Seeing the ‘Big Picture’ of Diversity

It is telling that in his captivating book, The Big Picture: America in Panorama, Josh Sapan — collector, poet and CEO of AMC Networks, among myriad pursuits — spends a lot of time noting the insistent human quality of injustice.

The fact that, in Sapan’s words, our founding fathers pressed for liberty and equality for all “as long as one was white and male” resounds next to a photo of a 1919 Woman Suffrage Association; his indignation about the slow path to civil and gay rights brings more context to determined faces in other panoramic photos.

That Sapan brings this same sensibility to the stories that have found their way to screens at his behest or insistence also says a great deal about the executive, earning Sapan the T. Howard Foundation Corporate Leadership Award on behalf of AMC Networks. His long career has an All-Star squad of highlights, including most recently AMC’s The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, IFC’s Portlandia and SundanceTV’s Rectify and The Honorable Woman. There are also diverse voices in the unscripted fare on WE tv, and in features distributed by IFC Films, including early works by Moonlighting director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) and Girls creator/ star Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture). “At heart of most of these things is a person with something in their mind, a story they want to tell,” Sapan said. “We really do like to put our fate and resources in the hands of people who bring to the world stories that are unlikely and impassioned and irresistible.”

He has continually been sought out as a finder, curator and developer of these unique voices, many of which have made a difference in the ways viewers see the world. Earlier in his career, when Bravo was part of his purview, the network debuted Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, a series Nebraska Gov. Bob Kerrey later told him “did more to diminish homophobia in [my state] that any legislative efforts.”

As part of the effort to cultivate such voices, AMC Networks has, since 2002, partnered with the T. Howard Foundation on an internship program. “We typically bring in anywhere between eight and 15 interns each year and have hired more than 20,” Sapan said.

Sapan is particularly excited about two upcoming projects: Killing Eve, the Phoebe Waller-Bridge series for BBC America about a female assassin, starring Sandra Oh as a cop; and Marti Noxon’s adaptation of the darkly comic novel Dietland for AMC, exploring the beauty industry and society’s obsession with weight loss.

As with all his creative pursuits, Sapan looks for these to entertain but also hold to a higher ideal. “The nicest part of being in this work,” he said, “is the instance when, just looking for a fresh voice, one comes upon you, and it’s something that has cultural impact that actually does something good.”

Robert Edelstein

Rob has written for Broadcasting+Cable since 2006, starting with his work on the magazine’s award-winning 75th-anniversary issue. He was born a few blocks away from Yankee Stadium … so of course he’s published three books on NASCAR, most notably, Full Throttle: The Life and Fast Times of NASCAR Legend Curtis Turner. He’s currently the special projects editor at TV Guide Magazine. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post and his origami art has been in The Wall Street Journal. He lives with his family in New Jersey and is writing a novel about the Wild West.