“Mad Men” delayed until 2012, while the contract dispute gets very public

“Mad Men,” the endlessly acclaimed AMC series, should be gearing up for production on its fifth season. Instead, the show is sitting in a weird limbo while very public and acrimonious contract negotiations play out in the press. Let’s sift through this with a lengthy and rambling attempt to round up the relevant information, shall we?

First things first: “Mad Men” will return in early 2012. That much is certain. Will it look any different? Will it still be run by Matthew Weiner? That’s where things start to get murky.

The contract negotiations between AMC and Weiner have hit some snags. Weiner has been offered a three-season deal worth $30 million, so his salary isn’t the issue this time around. He said so himself, perhaps worried that it appeared he was banking $30 million and refusing to budge an inch. (Which is good, lest he open himself up for more mockery from his fellow show creators.) The network has three demands that have become sticking points:

1. More product integration (which the show already incorporates, but they want more of it).

2. Two minutes trimmed off of the running time (it runs longer than most other dramas, but they want two minutes for more ads).

3. The big one: Two regulars cut from the cast (this doesn’t mean the roles would be eliminated, but it just means that two actors could be demoted to recurring and would therefore only be paid for the episodes in which they appear). However, that number is unclear. Do they want two regulars cut per season? Does it mean cut two regulars out of the cast before each season for the rest of the contract, or does it mean cut two now and keep it at that number from now on? (That’s where this “up to six cast members” number came from, I guess?) Some clarity on that would help, because this is actually the only issue worth focusing on here. Weiner has his money, and product integration and two minutes of airtime are not serious issues. Cutting cast members is a different story.

The news first leaked in exceedingly Weiner-friendly (yes, yes, I know, just ignore it and proceed) form. There were Deadline and Daily reports that could be mistaken for press releases from Weiner’s people. The poor auteur was being “screwed,” and his “storied franchise” is in jeopardy, and he would only have $10 million dollars a year to comfort him. AMC’s response was prompt: They announced the show’s renewal shortly after those reports, making clear the implication that they could and would proceed without him.

Weiner told the Times that these changes would fundamentally make “Mad Men” a “different show.” He added: “I don’t understand why, with all of the success of the show, they suddenly need to change it.”

(Again, this depends on the cast issue, but AMC’s demands don’t seem all that unseemly to me. Sure, each of them would alter the show in some way, and each change would come from a financial necessity rather than an artistic desire. That’s the price of doing business when you air a show that costs AMC $3 million per episode. The network, and its current parent company Cablevision, aren’t out to appease the artistic whims of Matthew Weiner or anybody else. They are out to make more money than they spend. Besides, are you really telling me that the “Mad Men” creator and his writing staff can’t figure out a way to trim 120 seconds from their episodes and subtly include a little more product placement? Downgrading regular cast members seems like the biggest issue, so long as it’s not half of the cast. But it’s not like every character is in every episode or even required to be. As Alan Sepinwall points out, this is something other shows have dealt with for financial reasons. If somebody doesn’t need to appear weekly, the network likely doesn’t want to pay them as though they are appearing weekly. The actors in question are on “Mad Men,” and that calling card alone should be enough to get them a supplementary job or two in a movie or another TV show to make up the money.)

It’s impossible to really know what’s going on in the negotiations (I only know what I’ve read, same as you). But from the outside, Weiner and his people seem intent on selling their side of the talks as a battle to protect the artistic integrity of the show. They seem to be banking on the public’s goodwill and the show’s small but devoted fan base (which includes many members of the entertainment media, which is why the series is covered disproportionately to shows with bigger ratings) to rally to their defense and to shame AMC into letting the show proceed unchanged. And in one very real sense, Weiner and his people seem to be overplaying their hand.

We’ve been through this all before. In 2008, after the show’s second season, AMC’s negotiations with Weiner stalled. It mostly came down to money: Weiner wanted more of it than AMC and Lionsgate thought was reasonable. They ultimately made a deal, but things were very different for Weiner and the network three years ago. After premiering in 2007, “Mad Men” was AMC’s flagship series. It was their calling card: We’ve got quality shows, too. Trust us. They followed “Mad Men” with “Breaking Bad,” which is nearly as acclaimed and earns reasonably similar ratings (the third season premiere of “Breaking Bad” earned two million viewers; several months later, “Mad Men’s” fourth season finale had 2.44 million viewers).

Though those ratings weren’t huge, they were considered good for AMC. That all changed last fall with the premiere of ”The Walking Dead.” That show’s first season finale set an AMC record with 5.972 million viewers (and that goes up to 8.1 million with two repeat airings that night). Nobody knows what “good for AMC” ratings are anymore. (And that includes the network. “The Walking Dead” was a very buzz-worthy show with an abbreviated six-episode run. Will the same numbers turn up for a 12-episode second season and beyond? That’s a big question, and nobody knows for sure.)

In other words, it’s not 2008. “Mad Men” isn’t the sole jewel in AMC’s crown, even if it is still their signature show, even if the network is much better off with the show than it would be without it. Hell, “Rubicon” flopped and nobody knows how “The Killing” will do. But AMC and Weiner would both be best served by keeping him and “Mad Men” together, which is what will probably happen. Everybody loses if they wind up splitting over two minutes of airtime and a few references to some product or other.

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