AMC has just greenlit a third season of scripted series Halt and Catch Fire. Created by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher Rogers, the show is a recent period drama that looks at the origins of the personal computer revolution in the early 1980s.
On the face of it, the recommission is a surprise, given the show’s low ratings. Season two’s same-day ratings averaged around 520,000 across a run of 10 episodes. Even when three days’ worth of time-shifted viewing is added in (Live + 3), the show still only managed to attract around 900,000 – making it the lowest-rating original drama on the network.
To put this in perspective, The Walking Dead and Fear The Walking Dead (FTWD) bring audiences in excess of 10 million to AMC. Low Winter Sun, cancelled last year, was running at around 1.2 million – and had a much better response from the 18-49 demographic than Halt.
So why would a savvy network like AMC renew a show that doesn’t seem to be delivering the goods in ratings terms? Well, there are a number of possible explanations. The first is that critics started warming to the show in season two, regarding it as a step up from the first run. So it’s possible AMC views the show as a sleeper – the kind of drama that might suddenly break through into the public consciousness in season three, encouraging new viewers to go back and watch from the start.
The second is that AMC might have taken a positive view on the profile of the audience. It’s possible Halt and Catch Fire particularly appeals to AMC influencers and evangelists – the kind of hardcore fans who will recommend the channel to friends. As such, the drama may have a value over and above its raw numbers.
Another factor worth noting is that AMC is a subscription-based channel, not an ad-only channel like the big four US broadcast networks. While AMC does make money from ads (and it’s possible advertisers might like Halt), it doesn’t need to make snap decisions about shows – especially at a time when The Walking Dead, FTWD and Better Call Saul are all doing so well for the channel. Somewhere, deep in AMC’s research department, someone may have taken the view that the profile of Halt and Catch Fire is having an additive effect on the overall schedule.
Linked to this point is the positive impact the show could be having on the AMC brand. As the channel showed with Mad Men, which wasn’t a huge ratings success, there is a brand benefit in being seen as a channel that supports quality shows – especially if that support translates into awards. It gives channels the kind of ‘home of quality’ feel that public broadcasters like the BBC and DR in Denmark possess, and that can be a business benefit.
Channels also need to take a view on the overall shape of their slate at any given time. With Mad Men and Hell on Wheels both coming to a close, AMC is probably reluctant to go on a cancellation spree. Turn and Humans were also renewed after delivering modest ratings, so the channel may be waiting to see which of the three manages to raise its game in ratings terms. Alternatively, it may be waiting to see how new shows like Into the Badlands and Preacher perform. If those series do well, then the pressure to axe at least one show will probably grow.
It’s also important to think about the global economics of the AMC business these days. Halt and Catch Fire is a wholly owned show, which means AMC has a vested interest in it doing well. It can use the show on its international network AMC Global and it can sell it to international third parties or to Netflix. In other words, there are several other ways to extract value from the show that have nothing to do with the average audience for season two.
And finally, there is a point to be made about building relationships with talent. While the showrunner on Halt’s first two series, Jonathan Lisco, has left to work on another project, this has opened the door for Cantwell and Rogers to take control of the show they created and co-write. They are clearly delighted to be making a new series for AMC – so it’s just possible their next show may be the one that does the business for the channel. Or maybe other writing talent will look at the recommission and decide AMC is the kind of network they want to take their show to.
In summary, there are reasons why networks sometimes choose to keep ploughing ahead with low-rating shows. Ratings are still the best way to analyse and assess a show’s performance, but in this increasingly complex media market we shouldn’t be too surprised if networks back shows that look destined for the chop. And it makes the job of guessing that much more interesting.
Elsewhere, US cable channel FX has renewed Tyrant for a third season of 10 episodes. This show, created by Gideon Raff and executive produced by Howard Gordon (the team that brought us Homeland), is a political drama loosely based on the life of Syria president Bashar al-Assad. Series two averaged around 1.2 million viewers, but seemed to be getting stronger towards the back end of the run. This view is confirmed by IMDb ratings. While the overall IMDb rating is 7.9, episodes 10, 11 and 12 of season two were all scored by fans at 9 or 9.1 – suggesting a groundswell of support.
Another interesting story this week is that HBO sister channel Cinemax has optioned the TV rights to Game of Thrones author George RR Martin’s The Skin Trade, described as an the offbeat werewolf noir novella. Commenting on his blog, Martin said: “The deal is closed, and Cinemax has ordered the pilot script. This being Hollywood, you never know where things will end… but if they like the script, we’ll shoot a pilot, and if they like that, hey, who knows, maybe we’ll get a series on the air. Which would be very cool. Those of you who know the story of Doorways, my ill-fated ABC pilot from the early 90s, may recall that it was Skin Trade that I was actually trying to sell back in 1991, when I flew out to LA for a round of pitch meetings. So we’re a few decades late…”
Some Game of Thrones fans will no doubt be anxious that Skin Trade will distract Martin from finishing writing his masterwork. But he used his blog to assure fans that wouldn’t be the case: “While I would have loved to write the script and run the show myself, that was never really on the cards. I have this book to finish. You know the one…”
The Skin Trade pilot will be written by Kalinda Vazquez, whose credits include Prison Break and Once Upon a Time. Martin will be an executive producer.
Skin Trade comes under a two-year development deal Martin has with HBO. He has previously said that he is developing a Captain Cosmos series at HBO, with Michael Cassutt writing. Cassutt’s TV credits include The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone.
Finally, NBC’s new procedural series Blindspot has been rewarded for its good start with an additional nine-episode order. This means it is the first of this year’s new US shows to secure a full-season order. By contrast, Fox has reduced its initial order of 13 episodes on Minority Report to 10. While this doesn’t count as a cancellation, it means the show is the first of this year’s new US titles to know that it won’t be coming back. CBS, meanwhile, has cancelled summer series Extant, starring Halle Berry, after two seasons. Both Minority Report and Extant are Amblin TV shows.