Kate McEnroe built American Movie Classics into the crown jewel of Cablevision Systems Corp.'s national programming stable.
"She took a bunch of old movies and made them into a household name," said Jedd Palmer, an ex-MSO programming official who is now consulting. "She created a great brand, a great channel."
The future of that asset, however, is now murkier than ever. For months now, AMC's future has been up in the air. The network and its siblings at Rainbow Media Holdings Inc., WE: Women's Entertainment and the Independent Film Channel, were said to be on the block.
Then reports broke in May that Cablevision was partnering with Edgar Bronfman Jr. to make a bid for Vivendi Universal Entertainment. In that scenario, AMC, IFC and WE would wind up grouped with USA Network and Sci Fi Channel.
It remains to be seen how last week's news — that McEnroe, president of AMC Networks, and 13 other AMC employees had been fired over alleged accounting improprieties — will impact the network's desirability to potential suitors, or its overall current programming strategy, for that matter.
Wall Street has valued AMC at a range from $2 billion to $2.4 billion.
There's no doubt that AMC officials have been sprucing up the network, in ways meant to increase its revenue and attractiveness.
Back in the fall AMC (as it's now called), a top-20 network in terms of distribution with 84 million subscribers, made dramatic changes in its programming strategy and positioning, moving away from classic films to newer flicks.
It adopted the slogan "TV for movie people," and said it would launch a digital spin-off, Hollywood Classics, to run older movies.
And it added a full load of ads — eight minutes of national ads and two minutes of local avails per hour, up from four minutes earlier last year — after years of being commercial-free.
Since the fall programming overhaul, ratings are up.
Noreen O'Loughlin, AMC's general manager, was one of the 14 let go last week, according to several sources. She couldn't be reached for comment last week. But she did attend the National Show, the trade convention in Chicago earlier this month, where she gave an interview about AMC's new strategy.
"By all measures, it seems to be working," O'Loughlin said. "People seem to be responding to the breadth of what we're showing."
Some critics, from vintage movie fans to The Wall Street Journal, responded to the programming shift with brickbats. Newsday
TV critic Diane Werts, for example, misses the old AMC.
"There was a real connection between the channel and its audience that's rare, and I'm afraid, sadly disappearing, because it's so devalued now in the race for ratings 'tonnage' among the 'right' demos," Werts said.
Sister network Bravo, since sold by Cablevision to NBC, underwent a similar conversion from ad-free to ad-supported before AMC.
AMC rival Turner Classic Movies remains commercial-free, able to program from its vast film vaults, which includes the RKO Radio Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film libraries. TCM is delighted about AMC's changes.
"When you've had two people in the same niche, you always have to be screaming louder than the next guy to take credit for that niche," said TCM general manager Tom Karsch, a former AMC marketing director. "It's a very liberating feeling when the other guy leaves the niche and leaves it pretty much to you."
The network's decision to seek ad support, and the programming changes, go hand in hand.
AMC needed to appeal to advertisers by broadening its audience and making it younger. So it shifted its focus to encompass newer titles — films from the past 40 years — accompanied by original movie-related programming.
Using viewership numbers as a yardstick, AMC's new approach has racked up successes. In May in primetime, AMC posted a 0.8 rating, up 60% from 0.5 last year, according to Nielsen Media Research data supplied by the ABC Cable Networks Group.
AMC's demographics improved, too. In May during primetime, the network's delivery of adults 18 to 49 was up 54%, with a 50% increase in the 25-to-54 category.
Those demographic slices have also been up for the entire season to date for AMC.
"We're just delighted," O'Loughlin said in the interview. "We can only interpret it as that consumers are really embracing the changes."
AMC has been airing a "Much More Movie" version of its films that includes DVD-like information about the movie. Then AMC will run a Backstory
installment on that particular film.
AMC got a special lift in May from its airing of several Clint Eastwood movies, as part of a Film Preservation event. In addition, the network presented the Young Hollywood Awards, in conjunction with Movieline's Hollywood Life
magazine, on June 2.
"It definitely appeals to a younger audience," O'Loughlin said.
New shows due
This summer and fall, AMC has a new batch of shows to put on the air. The service's success over the past nine months "puts us in a good place to introduce more original programming," according to O'Loughlin.
This month and through the fall, AMC will air a collection of documentaries under the umbrella "The AMC Project." Those include Reality People, which follows three reality-TV stars; and Gay Hollywood, about five gay people trying to make their mark in Hollywood.
"It's an edgier take than AMC had in the past," O'Loughlin said. On Madison Avenue, a least one executive likes AMC's evolution.
"They made it more like modern classics to bring in younger viewers," said Shari Anne Brill, director of programming services for Carat USA Inc. "It really celebrates filmmaking and film."
Newsday's Werts isn't changing her mind, though.
"I understand why AMC did what they did — I just don't like it, as a viewer," she said. "The channel's focus now seems much less clear … and the heavy load of ads is an invitation to change channels on a regular basis."
Karsch questioned the slant of AMC's original fare.
"They still call themselves 'TV for movie people,' but then they have original programming about reality TV, which follow three or four reality-TV castoffs and what they're doing now," he said. "What does that have to do with movies?"