AMC’s Sarah Barnett Nurtures Cutting-Edge Series Ideas to Counter Streaming Giants

Daniel Holloway

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Jason Segel’s new AMC anthology “Dispatches From Elsewhere” is having its first audience screening at NeueHouse Hollywood, the newest of the exclusive-ish members-only workspace clubs with which Los Angeles is being overrun. The mid-December crowd is intimate, mostly friends of Segel. 

Since the end of “How I Met Your Mother,” on which he starred for nine years, the actor has received consistently good reviews for a handful of serious-minded movies such as “The End of the Tour,” in which he played the late author David Foster Wallace. None of those performances, however, has eclipsed his sitcom persona. For many, Segel remains the guy from “How I Met Your Mother.” But when introducing the first episode of “Dispatches,” AMC Networks programming chief Sarah Barnett makes clear exactly how she sees her new drama’s creator and star. “In this show, you really get to see the auteur-ness of Jason,” she says before offering praise for a cast that includes Sally Field, Richard E. Grant and André Benjamin.

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In tone and scope, “Dispatches From Elsewhere” — about a group of strangers whose lives intersect around a bizarre mystery — is the sort of ambitious, character-driven tale that rarely finds mass audiences in the feature world anymore, but once in a while still goes gangbusters on TV. 

And thus, it feels like a show Barnett should champion in her ever-expanding AMC Networks role. In August, the exec gained oversight of AMC Studios, just nine months after taking over as programming head for all of the company’s entertainment cable channels — including the flagship, AMC. Her career has been built cultivating small, writerly shows on sometimes overlooked platforms and helping them become cultural hits. Now, with the bulk of AMC Networks’ creative business in her hands, the question facing Barnett is whether she can do that again — this time in a climate grown harsher than ever toward original programs launched on basic cable.

“My impression from Sarah is that her and AMC’s goal is to find people who have something to say artistically, and then to provide a platform to nurture that,” says Segel. “It’s about finding people as opposed to specific material. I think she’s very interested in making art.”

If TV is art, Barnett’s a curator at MoMA. Her programming résumé is filled with shows that have caused critics to swoon but have also built brands — “Top of the Lake,” “The Honourable Woman” and “Rectify” at Sundance TV; “Killing Eve” at BBC America.

“One of the vague advantages of going through life is you do start to realize what you are good at,” Barnett says. “I think that this intuitive synthesis, if you like, of brand, content and business is the puzzle that I am endlessly engaged in and absolutely fascinated by.”

A U.K. native and 12-year veteran of the BBC in London, Barnett is gently sardonic and has a talent for speaking directly, both uncommon traits in a TV exec. She arrived at AMC Networks in 2008 when it acquired Sundance TV, where she was in charge of marketing. She became head of Sundance TV a year later — her first day as boss coming as she and her Sundance colleagues moved into the midtown Manhattan offices of AMC’s then-parent, Cablevision-owned Rainbow Media.

Barnett and Sundance’s initial scripted original was a European acquisition — Olivier Assayas’ miniseries “Carlos.” Sundance faced internal competition from corporate sibling IFC Films for the U.S. distribution rights, but Barnett and her colleagues argued fiercely for the bio, which starred Edgar Ramírez as terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Eventually, AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan came to a compromise: The project would premiere on Sundance as a miniseries, with a feature version released shortly thereafter by IFC. “Carlos” went on to win a Golden Globe for best miniseries or movie made for television. 

“The Honourable Woman” with Maggie Gyllenhaal and “Top of the Lake” with Elisabeth Moss followed. But the crowning achievement was writer-director Ray McKinnon’s drama series “Rectify.” Never a ratings stalwart or an Emmy nominee, “Rectify” reached rarefied air among TV critics, who gave it almost universal acclaim. It’s still drawing love today, as 2019 prompts a deluge of best-of-the-decade listicles. 

“I feel like brand is being forgotten in the conglomerate race to enormous volume.”
Sarah Barnett

AMC Networks chief operating officer Ed Carroll credits Barnett’s hand in the development process for helping to shape “Rectify,” which tells the story of a man released from death row after 19 years. “Sarah worked closely with Ray on making it gel and making the tone right, so that even though the story was dark, there were unexpected moments of redemption and even humor,” Carroll says.

But it was at BBC America, which Barnett took over in 2014 after its acquisition by AMC Networks, that her signature show as a programmer came to fruition.

“It was not an accident that Sarah’s management and supervision brought us ‘Rectify,’” says Sapan. “And it was not an accident that Sarah’s management and supervision brought us ‘Killing Eve.’”

In addition to being able to “read, tell and smell what’s good,” as Sapan puts it, Barnett is an enthusiastic fan of research. When she moved to BBC America, the channel had just launched its first hit, Canadian co-production “Orphan Black,” and was drawing viewers with U.S. telecasts of “Doctor Who” and reruns of “Star Trek.” Not moving the ratings were the dramatic miniseries that the channel was importing from the BBC mothership across the Atlantic. From this, a programmer could discern that what viewers wanted from BBC America was more science fiction.

But the research Barnett commissioned showed something less obvious.

