From Mad Town to 'Mad Men'

Josh Sapan took his communication arts degree all the way to the top of AMC.

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We’ve followed Don Draper through the fantastic highs and lows of the 1960s advertising industry. We’ve learned how a chemistry teacher could become a drug dealer. And we now possess insights into surviving a zombie apocalypse. 

Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead have drawn us into their unique worlds because of their incredible storytelling and vivid sense of place. And these hit AMC shows have all become part of popular culture thanks to L&S alum Josh Sapan, who has helmed the network for the past two decades.

When the Brooklyn, New York, native came to Madison in the 1970s to attend UW, he found the environment as transporting as the sets of his famed television shows. The lakes and rolling farmland of Dane County were a stark contrast to the dense urban environment in which he grew up.

“It’s an absolutely exquisite physical place,” he says. “It was pretty exotic for me.” 

So, taken with the openness of the landscape, Sapan lived on a farm in Cottage Grove for part of his college career, commuting to campus to attend classes. And his surroundings even inspired the first poem he published in a campus literary magazine. “Here in the Midwest, spaces take up the room,” the poem began. Sapan continues to write and publish poetry today. 

Sapan enjoyed other creative pursuits while working toward his 1975 degree in communication arts. He was involved in two film societies, helping to screen works of cinema that featured the thoughtful and dramatic types of storytelling that are now hallmarks of great television. And he took to the stage acting with Broom Street Theater, a small experimental theater company on Madison’s near-east side. 

“For me, it was the experiences in the community surrounding the classes,” Sapan says of his UW experience. “It complemented them tremendously.”

We were betting on the attractiveness of storytelling at its best. It’s always hard to know what will be big, if one’s personal impression will translate to success.

Sapan joined AMC Networks in 1987, serving as president of AMC and Bravo, where he helped launch such shows as Inside the Actors Studio and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. He earned a reputation as an innovator, and brought vision and creativity to his role as CEO of AMC Networks in 1995, overseeing not only AMC, but also IFC, BBC America, SundanceTV, WE tv, IFC Films and other entertainment outlets. 

Among many recognitions, Fast Company named him number 21 on its list of the 100 most creative people in business in 2010, placing him in the company of Lady Gaga, James Cameron, Jay Z and leaders at Apple, ESPN and Kickstarter.

Sapan has a keen eye for identifying programs that offer something different, but it wasn’t without risk that he brought series like Mad Men and Breaking Bad and movies such as Boyhood — produced by IFC Films and famously filmed over 12 years — to the screen. 

“We were betting on the attractiveness of storytelling at its best,” he says. “It’s always hard to know what will be big, if one’s personal impression will translate to success.”

While it’s impossible to pick a favorite project, Sapan is proud of Rectify, a SundanceTV series that follows a Georgia man released from prison on a technicality after 19 years on death row. 

“It’s perhaps the least widely recognized, but I think it’s extraordinary,” he says. “It is a beautiful, fully realized vision. If you can use the words ‘poetic’ and ‘television’ together, this is it.”

Outside of his New York City office, Sapan is an avid reader of fiction and an enthusiastic theater-goer — and, yes, he watches TV, too. He is always looking for new ways of telling stories and engaging audiences. 

He’s particularly interested in the impact of technology, noting that the advent of mobile platforms and social media have profoundly affected how programs are created, viewed, talked about and shared. The constant change and influx of ideas inherent in the entertainment industry today leaves Sapan eager for the next challenges and opportunities on the horizon. 

“What’s next is unknown because the technology is unknown, and that’s terribly exciting,” he says. “Nothing is more fun for me.”