The zombie apocalypse has upended the entire TV business. AMC's The Walking Dead is now the No. 1 entertainment series on TV among adults 18-49 — a landmark accomplishment for a cable show, particularly in the fall.
The first three episodes of The Walking Dead's Season 3 have attracted at least 6.5 million viewers in that key advertiser demographic, beating everything else on TV — even mainstream hits like Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory. "It's really gratifying to see that it appeals to core genre fans and people who are into high-end serialized dramas," says AMC president and general manager Charlie Collier. "It does both things really well."
AMC is now reaping the rewards of having such a megahit on its hands. According to the trade magazine Advertising Age, commercials on The Walking Dead are now fetching $375,000 per ad package, more than what most top broadcast shows, like Grey's Anatomy or Two and a Half Men, even charge for a 30-second spot. "Marketers follow the audience, and they'll pay for quality," Collier says. "We're developing more and investing more in programming than we ever have, because it's good business to do so. The viewer doesn't distinguish between broadcast and cable, definitely not the younger viewer. It's all TV. It's all storytelling."
Cable has historically stayed out of the fray in the fall as the broadcast networks launched their new shows. Not anymore. And as the traditional networks trudge through a mostly lackluster season with few new bona fide hits and many returning shows facing a decline, cable series are stepping up. "They seem to be growing their audiences at a time when the networks are fighting erosion," says 20th Century Fox TV chairman Gary Newman. "They're starting to meet in the middle."
The Walking Dead isn't the only cable show challenging the broadcast networks in the ratings. Other cable shows making waves include FX's Sons of Anarchy, which on Tuesday, Oct. 23, attracted 2.8 million viewers among adults 18-49, winning the hour and beating competitors Parenthood (NBC, 2.4 million), Vegas (CBS, 2 million) and Private Practice (ABC, 1.8 million). Right behind that were Comedy Central's Tosh.0, a Big Bang Theory repeat on TBS and ABC Family's Pretty Little Liars. Hot cable reality shows that have regularly been competitive with the networks in key demos include MTV's Jersey Shore, History's Pawn Stars and TLC's Breaking Amish.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday nights, FX's American Horror Story: Asylum is beating ABC's Nashville, CBS' CSI and NBC's Chicago Fire with adults 18-34, and A&E's Duck Dynasty is competitive as well. And on Sundays, even though Showtime is available in only a fraction of TV homes, the network's one-two punch of Homeland and Dexter reached a landmark this past Sunday, as both shows averaged more than 2 million total viewers (the first time both shows had done so on the same night).
"There are still some strong broadcast shows at 10, but what you're seeing is increasingly over time, adults choosing cable," says FX Networks president and general manager John Landgraf. "The tone of cable-style shows is very suited to 10 p.m., and the broadcast networks are having difficulty keeping up with the tonality of this state of adult entertainment. The state of the art has shifted from broadcast networks to basic and premium cable. When you get to people under 35, in their adult life the broadcasters haven't been as dominant, and they just view the world differently."
Landgraf remembers that, in 2005, when FX decided to launch the third season of Nip/Tuck in the fall, his team debated whether or not the show could hold up in such a competitive environment. "No one had ever put a scripted basic-cable series in the fall," he remembers. Nip/Tuck not only thrived — it grew.
The success of these shows, and the increasing ad rates that cable networks can charge for such shows, is not lost on the studios, which would like to see more of those rewards. ("It's an ongoing series of negotiations with the cable networks," says one exec.)
But Landgraf cautions that hits like The Walking Dead and Sons of Anarchy are outliers, and that broadcasters still maintain an advantage when it comes to sheer reach. "They're programming 15 or 22 hours of programming a week, so they have more opportunities to have a show that is somebody's favorite show and puts their channel on the map," he says.
"I don't think anyone working at a cable network would tell you they wouldn't want the opportunity to have NFL games or the Super Bowl, or they wouldn't take Survivor or American Idol, or they wouldn't put more expensive scripted series on the air," Landgraf adds. "The broadcast networks still make vastly more money on an ad sales basis than any individual basic cable network. But identifiable niche branding also has an advantage in a very fragmented world."
Newman warns against cable picking up some of broadcast TV's bad habits, such as expensive casts and huge production costs. "The cable business and the network business remain very different," he says. "Shows like Walking Dead are the exception to the rule."
Part of the reason is the economics for cable dramas is still different. Most of the successful ones are highly serialized and air fewer episodes each season, making them difficult to syndicate.
If anything, perhaps the broadcasters need to start emulating some of cable's best practices. And indeed, some networks have expressed interest in doing so-called "event series" or "limited-run series," between 10 to 17 episodes. (Fox's The Following will air 15-episode seasons at the behest of star Kevin Bacon, for example.)
In those cases, Newman says those shows need to be highly serialized, in order to have some value in on-demand and home entertainment platforms (since the syndication value is nil). Cable also has an advantage over broadcast when it comes to having to launch fewer shows at any given time (vs. the broadcast networks' September onslaught).
"They ought to be thinking about that a little bit more," Newman adds, "[and] going after properties that feel as unique and specific as those cable dramas feel."
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