AMC's "The Walking Dead" is a monster, and not just because of its outsize ratings . It's a TV-industry horror, too: an ultra-violent cable drama that racks up massive amounts of coveted young viewers despite breaking every rule in the boob-tube Bible.
Like the zombies who populate this show's plotlines, "Walking Dead" is out of control. Its Sunday mid-season finale (the show returns in February) notched 6.9 million viewers between the ages of 18 to 49, according to Nielsen. That's more 18-to-49-year-olds than watched, on average, a new episode of the hit CBS sitcom "The Big Bang Theory" on the day it first aired. Sunday's "Walking Dead" drew an average of 10.5 million viewers in total, and its debut this season attracted 10.9 million.
So alluring is this audience that marketers have been paying between $200,000 and $260,000 for an ad package surrounding the program and its repeat broadcasts, and AMC has gone out in the "scatter" market seeking as much as $375,000 for the same inventory. That last price is more than advertisers are willing to pay for ABC's "Modern Family" or even this coming season of Fox's "American Idol."
If you were an executive at a broadcast network, you might well let out the kind of blood-curdling scream you hear from hapless "Walking Dead" characters who run into the show's zombies.
Why? Because, unlike so many other convention-defying programs that have cropped up on cable over the years, there is simply no way CBS, NBC, or even rule-breaking Fox can adopt many "Dead" methods.
When the salty language found in gritty dramas such as "The Shield" became the talk of the living-room screen, ABC could counter with language in "NYPD Blue" and NBC could allow Tina Fey and friends to run a sketch on "30 Rock" about a fictional show called "MILF Island." When blood ran on "The Sopranos," CBS could allow a little more gore into the opening dead-body scenes on "CSI."
Simply put, however, there's little upside for ABC or its bretheren to run scenes in which people are decapitated or beheaded -- usually the norm in "Walking Dead." Time Warner may allow such fare to surface in the panels of its DC Comics, but it's hard to imagine the media company giving the nod to such stuff on CW's "Vampire Diaries," let alone "Gossip Girl." Heck, it may even be too risky for the company's broad-based cable outlets like TNT or TBS.
"Walking Dead" is also a success despite its lack of support from many major TV advertisers. Ad buyers and other executives acknowledge that conservative marketers who make laundry detergent, toothpaste, or salad dressing fear shows like "Walking Dead," because they often draw scrutiny from high-minded, vocal advocacy groups. A scene in the finale showed two of the drama's heroes prying bones from a freshly killed zombie to use as knives in a fight; this is anathema to anyone who hopes to leave their young child in front of the TV set for even half a moment.
Already, KFC found an ad message in a recent episode of "The Walking Dead" to be in unappetizing proximity to -- immediately following -- a scene in which zombies gather around a meal made of human being, still burbling with blood. A KFC spokesman has said that the placement was "unfortunate" and that the marketer has "taken steps" to avoid a repeat.
All that is why AMC runs loads of movie and video-game ads during "Walking Dead" and features Hyundai vehicles in the show's scenes, but still can only look forward to a day when Procter & Gamble finds the program an appropriate venue for the promotion of Pampers.
There are so many reasons -- at least to an old-school way of thinking -- that this show should not even be getting the numbers it does. This fall it competed on a TV night saturated with popular and high-quality fare including CBS's "The Good Wife," Showtime's "Homeland," HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," NBC's "Sunday Night Football," ABC's "Revenge" and Fox's "Family Guy." With its multiple screenings, you'd think its audience would be more fragmented, but in fact the bulk of viewers tune in for the first airing Sundays at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. central for the kiddies!).
And have we mentioned the endlessly depressing story line? This is a program in which the protagonists never enjoy victory, a pre-teen racks up an appalling body count and a survivor practices giving C-sections on zombies. It could be argued whether the show's title refers are the undead -- or the poor, ground-down unfortunates who must try to coexist with them. That's not exactly the life-affirming fabric out of which everything from "Green Acres" to even "24" have been woven.
But wherever the broadcast networks can find a way to ape "The Walking Dead," they are likely, eventually, to try. This may not be the most-watched show on TV, but it is watched the most by the consumers advertisers say they want desperately. If a cable program can reach this many 18-to-49ers, you can bet your DVD boxed set of "Friends" that the broadcasters will seek to find ways to import some of its appeal. If they succeed, "The Walking Dead" will have marked the start of another shift in the tone of content on TV.
You could make the case that NBC's "Revolution," a series about people living in a post-apocalyptic world without electrical power, marks an early stab at trying to bottle some of the essence of "Walking Dead" for a more mainstream crowd.
If "Walking Dead" can do this in 2012, who's to say what type of programming will be all the rage in 2020?
Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.
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