AMC's "The Walking Dead" continues to gorge itself on the hapless stragglers stumbling their way across the TV ratings landscape, and while the days of unbridled ratings growth may be behind it, the show's success among 18-to-49-year-olds is unparalleled.
TV's top-rated scripted series returned Sunday night with its usual brand of savagery, scaring up 14.6 million viewers and a 7.4 rating in the 18-to-49 demo, down 15% from last fall's massive opening salvo, which earned an 8.7 rating. Sunday night's 7.4 rating translates into 9.42 million demographically apposite viewers. In other words, an astounding 65% of its total audience came from the target 18-to-49 crowd.
By way of context, most network dramas struggle to get their target demographics to represent one-third of the total audience watching. For example, CBS's adults 25-54 demo accounted for just 23% of Sunday's overall audience for the network's "Madam Secretary." Deliveries of adults 18 to 49 in ABC's much younger-skewing "Quantico" made up 35% of the total turnout.
On the higher end of the broadcast efficiency spectrum is Fox's "Empire"; 50% of the live audience who tuned in for last week's episode were members of the 18-to-49 demo.
The season six premiere of "The Walking Dead" now stands as the ninth highest-rated of the 68 episodes that have aired since the series premiered back on Halloween 2010. The 90-minute place setter put up staggering numbers across the demo continuum, scoring with viewers 18 to 34 (a 7.2 rating), 25 to 54 (7.5) and young women (6.1 among females 12-34).
Among the most visible brands that bought time in Sunday's premiere were Universal Pictures ("Crimson Peak"), Lincoln, Verizon, Apple, Microsoft Studios ("Halo 5: Guardians"), Chevrolet, Subaru and Taco Bell. Media buyers said the average price negotiated in the upfront for a 30-second unit in season six was around $500,000 a pop.
Sunday's live-plus-same-day results closed the books on the show's four-year growth spurt, a trend that was most pronounced during the interval between the season three premiere (10.9 million viewers, a 5.8 rating in the 18-to-49 demo) and the season four opener (16.1 million/8.2). For all that, AMC execs are hardly sobbing into their half-caf lattes and wondering where it all went wrong for the Little Zombie Show That Could. Barring an inexplicable midseason collapse, "Dead" is all but assured of another ratings crown; only "Empire" comes within shooting distance, and Fox's sophomore smash is averaging a 5.8 in live-same-day.
Even the NFL isn't immune from the predations of "The Walking Dead," although the imperatives of live sports viewing seem to be sending fans of Sunday scripted series scrambling to play catch-up via their DVRs. While it couldn't lay a finger on the reach afforded by "Sunday Night Football" -- the 49ers-Giants game delivered 19.6 million total viewers -- "Dead" did manage to top the NBC broadcast's average 18-to-49 demo delivery (6.9) by one-half of a ratings point.
But as is so often the case on autumn Sundays, the biggest action took place outside the prime-time window. A somewhat one-sided squabble between ratings titans Dallas and New England that reached 81% of all U.S. markets, CBS's late-afternoon NFL broadcast averaged 26.1 million viewers and an 8.4 in the demo. At its peak, the Pats-Cowboys game was seen by more than 40% of all the males age 18 to 49 who happened to be watching TV at the time.