A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.
LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Are zombies the new ad men? Rainbow Media has scored its biggest hit yet with AMC's "The Walking Dead," which has already done more for the undead than "Mad Men" has accomplished for 1960s ad execs in terms of ratings . And today's advertisers are taking notice.
The series' premiere on Halloween was watched by more than twice the total weekly audience for original episodes of "Mad Men" -- 5.3 million vs. 2.3 million, respectively, making it AMC's highest-rated series premiere ever as well as one of the most-watched debuts of an original series on basic cable among adults 18 to 49, the most important demo for advertisers.* Based on Image Comics' graphic novel by Robert Kirkman and directed by Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption"), "Walking Dead" was a bit of a risk for AMC. Not only was it the first prime-time series dedicated to zombies, it was also the first show the network had ever owned and produced under its AMC Studios banner. After seeing only the pilot script in late 2009, AMC ordered a six-episode season sight unseen with tentative plans to air it as an extended miniseries should the show not find a following beyond its cult audience.
But by the time AMC attracted an impressive 4.7 million viewers for its second episode, the network greenlighted the series for a full 13-episode second season.
Accordingly, advertisers are joining the ranks of the undead. AMC President Charlie Collier said the show has been garnering a lot of interest from movie studios, technology and video-game marketers looking to reach the show's valuable audience of 18- to 49-year-olds. Meanwhile, Toyota recently bought time during the show's Nov. 7 episode to air a pre-existing spot for its Corolla featuring zombies that made for a good contextual fit for the show's themes. An AMC spokesperson could not confirm if any other zombie-themed ads had aired during "The Walking Dead," but other advertisers such as Sears and Starburst have nevertheless been incorporating the living dead into their recent campaigns.
Topping 'Conan' and 'Sarah Palin's Alaska'
In its third week, "Walking Dead" attracted more viewers among the core demo (3.3 million) than other high-rated cable shows, such as TLC's "Sarah Palin's Alaska" or TBS's "Conan," according to Nielsen. And in spite of its violent, gory content (the premiere included a scene in which zombies devour the protagonist's horse), advertisers are open to more show-specific marketing partnerships in the future. (Advertisers have been doing custom spots for "Mad Men," most recently this season's Unilever spots from Mindshare Entertainment, so there's precedent on the network for these deals.)
"Given how well the show's doing and having a big audience out there, these kind of shows typically generate a lot of interest from clients," said Todd Gordon, senior VP-national broadcast at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative. "Due to the content, we'll have some clients who won't want to participate at all, but if for whatever reason there's a perfect campaign that's a perfect fit for the show, they'll want to try more to make it work. It's a tricky environment for [product] integrations, so I think you would certainly rely on the creative minds at AMC to come up with a way that does the brand justice but also made sense."
Because AMC owns all the rights to "Walking Dead," the network was able to cut a deal with Fox International Channels that had the show premiering within the same week in 120 countries and 30 different languages to record ratings for a Fox International premiere.
"The horror genre travels very well, and the show's universal themes of survival, we thought, would travel incredibly well," said Mr. Collier. "We looked for a partner who would treat it like a programmer as well as a distributor, and Fox really embodied that."
A year until the next second season?
With just three episodes left of its first season, advertisers and audiences alike are wondering how long they'll have to wait to get a fix of "The Walking Dead." Mr. Collier said the network is still determining shooting times and locations for the second season (the first season was filmed on location in Atlanta, though there's been talk of moving it to Los Angeles), but if you let him talk about the show's merchandising opportunities, it's a pretty safe bet we'll see new episodes come fourth quarter 2011.
"We want to invest in the brand early enough that lets fans know we're serious about it," Mr. Collier said, pointing to a retail partnership with Hot Topic that launched in October with more than 700 stores selling "Walking Dead"-licensed products and T-shirts. "There's some Halloween-themed opportunities we've never done before that we've been getting a lot of calls about, and scaling ideas, like costumes."
Waiting a full year for new episodes of a popular cable series is nothing new. From FX's "Rescue Me" to TNT's "The Closer" to AMC's "Mad Men," it's become custom for fans to wait 10 to 12 months (and sometimes longer) for a new season, vs. the three- to four-month wait for most broadcast series. Some cable networks, such as USA, are closing the gap between seasons by splitting up episode counts and airing half-seasons during the winter and summer, but most use the time between new episodes to recruit new fans with reruns, home video releases, video-on-demand deals with cable operators and streaming deals with Netflix.
Mr. Collier, for what it's worth, isn't concerned about the gap between seasons either. "So many people are asking if this was us being shy, and it's exactly the opposite. We viewed this as a six-episode pilot season, and we had the confidence to go straight to series and try to keep them engaged for the entire first season and well beyond," he said. "As the studio and the network, it's important we extend the franchise thoughtfully so the core fans of the franchise will engage with us on all the digital and gaming apps in the meantime."
AMC's profile is also increasing among cable and satellite operators, whose subscriber fees make up 50% to 60% of the average cable network's revenue. The network is projected to gross $410 million in revenue in 2010, according to SNL Kagan, and also has one of the highest cash-flow margins, thanks to its ratio of inexpensive licensed films and profitable original programming.
Next up, something unscripted
The success of "Walking Dead" has also given AMC the confidence to branch out into other programming genres, including reality. On Tuesday, the network announced it was developing its first unscripted show, "Wild Card," a boxing docuseries on Hollywood boxing trainer Freddie Roach from Film 44 ("Friday Night Lights," "Trauma.") And in March, AMC will debut a new drama called "The Killing," based on the Danish detective series "Forbrydelsen."
"As we continue to scale, we're trying to find a perfect mix of acquisitions and originals," Mr. Collier said. "We want to bring a new relevance to the brand and raise the profile to new audiences we can super-serve."
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that "Walking Dead" was the most-watched debut of an original series on basic cable. Figures provided by AMC included Live+3 ratings .