The real reason people were watching “Doctor Who” and “Orphan Black” on BBC America wasn’t that they were sci-fi shows, Barnett says, “but because they had a lot of story, they were surprising, they were wildly entertaining, often in quite kind of florid, crazy ways. And they had characters you really cared about.” In the case of “Orphan Black,” she notes, the show was “talking about things in our culture, like sexuality, reproductive rights of women, science and women’s bodies — a lot of really rich themes alongside these kinds of slightly demented plots and dollops of great humor.”

Barnett adds, “I think if we hadn’t done that research on the audience, we would have thought that ‘Killing Eve’ was an irresponsible choice, because we had tried to tell stories that weren’t sci-fi, and it never worked.”

Heading into its third season, “Killing Eve” — a cat-and-mouse game about an assassin (played by Jodie Comer), the investigator tasked with finding her (Sandra Oh) and their obsession with one another — is becoming one of the most decorated dramas of its era. Oh won the Golden Globe last year for actress in a TV drama series; Comer won in the same category eight months later at the Emmys. In its first season, the show achieved TV unicorn status, growing its linear ratings from one episode to the next all the way through to the finale.

After Barnett assumed oversight of AMC in 2018, one of her first decisions was to simulcast Season 2 of “Killing Eve” on AMC and BBC America. The second season saw the show’s total audience grow 78% from the first, per Nielsen live-plus-seven data.

“Every once in a while you come across an executive who’s ambidextrous, just like every once in a while you come across an athlete who can play three different sports well,” says Sapan. “And Sarah is ambidextrous. She can move from an audience segmentation study to discerning a great idea to brilliant creative execution without hesitation. She’s one of those rare people. And it’s good news for me to be in her proximity.”

Smart shows are the key to AMC’s strategy:Jason Segel and Eve Lindley see more or less eye to eye in “Dispatches From Elsewhere”
Courtesy of AMC

Barnett will need all those skills as she looks to do for AMC what she did for Sundance and BBC America — and guide an increasingly important revenue generator in AMC Studios. Viewer shifts away from pay TV and toward subscription video have created stiff headwinds for AMC Networks, where linear subs have fallen, just as they have elsewhere in the cable business.

While larger companies such as Disney, NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia have responded to the winnowing of cable by reorienting toward massive streaming plays, AMC Networks has charted a more selective digital course. During a quarterly earnings call in October, Sapan indicated that the company would lean more heavily into its collection of niche streamers — Acorn TV, Shudder, Sundance Now and Urban Movie Channel — highlighting projected growth for the four services to a combined 3.4 million-4 million subscribers by 2022.

In the past decade, as AMC Networks began to produce the bulk of its own content through AMC Studios, it typically sold post-TV windows for that content to outside streamers such as Netflix. The plan now is to hold a good number of new shows back from the SVOD market and funnel them toward AMC Networks’ own subscription services.

“We are not just a cable company,” Barnett says. “We are a studio. We own our content. We’ve been selling it very well to Hulu, Netflix and others domestically and internationally. We’re not fundamentalists with a dogma of ‘We only keep our shows on our platforms.’ But at the same time, we’re not selling everything.”

Among the shows that won’t be shopped to outside platforms will be “The Walking Dead: World Beyond,” the forthcoming second spinoff of the zombie-apocalypse drama that’s by far AMC’s greatest creative asset. “I think there are lots of stories to be told from this universe,” Barnett says of the franchise. “And I would say about that what I’d say about any of the development at AMC — which is that it has to be creatively exceptional.”

Declines in ratings for “The Walking Dead” have been well documented — but they also map to similar declines for the rest of cable. The gulf between the blockbuster program and nearly everything else on television remains vast.

“Sarah is ambidextrous. She can move from an audience segmentation study to discerning a great idea to brilliant creative execution without hesitation.”
Josh Sapan, AMC Networks CEO

Executive producer Angela Kang, who took over as showrunner in 2018, credits Barnett’s support for the series’ continued health as it heads into the back half of its 10th season. “She’s struck a wonderful balance of being supportive of what we’ve been doing well on behalf of the fans and also still challenging us to continue to grow,” Kang says.

But for Barnett to achieve success on this newest stage, she’ll need to find hits without zombies. Much of what’s in the works at AMC was put into development by her predecessor there, Charlie Collier, now head of Fox Entertainment. But it’s Barnett who is shaping that development and deciding what gets put into production. The first quarter of 2020 will see the debuts of “Dispatches From Elsewhere,” “World Beyond” and new episodic anthology “For Life” on AMC; comedy “Year of the Rabbit” on sister channel IFC; and natural history doc “Seven Worlds, One Planet” on BBC America. 

If any of those shows is to break out, it will have to do so over the collective din of more programming than television has ever seen, as companies like Netflix, Amazon and Apple continue to pump Silicon Valley money into Hollywood, and new streaming services Disney Plus, HBO Max and Peacock roll out full-content slates. But Barnett is bullish.

“I feel like brand is being forgotten in the conglomerate race to enormous volume and everything for everybody who has a broadband connection,” she says. “The opportunity is there for AMC Networks and AMC as the flagship brand to remain committed to a curatorial approach around premium, talked-about television, as all of the other curatorial television brands inevitably become part of broader services that dilute the purity of what those brands are. For AMC, we believe our size can be our advantage. Conventional wisdom would have it that you have to be huge; it’s the only way to survive. I would say, who the hell knows who’s going to survive?” 

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