NYC TV Week: AMC's Carroll: Technology Has Made Viewers More Discerning

Madison Avenue Must Remain a Key Contributor for Continued Production of Quality Programming

Prefacing his 50-year look at top TV ratings, AMC Networks COO Ed Carroll showed off his acting chops by appearing in a taped skit with Mad Men’s Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery).

Carroll was pitching the "Cable TV Association," whose members were charging $5 per month for a small suite of services, to Sterling Cooper shop as a client. Draper asked what’s next: People are going to starting sell bottled water? The creative genius said he’d keep his rabbit ears, thank you very much. Sterling, though, was intrigued by the 20-channel offering, and the shop was the place for the Cable TV Association. Carroll said his researchers were telling him the number could swell to 25, with such entrants as the opera and playwright channels.

A half century later if TV hasn’t totally succeeded in educating the masses or bringing widespread culture to Americans, the proliferation of original programming has wrought Duck Dynasty and Honey Boo Boo, Carroll joked, before noting that programmers would "take them in a minute."

Carroll speakng at inaugural NYC TV Week, ran through a brief Nielsen history, starting back in the Draper days of 1964, when Nielsen counted only 53 million homes, and Bonanza holstered the top spot in primetime with some 20 million weekly households. That elite show level was maintained by All in The Family and Seinfeld in the decades that followed, even as the U.S. TV universe expanded. It wasn’t until 2005 when CSI had some 18 million and American Idol had 17 million that numbers began to drop, even with the number of American TV homes reaching 110 million. In the current season with 115 million homes, NCSI leads the way in some 14 million households, while Sunday Night Football and AMC’s Walking Dead are setting the demo pace with 10 million adults 18-to-49 watchers.

He noted that despite disruptive technologies, Americans have increased their weekly TV usage. Still, DVRs, video on demand, TV Everywhere and over-the-top offerings are enabling viewers to watch episodes when and where they want to watch episodes.

These choices, Carroll contended, has benefited the overall quality of the medium paving the way for “more complex, more ambiguous, serial story-telling,” displacing procedurals and closed-end installments previously favored by franchises like CSI and Law & Order.

As such, the proliferation of cable video on demand and  subscription video on demand has freshened story-telling overall, and inspired more passionate fan bases. Conversely, these technological advances have made for more discerning audiences that “test our resolve as programmers,” said Carroll.

With so much product, it’s often tough to gain notice, particularly with dramas, as viewers decide whether to make a commitment to a new series. Patience, he said, is required, especially with upscale audiences who are not necessarily willing to invest their time until they hear good things about a show, and sometimes wait a half season before tuning in. Others elect to sit out an entire season before catching up or until they discover that a second season has been ordered. “Technology has made viewers much more discerning,” he said.

To invest in quality fare, though, still requires the help of advertisers, according to Carroll. As programmers “we would like to get commercial credit for every airing on every platform of every show,” he told B&C executive editor Dade Hayes, whether that comes in the form of C+7 ratings and/or VOD.

He said that AMC Networks has successfully negotiated fast-forward-disabled VOD viewing with a number of MPVDs, which also lose out on local avails when spots are skipped. “That’s how we grew up watching TV [with commercials]. By training viewers to zap commercials, we will have to produce less expensive shows that don’t look as good. We would have to lay more costs onto the distributors if Madison Avenue is not paying its fair share. That’s not a trend we can withstand as commercial programmers.”