AMC’s Sarah Barnett Fires Streaming Wars Warning: “The Magic Is In What The Algorithm Can’t Find” – TCA

AMC boss Sarah Barnett has warned that the streaming wars and the drive towards data-led commissioning will hurt the quality of television.

Barnett, president of AMC Networks Entertainment Group and AMC Studios, opened the company’s afternoon of panel sessions at the Winter TCA with an eloquent and punchy take-down of big data and the increasingly global commissioning strategies of the major SVOD services.

“The streaming wars have exploded and I often get asked how AMC will compete against our massively bulked up competitors and their data driven might. We think that in an industry led by volume and data-led decision making, it will hurt the quality and diversity of television and we stand to counter to that. Optimization begets imitation. If something needs to work as well in India as in America, then everything starts to look the same. If you try to talk to everyone you’re not going to be able to say much meaningful to anyone,” she said.

Barnett admitted that great shows were still being made. “But talk to anyone who is out there pitching, you’ll hear that risk taking is being minimized in favor of what the data shows is already working,” she added. “The internet claimed it would free us from the old gatekeepers, but the bias of Hollywood power brokers seems to be being replaced by engineers and programmers a few hundred miles up the coast.”

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She said that this presents an opportunity for her company, whose networks including AMC, IFC, SundanceTV and BBC America as “we don’t have huge pipes to fill”. “We embrace awkward originality, genuinely surprising ideas, risks that are complicated and maverick big swings rather than just the comfortably familiar or reassuringly expensive and proven. The magic is in what the algorithm can’t find, what data doesn’t touch. We don’t think the only working business model is massive global scale. We don’t want to make tons of things, just good things.

Barnett hinted that it would not “spend its way to success” in terms of signing eight-figure overall deals with top tier creatives and instead would continue to search for new talent, highlighting names such as Killing Eve creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan.

“I built my career looking around corners and in odd and at the times unlikely places for talented humans with something surprising to say as frankly I’ve never had a ton of money to spend,” she said. “We’re not cashing in on big careers, we’re launching them.”