwater FellBroadchurchLoch Ness started on Acorn, and because of the particular shows that they are, we thought they could also work for Sundance Now, which is part of AMC+. The Beast Must Die premiered on AMC+, [and] we’re starting to release it on Acorn. We have this Canadian police show called 19-2 that premiered on Acorn and actually went to ALLBLK. So on an individual basis, there are titles that cross the lines and can appeal to more than one audience. It helps us shore up and strengthen those offerings, even if they’re on a second window basis, but also it allows us to find consumers who might be interested in more than one service. Our goal is to have consumers subscribe to more than one of our services.

The Walking Dead was so vital to AMC’s linear growth the past decade. How does the franchise fit in with where AMC+ is headed, particularly now that the original series is ending and ratings have fallen off? Is there still life left in the undead?

McDERMOTT: So like other universes out there that Disney or other media companies might have, we think that there are many, many different stories to tell inside this universe of a post-pandemic zombie apocalypse. Tales of The Walking Dead is going to tell really cool, high-concept, Black Mirror/Twilight Zone-y standalone stories and really engage The Walking Dead audience in a new way. Similarly, we’ve announced the Daryl and Carol spinoff with Norman Reedus and Melissa McBride. That’s one that I can’t speak about now, but creatively and conceptually, it’s going to be a significant evolution in the Walking Dead universe. As you say, the ratings are what they are, but we’re still the number-one-rated show in cable right now. There’s still a dedicated fan base.
Are you going to take some of your big development that’s been announced for AMC and make it AMC+ exclusive, the way FX has done with FX on Hulu?

McDERMOTT: We’re going to continue to explore various windowing strategies with things like Interview With the Vampire or Dark Winds, which is based on Tony Hillerman’s novels. Our objective is to grow our streaming platforms, including AMC+, to a combined 20 to 25 million subscribers by 2025, while simultaneously keeping our linear platforms healthy and vibrant and strong. So the exact shape of what that looks like is to be determined. But there will always be a certain percentage of exclusive content on AMC+ and then a percentage that’s shared with AMC linear.

Anything specific you can share about Interview and whether it could drop its first full season on AMC+ before moving to AMC linear? Or do you think you’d do what you do with Walking Dead and just offer streaming subscribers access a few days early? 

McDERMOTT: That is the subject of significant debate inside the company right now and we’re determining what’s best. But one thing that we do want to do is serve our viewers wherever and whenever they want to be served.

But subscriber acquisition is an important thing for you. And the best way to acquire subscribers in the streaming space is with really strong, exclusive content, right?  

McDERMOTT: That is correct. But the thing that I would add to that is, our linear platform not only has broad reach, because it’s in [80 million] homes, but it creates great awareness for our content and it also drives people to our streaming platforms and incentivizes them to sign up to get early access to shows, or exclusive pieces of content associated with shows. So we have to be mindful of the fact that both of them work well together. A rising tide floats all boats here.

Let’s talk about distribution. Some of your bigger rivals have opted out of the Amazon and Apple TV channels spaces, but you’re fully invested in that ecosphere. Why does it work for AMC Networks? 

PENELLA: We very much see them as positive relationships in the whole. Like you stated, there are some negatives from working with channels. We don’t have a direct relationship with a consumer, which means that we cannot customize the consumer experience in the way that we can do on our direct apps. In terms of title discovery and navigation, I think that’s a big challenge for the consumer. But the fact that they have created these destinations for streaming services like ours has been huge. With Acorn, we had around 200,000 subscribers before Amazon channels launched in [late] 2015, and a lot of the growth that we’ve experienced was with Amazon channels. [Editor’s note: Acorn passed 1 million subscribers in September 2019.] Our channel partners are very important to us, and I want to think that we have a very good relationship with all of them.

A few weeks ago, you announced that AMC+ would be leaning heavily into movie premieres in November, with some very recent films from your sister company RLJ Entertainment streaming on the service. You’ve also got a day-and-date release next month with Silent Night premiering December 3Are original movies a big part of your near-term plans, the way they’ve become for other streamers? 

