Mad Men at Risk

The superb multi-season television dramas of the past decade--The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men, now in its third year on AMC--are triumphs of a cinematic genre, featuring plots, characters, and settings that are terrific, with enough edge to bring sophisticated viewers back week after week. Next Sunday, Mad Men is up for sixteen Emmys. Last year it won for best drama. Okay, so much for encomiums.

As so often happens in popular culture, Mad Men is at risk, not from any failure of the creative skills that make it so entertaining, but from the pressures of commercialization that inevitably accompany bigger audiences and the accrual of bigger bucks. This season's Sunday night first airing of the series (10:00 p.m. EDT) carries by my calculation fifteen minutes or more of ads attached to a show of about forty-five minutes, with the interruptions coming at closer and closer intervals as the show progresses so that the latter half of the episode is chopped to the point (not quite but annoying close) of incoherence. There is redemption in the fact that the episode is available at AMC-on-demand, with only one or two short breaks, at the end of the week it is broadcast. There is also the option of taping on TiVo and skipping the commercials. So, with a little patience or the right gadgetry, you can still watch the show pretty much intact around the time it airs. The question is, will you want to?

AMC is a basic cable channel, so unlike with The Sopranos et al., there is no premium charge to your monthly bill to access the programs. Commercials are, therefore, inevitable. The problem is that the quantity, length, and disruption of the narrative is significantly greater this season than it was last, a trend that, based on the record, tends only to get worse. There is a lot of money to be made from a break-out hit. In the ten years since The Sopranos launched in 1999, there has been an explosion in the way these television shows are packaged and marketed after their initial broadcast. Mad Men is available on DVD. (Season one, discounted on Amazon to $18.49, was number thirty among all available offerings last time I checked. By comparison, Tina Fey's 30 Rock was 845.) A Barnes & Noble in White Plains, New York, was sold out last weekend and the clerk said they were selling fast. You can download episodes from this season on iTunes for $2.99 and get the first show on Hulu.com for free to be watched on a laptop. There is an extensive Web site with a bonanza of to stuff to watch and do, like creating your own Mad Men avatar.

Not surprisingly, there is also a great deal of product placement on the show itself. After all, this is a series built around an advertising agency. Among the products embedded have been Pepsi Cola, Clearasil, UTZ Potato Chips, Maidenform, and Lucky Strikes. AMC clearly has invested very heavily in the visibility of Mad Men in print, billboard, and Internet ads, as well as window promotions at Banana Republic stores. The magnitude of all this marketing, surrounding the programs from every conceivable angle, is so enormous that it is hard to see how it doesn't eventually overwhelm the enterprise one way or another.

The genius of our extraordinary era in long-form television drama is the narrative momentum of the writing and acting. Composing around the commercial breaks will eventually take its toll. When network dramas and sitcoms go to DVD, you can see the seams in the way they are structured around the ads, and it definitely diminishes the results.

Let's face it: it is hardly unprecedented that commerce crowds art in mass entertainment. And it is certain that with everyone at Mad Men now a star, the costs of doing the show are much higher than they were when it started as a sleeper series on AMC, which had no reputation of consequence in original programming. So the pressure to extract every penny from a smash success limited to whatever seasons the show has left (a fourth has been announced) is intense. With all the creative thinking that goes into the development, production, and promotion of these excellent shows, how about some time spent on ways to keep the contents from being drowned or undermined by the commerce?

Suppose the ads were placed in blocs at the front and back end of the shows--before the story begins and after it is over--with a short break in the middle? This is the way it was done on British commercial television for many years. Viewers can skip these, of course, but many people already take advantage of the myriad ways there are to avoid the ads. The point isn't to eliminate advertising; it is to support the marvelous story rhythms these programs have. As series like Mad Men show, television drama has really come of age. That is worth protecting.

Presented by

Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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