Greene Screenings: The Dons of Sunday Night Cable TV

By: Rebecca Greene

Between Matt Weiner’s New York Times interview and all the furious blogging this week, there’s not much that hasn’t already been said about the fourth season of Mad Men.  “Who is Don Draper?” were the opening words of the season that introduced us to a more intimate side of Don – he cries at the loss of his true friend, Anna Draper, writes his thoughts in a journal and kicks his alcohol addiction for almost a week.  Still, I’m not sure we’re any closer to knowing the answer to the question, "Who is Don Draper?"; For all of the intimacy, Don quickly transforms into a cliché with his out-of-thin-air proposal to his 25-year-old secretary, Megan.  What can I say?  It’s good to be the boss at Sterling, Cooper, Sterling – I mean Draper – Pryce. 

Given the theme of this season, I thought it might be fun to try to answer the question Who is Mad Men?  In my search for the identity of this show, I thought back its humble beginnings.  There was a lot of chatter at the time about whether Mad Men was the next Sopranos, given Matt Weiner’s involvement in both shows.  The consensus on the blogosphere then was that Mad Men was no Sopranos.  However, four seasons in, for all the apparent differences between the two shows, a side by side comparison reveals that they are also a lot alike. 

In addition to shared themes, both Mad Men and The Sopranos have been widely critically acclaimed.  Mad Men has already won the Emmy for best drama three consecutive years.  The Sopranos was nominated for best drama in every year it was eligible, winning it twice in 2004 and 2007, and making it the first show on a cable network to win the award.  Both shows have also won numerous awards for best writing.  However, Mad Men is far behind when it comes to recognition for its acting.  Stars of the Sopranos, James Gandolfini and Edie Falco, each won the best actor/actress Emmy three times; anyone on Mad Men has yet to win a best acting Emmy. 

The most startling difference in the two shows, however, is the audience numbers they attract(ed) (see graph below).  Mad Men, which airs on AMC, a cable network, brings in nowhere near the audience that the Sopranos once commanded, also on cable (ok, ok, it’s not cable, it’s HBO).  At it’s peak, the Sopranos had 13.4 million viewers for its season 4 premiere – an annual growth rate of 57% since its first season.  The steep drop off after season 4 can probably be explained by the fact that the show took long hiatuses between each of its next two seasons.  By comparison, the season 4 Mad Men premiere brought in 2.9 million viewers, 4.5x less than the Sopranos.  However, Mad Men has experienced impressive (+48% annual) growth in viewership since its pilot episode for which just 900,000 people tuned in. 

So, who is Mad Men?  A critically acclaimed show that’s clever and engaging, but will never live up to it’s iconic predecessor, the Sopranos.  Still, what were HBO and Showtime thinking to pass it up?

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