PENELLA: RLJ has been working with Shudder the last two years to acquire and co-release movies, and what we have found is that movies can be great in terms of capturing audiences. Movies are the biggest common denominator across the different sub-audiences that we have within AMC+, meaning that if you ask me what other category of content someone who comes to watch The Walking Dead or A Discovery of Witches is most likely going to be interested in, my answer would be movies. So what we are doing this fourth quarter is a test. We want to release these four movies over four weeks and see how big a role can movies play within AMC+.

And the hope is to start doing more of it, perhaps so that a new movie every week, or most weeks, becomes the norm?

McDERMOTT: It’s going to take us some time to ramp up and get the pipeline flowing, but that’s the objective.

Could we see that as soon as early 2022?

PENELLA: We don’t know that. That’s the honest answer. Are we interested in having movies? Sure. Do we want to have more recent movies or movies on a first window premiere basis? Sure. Exactly which movies, how frequently — that remains to be seen. There are a lot of considerations there. But again, we think that November will be a big driver in terms of informing our thinking for ’22.

What else should we expect from AMC+  in 2022?

PENELLA: I think the story for next year is going to be final seasons of The Walking Dead, Killing Eve, [and] Better Call Saul, as well as new franchises, releasing all in the same year. We’re going to have Dark Winds, we’re going to have Moonhaven, we’re going to have Interview With the Vampire. We’re going to have Ragdoll and a second season of Kevin [Can F- - - Himself]. Next year we think that the programming on AMC+ is going to be quite something.

Why Paramount+ Should Believe in Ghosts

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by CBS

Broadcast TV doesn’t produce breakout hits very often anymore, but CBS may have exactly that on its hands with new fall comedy Ghosts. The Eye’s adaptation of the BBC’s hit of the same name has been conjuring up some scary good Nielsen numbers since premiering a month ago, with a weekly audience now approaching 8 million viewers (and that’s not counting folks who stream the show on Paramount+ the way I do). It’s also doing relatively well among adult viewers under 50, a demo that increasingly doesn’t show up in Nielsen’s linear tally.

To put these numbers in perspective, HBO said the season-three premiere of its super buzzy Succession opened with 1.4 million viewers, including both linear and HBO Max. Once delayed viewing is tallied, Succession generates a lot more viewership over the course of a week, yet even so, it’s doubtful more folks are watching it than Ghosts right now: Back in 2019, HBO estimated the show’s total audience at a bit more than 4 million viewers. But even if you want to make a more direct comparison — broadcast network versus broadcast network — Ghosts is off to a strong start. More people are watching it than schedule stalwarts such as ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy or NBC’s Law & Order: SVU. And It is currently bringing in slightly more young eyeballs (i.e., adults under 50) than CBS’s brand-name spinoffs of CSI and NCIS.

It’s still early in the season and it’s quite possible Ghosts will fade as the year grinds on. CBS loses a big promotional platform when the NFL season ends in January, and there probably is a bit of a novelty factor to a series about a woman who sees Ghosts. But all indications are that there’s still quite a bit of upside for the series. For one thing, its delayed viewing numbers keep going up, even as its same-day numbers stay the same or inch a bit higher. That tells me folks are making Ghosts a habit even as new viewers start tuning in based on positive buzz.

And while Ghosts was developed and budgeted as a CBS broadcast show, I do think there’s a lot of potential for the series on streaming. Paramount+ is a relatively tiny platform compared to sibling CBS, but Ghosts is the kind of slightly edgy, sly comedy that tends to do very well among the younger audiences who primarily stream their content. If P+ turns up the promotional machine and embraces the show as its own — which in some ways it is: The series streams there within minutes of episodes airing on the West Coast — there’s no reason Ghosts can’t be a series that benefits both the linear and streaming realms of ViacomCBS.

One more thing: The BBC version of Ghosts is streaming on HBO Max, which has been wisely using its platform to remind subscribers it is home to the original. (Amazing what a good user interface can accomplish.) I hadn’t seen the U.K. version before the remake, but I checked out one episode, and I think both shows work on their own, sort of like the American and British editions of Love Island.

AMC+ Doesn’t Want to be Netflix