The TV series Mad Men kicked off its final seven episodes on Sunday night.
It will go down in television history as an iconic program, with instantly recognizable characters like Don Draper, Roger Sterling, Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway. Mad Men brought back the 1960s in a way no other modern show has done.
Its social impact has not meant spectacular ratings. While we don’t have the numbers in yet for Sunday night, the midseason finale of the show (which aired in May) attracted fewer than 2 million viewers. Compare that to last Sunday’s airing of the other AMC hit show The Walking Dead, which brought in nearly 16 million viewers. That’s a sizable difference in audiences.
But while Mad Men has always had relatively smaller ratings, it is really the show that put AMC on the map in terms of the original scripted programming. Prior to the premiere of this show in July of 2007, AMC was a network that specialized in vintage movies, hence its original name American Movie Classics.
Once AMC rebranded, it wanted a scripted show, and its previous attempt (a radio-themed sitcom called Remember WENN) never really gained any traction.
AMC got lucky. HBO passed on Mad Men, even though the show’s creator Matthew Weiner had been working on the subscription channel’s biggest hit drama The Sopranos and was a known-factor.
By coming out of the gate with this well-written and carefully crafted period piece, that has been lauded by many critics as one of their top shows of all time, AMC was able to draw people to the network.
That helped launch shows like Breaking Bad (which averaged 8 million viewers in its final season and over 10 million for its finale), and The Walking Dead, which averaged close to 14 million viewers per episode during this most recent season, and shows no signs of stopping as it keeps breaking its own records.
Multiple best drama Emmys, Golden Globes and SAG awards for Mad Men made people take notice. The New York Times pointed out recently that prior to Mad Men, a basic cable network (which doesn’t include paid-subscription channels like HBO) had never even been nominated for a Emmy for best drama, and then Mad Men won four of them in a row.
Even with its 2-3 million viewers, Mad Men is still able to bring in money.
According to Ad Age, 30-second ad spot in the final episode that airs this spring is currently fetching between $400,000 and $500,000. Research firm SNL Kagan says AMC has seen its ad revenue grow every year since Mad Men debuted, raking in $469 million last year.
So while it is unlikely that Mad Men’s upcoming finale will break any network records, it will still leave the airwaves having made a major impact.
It brought to life a network that is thriving (it is one of the top five cable networks in primetime), it has launched the careers of its cast members (many of whom were little known prior to this series) and it has proven that a basic cable show can compete quality wise with anything that a network, or paid-channel has to offer.