Matt Weiner, MAD MEN and MAD Money

This has been rumoured for a while, but it’s now been confirmed that Matt Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, is demanding a big raise if he’s to come back for the third season and that the production company is considering replacing him.

As Jim Henshaw notes, “this is less art vs commerce than commerce vs commerce.” The controversy has little to do with Weiner’s vision for the show; it’s about money. Weiner wants to be paid comparably to the creators of other Emmy-winning cable shows; Lionsgate and AMC don’t want to pay that much. Scratch that: they probably can’t pay that much.

We don’t know the details, but it would be a mistake to assume that this is a case of the greedy network/studio stiffing the creator of the show. Mad Men is doing better in the ratings since it won the Emmy, but it’s still not a huge hit, and AMC is not HBO; it’s a collapsed basic-cable channel trying to build a brand as the basic-cable equivalent of HBO. There’s no way the creator of a show on AMC is worth as much as the creator of an HBO success, and it’s hard to believe that Weiner or his agent really expect to get that much. If I were conspiracy-minded I would speculate that he’s just not that interested in continuing with the show; I mean, I’m sure he loves the show, since it’s his life’s work and all, but he’s presumably getting bigger offers now, and it might be hard for him to justify turning down those other offers unless he can get something similar from AMC.

On the other hand (this is a very wishy-washy post) this could be just really, really hardball tactics on both sides: Weiner asks for an outrageous figure, AMC/Lionsgate come back with the equally outrageous idea of continuing the show without him, and they wait to see who blinks. If they settle for something in the middle, then no one will remember that this controversy ever happened.

Continuing a show without the creator is harder to do than it used to be, because more people notice. It used to be that most non-insiders didn’t know who was running a show; we might know the names of some of the big, superstar producers like Norman Lear and Steven Bochco, but we would not usually know who was running the show day-to-day. Today, showrunners are much better-known (even the term “showrunner” is now common parlance) and when one of them gets replaced, it actually becomes controversial. Even when the creator reduces his duties on the show and leaves showrunning to someone else so he can work on other projects — something that happens on almost every show that runs long enough — that can be controversial. (Two words: Marti Noxon.) If Mad Men were to continue under someone else, the news stories would imply that Mad Men is doomed; Weiner knows that, which is why he’s able to hold out for a big deal: he knows that AMC needs him more than he needs them.

I would say the shows that can least afford to replace the creator are the shows that split the burden in some way or another. To go back ten zillion years, M*A*S*H survived the departure of Larry Gelbart because while he was involved in every aspect of the show, he was not the only guy in charge; producer-director Gene Reynolds actually outranked him, and continued on the show for a year after he left. Even when both of them were gone, the fact that there had never been only one guy in charge of everything made it easier for multiple people to pick up the slack; it was never completely the product of one person, which means the new people didn’t have to knock themselves out to duplicate what the creator had done; they just had to do something in a similar spirit.

And then some shows are so closely tied to their creators that they would have considerable trouble doing anything similar without them. Weiner is almost totally in charge of Mad Men, and everything — writing, direction, production design, music — is based on his own tastes and his own ideas of what the show should be. A new showrunner of Mad Men would either have to try and imitate Weiner exactly, which would be disastrous, or he’d have to come up with a take on the show that’s very different from what we’re used to, which would be even more disastrous.

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