TV's highest-rated scripted series is about to spawn a spinoff of sorts, and media buyers are all but kicking the door in for a crack at it.
AMC's "Fear the Walking Dead" staggers into the Sunday 9 p.m. time slot beginning August 23, and the companion series to "The Walking Dead" is the summer's hottest ticket. But for a handful of 30-second spots that have been held back to take advantage of a healthy scatter market, all available inventory in the six "Fear" episodes has sold out, and at rates that rival those commanded by the flagship show.
Much of the demand for "Fear" has to do with the unprecedented success of the mother ship series. According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, season five of "The Walking Dead averaged 14.4 million viewers and a staggering 7.4 rating in the adults 18-to-49 demo, making it far and away TV's top-rated non-NFL telecast. (In head-to-head competition, the eight fall episodes of "TWD" out-gunned NBC's otherwise impregnable "Sunday Night Football" by three-tenths of a point; your final score: Zombies 7.5, Pigskins 7.2.)
Even Fox's much-ballyhooed "Empire" couldn't hold a candle to AMC's ratings phenom; season one of the hip-hop soap averaged a 5.1 in the demo. And while no one expects "Fear" to post "TWD" numbers straight out of the gate, the potential for a significant halo effect is fairly self-evident.
"People are aware of how 'The Walking Dead' has evolved, so it's sort of a no-brainer that the hope is 'Fear the Walking Dead' will attract a similar audience composition," said Scott Collins, exec VP of ad sales, AMC Networks. Mr. Collins also expects that "Fear," like "TWD" before it, will attract a disproportionate number of that increasingly rare specimen, the live viewer. "Everyone who is a 'Walking Dead' fan is going to be aware of it and will want to see it," he said. "There's an immediacy to it in that they won't want the premiere to be spoiled by social media."
Thus far, the advertisers that have signed on for time in season one of "Fear" (a 15-episode second season will arrive in 2016) include a good deal of "Walking Dead" clients. Automotive, telco, fast food and studio dollars will account for the bulk of the "Fear" spend; representing the latter category are Paramount's "Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse" and 20th Century Fox's "Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials."
Mr. Collins said the third-quarter positioning of "Fear" will allow AMC to scare up the sort of movie marketing dollars that "TWD" generally misses out on, given its split October-November and February-March scheduling. And other categories that are more endemic to the late-summer months are also pouring in. "Soft drinks are generally not big spenders in the fall, so they've never been big spenders in 'The Walking Dead.' So 'Fear the Walking Dead' is a good fit for them. On the other hand, we're not seeing a lot of videogames right now, because they tend to reserve their big spend for the run-up to the holidays. And 'The Walking Dead' is perfectly positioned for those clients."
The potential for a big ratings hit aside, the relative scarcity of "Fear" inventory is having the expected impact on pricing. Buyers say that the average unit cost for a 30-second chunk of time sold in the 2015-16 upfront was around $325,500, while spots that sold in the scatter market have fetched upwards of $370,000. For those keeping track at home, the upfront rate for time in season five of "TWD" was around $415,000 a pop.
Vanilla :30s aside, Mr. Collins is also leveraging "Fear" as a means to develop integrations for clients looking to stand out from the rest of the pack. A longstanding sponsor of "TWD," T-Mobile has jumped into "Fear" with a creative execution that puts the brand in the center of the action while giving viewers a chance at some exclusive content.
Immediately following a key moment in the "Fear" pilot, a T-Mobile commercial will direct viewers to power up the Shazam app on their smartphones. Shazam-ing the commercial unlocks an extended scene that takes place during the first hours of the eventual full-on zombification of Los Angeles.
"We already know that viewers are using their phones while they watch TV, so this is a fun and engaging way to derive added value from that behavior," said Peter DeLuca, T-Mobile's senior VP of brand and advertising, who added that, like its forerunner, "Fear" is expected to attract a singularly engaged and social audience.
T-Mobile will be running an integration in the pilot and the Oct. 4 season finale. The telco also has bought 30-second units throughout the first season.
While Mr. Collins declined to disclose AMC's ratings guarantees for "Fear," it would seem to be a safe bet that the premiere will out-deliver the very first episode of "TWD." Per Nielsen, the telecast that launched Zombiemania averaged 5.35 million viewers and a 2.7 in the demo back on Halloween of 2010.
Provenance and brand equity aside, "Fear" has a few other tangible advantages going for it. The first two episodes will run outside the penumbra of "Sunday Night Football," which doesn't begin until Sept. 13. (In a bid to avoid squandering episode three during the ratings wasteland that is Labor Day weekend, AMC on Sept. 6 will sideline episode three for a week.) Moreover, the "Fear" premiere is practically running unopposed; the only first-run drama airing in the same time slot is part four of HBO's new David Simon miniseries, "Show Me a Hero."
The 90-minute pilot will carry approximately 26 minutes of commercial time and in-house promotional messaging.
If AMC has any cause for concern, it's that this summer has thus far been a total bust for new series launches. Season-to-date, the highest-rated premiere is ABC's supernatural drama "The Whispers," which bowed June 1 to a 1.5 in the dollar demo. Ten episodes into its freshman run, the series is now averaging a 0.9 rating.
If Mr. Collins is worried about how "Fear" will fare, he's not letting on. "Money finds the big things, the special events," he said. "In the doldrums of summer, this is a beacon of originality that's going to stand out."