AMC's "The Walking Dead" became the most-watched season premiere of the fall season on Sunday, bringing in 10.9 million viewers.
Delivering one of the biggest ratings among adults 18 to 49 for the debut of any entertainment series this fall, including on broadcast, AMC was the talk of CTAM Summit, taking place in Orlando, Fla., this week.
As cable executives gathered to discuss how the industry must redefine itself in a world where viewership has become increasingly fragmented, AMC proved compelling content can still drive ratings .
In a general session Monday afternoon, AMC President and General Manager Charlie Collier, along with Bob DeBitetto, president and general manager of A&E Networks and Bio Channel, and Frances Berwick, president of Bravo and Style Media, stressed the importance of original programming like "The Walking Dead."
AMC's strategy is to make each of its originals unique. "It doesn't need to be everyone's favorite show," Mr. Collier said. While AMC is not looking to attract a mass audience, it is looking to tap into specific niches.
Similarly, A&E is not trying to become a broadcast network. "If you can conceive the show being on broadcast it isn't right for us," Mr. DeBitetto said.
A&E is shifting away from airing acquired reruns in prime time to originals. By the end of next year it will be the first time in the history of the network that there will be 100% originals in prime time.
"We are moving out of buying reruns, at least in prime time," Mr. DeBitetto said.
"Acquisitions don't help you brand a network," Ms. Berwick said.
"We are moving from that which we borrowed to that which we built," Mr. Collier said.
Ultimately, every network is looking for a breakout hit, like "The Walking Dead," which can drive momentum and advertising pricing, Mr. DeBitetto said.
Of course, reality programming does have benefits, eliciting fanatical behavior and generating viewers who are active on social media. The problem is , reality shows burn out in a few years, Ms. Berwick said. Bravo plans to have one or two scripted shows on the air by the end of 2013.
The increase in original content on cable is also changing how networks are scheduling programming. Sunday night, which cable networks traditionally shied away from, has become a viable option.
"Summer was once our prime time," Mr. DeBitetto said, "… but things have moved on from that ."
While Mr. DeBitetto said A&E will continue to stay away from premiering shows in September, all other options are open.
The key is being patient. With delayed viewing, the way network's measure success is changing, Mr. Collier said, citing "Mad Men's" growth in viewership five seasons in a row.
If you don't have patience you could throw away some gems, Ms. Berwick agreed.
Ultimately, the goal is to create must-watch, appointment programming. Social media is one of the tools being used to revive the relevance of linear TV.
Twitter gives viewers the opportunity to participate in an event, Mr. DeBitetto said. "Yes, you can watch it later, but you miss the opportunity to be part of the conversation. The conversation used to take place the next day, but now it's in real time."