Kim Kelleher had big plans for her first upfront as president of commercial revenue and partnerships at AMC Networks.
“We felt like we had something to say, and we wanted to say it in front of as large an audience as we could,” Kelleher told Adweek less than two weeks ago, explaining AMC Networks’ decision to hold what would have been its first upfront event since 2017, after switching to agency lunches and dinners.
Of course, those grandiose upfront plans were completely upended—along with those of pretty much every other media company—because of the coronavirus pandemic. One week ago, AMC Networks canceled its upfront event, which had been planned for this Wednesday at New York’s The Shed, in favor of what it called “individual conversations with our advertising clients.”
While the presentation has pivoted, however, AMC Networks’ upfront messaging remains the same, focusing on its “viewer first” strategy of telling great stories that command attention and reach audiences wherever they are. Hand in hand with that is a “buyers first” approach to creating as many ways for clients to reach their audiences as possible, on all platforms—including, for the first time this year, partnerships with several AVOD (free, ad-supported streaming) services, Reddit and both major audience targeting platforms.
“We’re going to put our content in as many places as our viewers are consuming it. The expectation of them just continuously coming back to us is unrealistic,” said Kelleher, who took over as AMC Networks ad sales chief in September. “Bringing the advertisers and the marketers along with us to those platforms is very much part of the strategy.”
In lieu of an event, an upfront screening room
With its upfront event canceled, “we have to replace the pulpit from which we were going to speak to 700 people at the same time with 700 individual conversations or meetings,” Kelleher told Adweek in a followup conversation late last week.
As part of that process, AMC Networks is building a screening room for its upfront content, including clips and full episodes of some new shows, and will send out invitations to buyers and planners to access it by next Monday. Instead of watching the entire 45-minute presentation at once, users can sort content by several different categories and business segments.
“They will have instantaneous access to whatever they need in the planning process and the buying process over the next several months,” Kelleher said.
Quadrupling down on AVOD
While most of its rivals are creating their own SVOD streaming services, AMC Networks is taking the opposite approach, and is in the process of partnering with four AVOD streamers—Pluto TV, Tubi, Amazon’s IMDb TV and NBCUniversal’s upcoming Peacock—to feature its original shows. Those deals are expected to be completed later this spring.
“I want to distribute our content on all of them, in a custom programmed, curated way that best expresses our content to our audiences,” Kelleher said. “This whole notion of [SVOD] walled gardens, I think it will work for some. I do not think it’ll work for all.”
AVOD isn’t the only platform that AMC Networks is expanding into this year. The company has partnered with Reddit and will be developing exclusive content for the platform—including livestreams, videos and AMAs—around its Walking Dead universe and WE tv reality series Love After Lockup, Life After Lockup and Growing Up Hip Hop. It will be Reddit’s first entertainment partnership of this kind.
“Our franchises have developed massive fan bases that convene off linear in deeply engaged ways,” Kelleher said. “Reddit lights up on Sunday nights after Walking Dead airs.”
AMC Networks is also rolling out the Content Room, its branded entertainment division for multiplatform buys—with the ability to create branded content for the either the company’s platforms or those of its clients—that has been in the works since Kelleher arrived last year.
“Gone are the days where our partners don’t have massive followings themselves,” Kelleher said. “If you want to work with the Content Room and create custom content for distribution through your channels, not ours, that’s absolutely a conversation we can have.”
As part of its “buyers first” upfront approach, AMC Networks will gives marketers access to viewers on whatever platform they choose, and across linear and digital platforms with the same buy.
In addition to its in-house advanced advertising offering, Mediator, AMC Networks is working with every other major audience targeting platform on the market, and is currently the only media company supporting both OpenAP and Xandr Invest, which just expanded last week and added not only AMC Networks but also Disney and WarnerMedia as partners.
When it comes to advanced advertising platforms, “I don’t think that there is a perfect way to transact” as of yet, said Kelleher. “Transact how you want to transact; we’ll meet you there.”
Along with its platform experimentation and expansion, AMC Networks is shaking up standard TV formats with its upcoming slate of shows, particularly on AMC.
That network’s upcoming Soulmates is a six-episode anthology series that looks at the nature of romantic love, which each episode featuring a different storyline and cast (including Succession’s Sarah Snook). Its next Walking Dead spinoff, debuting April 12 and called World Beyond, was conceived as just a two-season limited event series.
AMC recently greenlit Pantheon, an hour-long animated drama based on a series of short stories by Ken Liu in which human consciousness is uploaded to the “cloud.” And the network’s upcoming dark comedy Kevin Can F*** Himself will alternate between multicamera and single-camera formats as it follows a typical sitcom wife (Annie Murphy of Schitt’s Creek) who takes the lead in her own life.
Yet despite all its efforts to expand into new platforms, AMC Networks remains committed to the legacy MVPD ecosystem of cable and satellite.
“We’re not head in the sand—we’re watching the same numbers everyone else is watching,” Kelleher said of cord-cutting numbers on the rise. “That being said, I still think the cable environment is very robust and it’s a very good performing solution for a lot of advertisers. And we can see that it works.”
However, “we recognize there’s changing viewer habits,” she added. “Our goal is to keep up and not pretend like it’s not happening.”