For more than three years, Rainbow Media's AMC has built a modest but loyal following for delivering highly acclaimed but middling-rated dramas such as "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad."
Both series cleaned up at awards shows and boosted AMC's appeal on Madison Avenue. But the network was still missing a bona fide hit by cable-ratings standards -- until "The Walking Dead" came along.
An adaptation of Robert Kirkman's cult graphic novel about a zombie apocalypse, "The Walking Dead" debuted last Halloween weekend to 5.3 million viewers, AMC's highest ratings for an original series. The show's six-episode first season made it the most-watched cable drama among adults 18 to 49, and quickly prompted AMC to greenlight a second season, set to air later this year.
Then in April, AMC debuted "The Killing," an adaptation of the Danish murder mystery. Buoyed by a "Twin Peaks"-indebted campaign -- billboards and print ads asked "Who Killed Rosie Larsen?" -- the show bowed to 2.7 million viewers -- its No. 2 most-watched series premiere -- in its competitive Sunday-night time slot, and has held on to many of those fans in subsequent airings.
And with a fourth season of "Breaking Bad" set for July, another series ("Hell on Wheels") set for fall and a fifth season of "Mad Men" on track for early 2012, AMC is no longer looking like a two-trick pony. The robust slate represents a dream fulfillment of sorts for Charlie Collier, AMC's president since 2006.
"We had a few goals that are still the exact same as they were five years ago," he said. "We wanted to create premium television as we do on basic cable. We strive to tell the type of stories you've only been able to see before on premium television."
AMC has also gotten savvier in its marketing, pitching "The Walking Dead" as a survival tale and "The Killing" more as a murder mystery than a police procedural. In fact, no zombies were featured in "Dead's" main campaign artwork. "I think because of the timing of Halloween we were able to both go to the audience that loved horror programming but also open it up to this larger character drama," said Linda Schupack, AMC's senior VP-marketing.